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school funding
Red states indicate that the wealthiest districts receive more funds per student than the poorest districts. Credit: Jill Barshay/The Hechinger Report

Advocates for the poor often make the argument that the neediest children need more resources at school to overcome the disadvantages of poverty. For example, a child from a poor home whose mother works an overnight shift might need more one-on-one attention at school to learn to read. That costs money. Historically, the decentralized U.S. school system was largely funded through local property taxes, providing a giant financial advantage to rich students who live in wealthy neighborhoods with high property values. That has changed. Over the past 50 years, both state and federal funds have attempted to level the playing field.

However, the latest data from the federal government, covering the 2014-15 school year, still shows an advantage to the wealthy across the nation’s public elementary, middle and high schools. And there are signs that the funding gap between rich and poor might have grown larger in the aftermath of the great recession.

Here are the numbers across the nation:  The 25 percent of school districts with the highest amounts of student poverty received 3.4 percent fewer funds per child than the 25 percent wealthiest districts during the 2014-15 school year. That’s a national funding gap of $449 per student. (See Table 7 on pages 19 of this report on school district revenues and expenditures.) Within six states, colored in red on the right, wealthier districts were much better funded than poorer.

“It’s a temporary step backward,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, explaining that states ran out of money after the 2008 recession, allowing rich communities to spend more and curbing extra funds to poor districts. But with the economic recovery, many states are moving back toward funding schools more equitably, Roza said.

“We’ve generally seen an enormous effort by states to raise the base for the poorest students,” Roza said. “Thirty to 40 years ago, in the poorest districts, you’d have 30 to 40 kids in a class and no extracurriculars. You don’t see that anymore.”

Related: How much would it cost to get all students up to average?

The National Center for Education Statistics last calculated these numbers for the 2011-12 school year and it didn’t use exactly the same measurements as this most recent 2014-15 study, released in June 2018, so it’s hard to make direct comparisons. Back then, school spending per student was only 1.7 percent lower among the poorest districts than the wealthiest school districts, or $193 per student. When the 2011-12 report was released in 2015, during the Obama administration, the Education Department emphasized how much worse the funding gaps were when you only considered state and local funds and excluded federal money, which was intended as a supplement for the neediest students, not to offset deficiencies in local and state funding. At that time, the state and local funding gap between the poorest and richest quarter of school districts was 15.6 percent or $1,500 per student. The current Education Department study did not disclose what the funding gaps would have been without federal aid in 2014-15.

In a majority of states, students in the poorest school districts tended to receive more money than rich districts when you account for all three sources of funds (local, state and federal). But in six states, the wealthiest 25 percent of school districts received more money than the poorest. Illinois topped the list with an 18 percent funding gap between its highest poverty and lowest poverty districts. That’s $2,490 per student more in the state’s wealthiest school districts. Illinois has long had a notable funding gap in part because Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs are organized into “micro”school districts, each with their own budgets. The state recently revamped its funding formula and began distributing more funds to poor districts earlier this year. The other five other states with funding gaps were Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia.

The funding gap between the poorest and richest 25% of school districts in each state during the 2014-15 school year. Red states are where students in rich districts receive more funds than students in poor districts.

However, funding gaps aren’t the only way the judge how well a state is serving its poorest students.

Consider Utah. The poorest districts receive 15 percent more than the wealthiest. But even in the highest poverty districts, less than $10,000 was allocated for each student. That’s $3,000 less than the national average. By contrast, the highest poverty districts in New Hampshire received over $15,000 per student, well above the national average, but $1,700 less per head than the wealthiest districts in the state.

“A big question is whether you prefer a high base in spending or equitable spending,” said Roza. “New Hampshire is inequitable, but look how high the base is. If you’re poor, would you prefer that everyone gets the same amount of money, say $13,000? Or would you tolerate more inequity if the base is high, no one gets below $16,000?”

That’s a tough public policy question and reasonable people can disagree. Funding varies wildly across states and school districts. Among the 100 most populous school districts in America, the Alpine School District (the largest school district in Utah that includes the city of Orem)  managed to educate a child on only $5,724 a year. New York City, the biggest school district in the nation, spent $21,980 per student. Cost of living plays a role, as do differing poverty rates, but they hardly account for the entire difference.

How much it really costs to educate a child remains an elusive question. But pointing out the massive inequities between and within states is an important first step toward addressing them. Beginning next year, a new federal law will require states to disclose spending per student at each school and we’ll learn even more about educational inequities in our communities.

This story about the funding gap was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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