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Federal Study Ties Spending Disparities to Local Property Values

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Despite state and federal efforts to balance the scales, the amount of money local school districts spend is still closely tied to the property values and the education level of adults in their communities, according to a federal report.

After dissecting 1990 census data to conform to school district boundaries and compensating local budgets for the cost of living and student needs, the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics last week reported school-spending inequities across a host of categories.

The study found that districts where fewer than 65 percent of the adults finished high school spend an average of $3,953 per student, while districts where high school graduates make up more than 85 percent of the adult population spend an average of $4,515. Similar differences were found when comparing districts based on median values of owner-occupied houses and median household income.

The report found that after erasing local economic differences, schools in the Northeast spend more than schools in any other region, averaging $5,293 per student. Schools in the Midwest spend an average of $4,383. In the South, average spending is $4,047, and in the West, $3,632.

School staffing follows a similar regional trend. Schools in the Northeast have an average student-teacher ratio of 15.6 to 1. But in the West, there is one teacher hired for every 22 students, the study found.

Student-teacher ratios also varied widely from the nation's largest school districts, at 19 to 1, to the smallest, where the ratio is 15 to 1. Comparisons of costs in those districts also showed that expenditures in districts with fewer than 1,000 students are consistently higher than per-student spending in districts with more than 10,000 students.

Targeting Equalization

The report includes several other findings about school spending across the country:

  • More money is spent on educating students in districts with high percentages of minorities than in districts with low percentages. The difference--an average of $4,514 per student in the districts with the highest minority concentrations versus $3,920 in those with the smallest minority populations--suggests that inequalities that exist for children in poverty may be tied to factors other than race.
  • Spending remains fairly constant when it is analyzed based on local poverty factors, largely through the equalizing efforts of state and federal governments.
  • Districts with the highest concentrations of special-education students spend more than districts with the lowest concentration, but not much more. The average per-pupil cost varied from $5,447 to $5,061.

    But when such factors as the local cost of living and the number of other special-needs students are included, the balance actually shifts, the researchers found: Districts with more special-education students spend $4,219 per child compared with $4,510 in districts with the lowest concentrations of special-education students.

  • Districts with large groups of special-needs students spend more on core instructional programs than districts with fewer poor, minority, or limited-English-proficient children.

The researchers said that while most of their findings follow expected patterns, they were intrigued by the consistency of school spending based on district size and the implication that glaring inefficiencies may not exist between large and small districts.

They also point out that their finding that more money tends to flow to districts with high minority enrollments might suggest that policymakers look at other factors when determining how they target money on poor children.

For information on ordering the 95-page report, "Disparities in Public School District Spending 1989-90" (NCES 95-300), call the U.S. Government Printing Office, (202) 512-1800.

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