Poor Districts Seen to Face 'Funding Gaps' in Many States

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The wealthiest quarter of the nation's school districts on the whole receive nearly $1,000 more per pupil from state and local sources than the poorest quarter of districts—creating an educational "funding gap" that must be corrected, a report says.

A similar pattern holds when district funding levels are analyzed in terms of the number of minority students they serve, according to the report by the Education Trust, a Washington-based research organization that is an advocate for poor and minority students. Nationally, the report found, the quarter of districts that enroll the most minority children receive $902 less per pupil than those that serve the fewest number of minority students.

Addressing the funding gap, as well as promoting wiser use of school funds, will be critical as states move forward with efforts to fix the academic-achievement gaps among various racial and ethnic groups, the report argues.

"Some states are only beginning to get the message that they're going to have to close the achievement gap in the coming decade," said Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst for the Education Trust. "Many are not thinking through how they're going to pay for that."

In many states, the report shows, the 25 percent of districts with the highest child-poverty rates receive less money per pupil than the quarter with the lowest rates of child poverty, based on figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The report pegs New York state's funding gap as the nation's highest, at $2,152 per student, based on figures from the 1999-2000 school year. Illinois, Michigan, Montana, and Pennsylvania also had gaps exceeding $1,000, based on figures from the 1999- 2000 school year.

But that pattern did not hold everywhere: Poor districts in at least 10 states were receiving more per student—in some cases, hundreds of dollars more—although some of those are rural Western states where small, remote schools can drive up costs.

Taken together at a national level, the quarter of school districts with the highest rates of child poverty received $5,846 to educate each of their students in 1999-2000, compared with $6,812 in the wealthiest quartile of districts, according to the report.

Spending Disparity

Yet that $966 disparity was down by 15 percent from the funding gap in 1997, when it stood at $1,139, the report says. The analysis looked at only state and local revenues and did not factor in federal funding.

Mr. Jerald said the funding disparities affecting poor and minority children to some degree explain the nation's achievement gaps, but cautioned that money alone is not the answer. Still, greater spending on education undoubtedly is needed if states and communities expect schools to close those achievement gaps—as the federal government now requires under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, he noted.

"You can't spend money wisely that you don't have," he said. "With the federal law, now it's time to do it."

Despite the overall pattern of less funding for poorer districts, some states had funding gaps that cut in the other direction. The largest such gap was in Minnesota, where the poorest districts received $601 more per student than the wealthiest, the study found.

Eyes on New Jersey

In New Jersey, the state's highest-poverty districts receive nearly $9,400 per pupil, the report says, compared with about $9,100 per student in the wealthiest communities—the result of a series of funding-equity rulings by the state's highest court.

What the experts at the Education Trust want to know now is this: Is expanded and focused spending on high-poverty schools in New Jersey really helping them improve?

"We're going to eagerly be watching what's happening in New Jersey," Mr. Jerald said.

More funding could go a long way in the La-Joya Independent School District in Texas, said Roberto Zamora, the superintendent of the 19,700-student system on the U.S.-Mexican border.

If Texas' "funding gap" were eliminated, the report shows, Mr. Zamora's district would have an extra $518 to spend per student. That would mean about $10 million in new state and local money for his district, where virtually every student is Hispanic and poor, and many are learning to read and write at various ages.

If his district were to get such an infusion of aid, Mr. Zamora said, "a lot of it would go to increased learning activities." He said his district struggles despite charging the highest local property-tax rate allowed by state law.

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said the report underscores the lack of support for schools with many poor and minority students. Mr. Rebell is leading a court battle with New York state over school spending.

"It's a scandal for a democratic society that the kids who need the most help are receiving the fewest resources," he said.

But the current fiscal climate is making it harder for states to find new money for schools. For example, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, recently warned of layoffs and said he might close entire state agencies next year because of a record budget deficit.

"There's a possibility that these gaps may widen during the budget crunch," Mr. Jerald said.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, based in Washington, and a former state superintendent in Arizona, praised the report and said states must be willing to pay for better results.

She called on state leaders to spur debate on reducing schools' reliance on property taxes, and to ensure equity without a push from the courts. More money should be targeted at students with the greatest needs, and should be coupled with expanding choices for students on where to attend school, she said.

Setting new budget priorities, creating new ways of paying for schools, and developing more equitable systems "is not going to be easy," Ms. Keegan said. But the complexity of school funding issues shouldn't deter states from attacking the problems, she said.

Vol. 22, Issue 1, Page 28

Published in Print: September 4, 2002, as Poor Districts Seen to Face 'Funding Gaps' in Many States
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