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Impact of Finance Inequities Said Unknown

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Although national and state surveys clearly illustrate wide disparities in local education spending and school resources, research has been unable to show conclusively whether the traditional measures of equity translate to similar gaps in student performance, a report by the Educational Testing Service suggests.

"It is not clear how resource levels are related to educational achievement in any systemic way," according to the E.T.s. report, "The State of Inequality," which contains a wide range of information on states' education spending.

Such financial comparisons, combined with information on the resources available to local school districts under an existing funding system, usually have provided the basis for poor districts' challenges to state school-finance methods.

But while it is often easy to prove spending disparities in finance systems that rely heavily on local property-tax proceeds, questions about how such inequalities are tied to student achievement remain, the report points out.

"The existing research is relatively primitive and does not reveal very much about student learning," the report quotes a New Jersey state judge as writing in a finance ruling.

The E.T.s. report concludes that methods of creating finance equity should be built around research showing how funding affects performance.

"If we are to get closer to understanding the relationship between educational resources and educational outcomes, we must improve how we identify the resources that actually reach the front lines of instruction," the report states, urging the use of such tests as the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a means of scrutinizing funding.

In addition to calling for further research, the report documents several methods of comparing state school-finance efforts and points out questions that continue to hound lawmakers and local educators in states where finance systems have been overturned.

Property-Tax Retreat

The report also shows that:

  • Average per-pupil spending in 1989-90 ranged from New Jersey's $8,439 to Utah's $2,720, with a national average of $4,952.
  • Residents of Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana made the greatest effort to fund public schools, based on a comparison of 1987-88 school-spending figures to 1988 personal-income levels. Residents in Missouri, Nevada, and New Hampshire made the least effort. On average, school spending represented less than 4 percent of personal income.
  • Intrastate school-funding disparities in 1986-87 were the highest in Texas, Ohio, and New York. Spending levels were most nearly equal in Delaware, Nevada, and Maryland.
  • States have been retreating from their reliance on property taxes to fund schools, largely as a result of school-finance litigation that began in the early 1970's and was rejuvenated in the late 1980's. Twenty-one states currently face lawsuits challenging school-funding schemes.

The cases continue to raise difficult questions about the states' role in financing and supervising public schools, the report indicates.

"The federal Constitution gave the control and responsibility for education to the states, not to local political jurisdictions," the report notes. "For the year 2000, will a student be considered an educational citizen of just a school taxing district, or of a whole state, or a nation?"

Looking ahead, the report pictures school-finance battles as a leading education-policy issue.

"The legal battles over funding disparities, which began in the late 1980's and are likely to continue in the early 1990's, may change the face of American education as much as any other initiatives now under way," the report predicts.

Copies of the report are available for $4.50 each from the E.T.S. Policy Information Center, E.T.S., Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001; (609) 734-5694.

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