The gap in school funding between wealthy and poor districts is growing in most states, a striking reversal of progress made during better economic times, according to a report issued last week.
In the report, the Washington-based Education Trust blames cash-strapped states for the disparities, which average just more than $1,300 per student across the country.
Looking at districts’ bottom lines, the trust found that districts in high-poverty areas in 25 states received less money from state and local sources than their wealthier counterparts did, and that 31 states had spending gaps for their high-minority districts. When adjusted to account for additional costs associated with an equal education for children from low-income families, 36 states were found to have funding gaps.
The study used U.S. Census and Department of Education data from the 2001-02 school year, the most recent available.
The Education Trust, a research and advocacy group for disadvantaged students, says that progress toward ending the funding gap was being made in the middle to late 1990s, when states were seeing budget surpluses and pumping much of that money into education.
But with the fallout from the recent recession, not only has the trend reversed, but the average gap is also wider than before.
Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, said that he was disappointed, but not surprised, at the results. “When state budgets are tight, the highest-poverty districts tend to lose out the most,” he said.
“The worry,” Mr. Wiener added, “is that these trends have probably accelerated and gotten worse in these places.”
The study, the latest in a series of reports the Education Trust has conducted since 2001, looked at K-12 funding provided by state and local budgets, but not aid from the federal government, because 90 percent of schools’ money comes from their states and school districts.
The shortfalls, says the report’s author, Kevin Carey, “are starkly at odds with our national goals for closing the achievement gap.”
Moreover, the numbers understate the extent of the problem, writes Mr. Carey, who is a senior policy analyst at Education Trust, because they do not factor in the additional costs of educating students living in poverty.
Mulling ‘No Child’ Impact
Over the past three years, most states faced serious budget shortfalls, and many were forced to cut education budgets. At the same time, state officials pointed to the new demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in January 2002.
Scott Young, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, located in Denver, said the law has forced states to use federal dollars that used to target Title I students, to comply with the law’s sweeping requirements. Among other provisions, schools must make adequate yearly progress in raising achievement, or face sanctions.
“Prior to No Child Left Behind, the federal money was narrowly focused on Title I students,” Mr. Young said. “Now, the scope has drastically increased.”
Mr. Wiener is more concerned that states are not committed to achieving equity in school funding. The Education Trust has been a strong supporter of the No Child Left Behind law, which the group sees as a spur to a high-quality education for all children.
The law “is forcing states to address long-standing achievement gaps in their own systems,” he said, “but No Child Left Behind simply doesn’t control how much money they raise at state levels.”
Further, the No Child Left Behind Act gives additional aid to states that have created more equitable funding systems, Mr. Wiener said, and many states are missing out on that pot of money.
Recent ncsl reports, meanwhile, have shown states’ financial outlooks to be improving slightly. (“Lawmakers Greet Rosy Budget Picture With Caution,” July 28, 2004.)
Recommendations to States
The Education Trust report found that several states with large populations had the widest disparities in funding. New York and Illinois had the largest disparities, with gaps of more than $2,000 per pupil in each state, followed by Virginia, with $1,105.
In New York, the gap translated into a difference of $65,375 between classes at low-income and high-income schools. Between two typical 400-student elementary schools, the difference in available funds added up to just over $1 million, the report says. In Virginia, the totals were $35,750 between classes and $572,000 between elementary schools.
Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, noted that the new state education budget contains a $758 million increase, to $9.2 billion, for the 2005-06 biennium. Much of that money is targeted to needy students, he said.
Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Alaska were applauded for providing significantly more resources to their high-poverty schools than wealthier schools. Massachusetts, for instance, provides $1,343 more per pupil to its low-income schools than their wealthier counterparts.
One of the reasons that higher-income districts did not suffer as much as poorer ones during the economic slowdown, the report says, is that they had strong property-tax bases.
The Education Trust makes several recommendations to states for easing the finance gap:
• Increasing the share of state funding for education;
• Reducing reliance on local property taxes to pay for education;
• Targeting more aid toward children from low-income families; and
• Promoting budget practices that give schools within each district the same amount of per-pupil funding, with adjustments for students living in poverty.