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‘Bleak’ Landscape for K-12 Fiscal Equity, State-by-State Report Finds

By Daarel Burnette II — November 11, 2019 2 min read
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More than a third of the nation’s states distribute billions of K-12 dollars in a regressive manner, spending more on wealthier students than on impoverished students, according to a new report by the Education Law Center, an advocacy organization focused on fiscal equity in public education. Another 17 spend equal amounts of money between wealthy and poor students, even though research shows poor students are more expensive to educate.

In its annual “Making the Grade” report released this week, the organization blames aging state funding formulas and rapidly increasing poverty rates among children for district budget cuts, stagnant teacher pay and academic achievement gaps. Several states, including Alabama, Colorado, and Texas, are spending significantly less than their counterparts, the report says, even though they have the economy and tax base to spend more.

“It’s a pretty bleak picture for school children, especially poor school children in many of those states,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, which is based in New Jersey.

Using a series of publicly available data points, the school funding advocacy group, which also has a legal arm, graded every state based on its funding level, the way it distributes its K-12 funds, and how much taxing effort, based on the state’s GDP, the state puts into funding its schools.

The authors lauded states like Alaska and Wyoming for spending a lot on public schools and distributing that money in an equitable manner, though both states’ funding formulas have been under legal and legislative attack this year as revenue from natural resource has rapidly declined.

States in the nation’s South and Southwest, including Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, received especially low marks for spending more money on wealthy districts than poor districts.

Arizona, which has seen a surge of teacher strikes over low pay in recent years, and Nevada, which, until last year, had one of the oldest school funding formulas in the nation, received F’s in both categories.

Utah received an A for distributing funds equitably between student groups, but an F for the amount of revenue it raises from its available tax base. (Utah, which spends around $5,000 per student, has one of the lowest per-pupil spending amounts in the nation).

“There are regions of the country in which states ... have financing systems that are inadequate on several fronts ... and it’s a continuing trend, it’s an entrenched situation, and it doesn’t seem to move very much,” Sciarra said.

Several states have lawsuits going through the courts to spur their state legislatures to overhaul their school funding formulas. A case in North Carolina over that state’s funding model could reach its conclusion in the coming months.

The report’s authors urged advocates to put more pressure on states to overhaul their funding formulas.

“Public school underfunding is the reason why too many of the nation’s public schools do not have the teachers, support staff, programs and other resources essential to give students a meaningful opportunity to succeed,” the report concludes. “Public school underfunding is now so chronic and severe that a growing movement of parents, students, teachers and concerned citizens is demanding reform in many state capitols. The good news: this widespread outcry over underfunded public schools has created the most significant opportunity for school funding reform in decades.”

Read the entire report here.