Equity & Diversity

Analysis Points to Growth in Per-Pupil Spending—and Disparities

By Andrew Ujifusa & Michele McNeil — January 22, 2014 5 min read
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In the 50 years since the War on Poverty began, school spending has skyrocketed, but so have disparities in how much states dedicate to K-12 education.

Only $4,000 separated per-pupil spending from the states at the top and bottom of per-pupil rankings back in 1969, the earliest comparable data available from the U.S. Department of Education. But in 2009-10, that inflation-adjusted difference stood at $14,673 per student. That year, the District of Columbia spent an average of $20,000 on each student in its schools. In Utah, the lowest per-pupil spending state, just barely more than $6,000 was spent on average.

Even as questions persist about whether money matters in education, it’s unquestionable that spending disparities are growing as states’ political and economic climates have changed dramatically in the last half century.

Some advocates say the gaps show that many state governments continue to neglect their responsibility to provide low-income students with a high-quality education, thus subverting the War on Poverty’s prime purpose.

Others, however, argue that the disparities aren’t crucial, since the rising spending hasn’t translated broadly to significantly higher student achievement, and that it is more important to ask how states are spending their money on education. Cost-of-living differences between regions and resulting salary variations might also explain some of the disparities.

Budgets and Court Battles

All states have increased their per-pupil spending on public schools significantly since the early years of the War on Poverty. Despite the large gap that separates it from the District of Columbia, Utah’s spending rose 87 percent from 1969 to 2010.

Among the nine states and the District of Columbia where per-student spending has grown the most, seven are in the Northeast, with five of them in New England. All of the top 10 states have increased their pupil funding by at least $7,390 since 1969.

Meanwhile, among the bottom 10 states in spending growth, seven are located in the western United States, including Arizona, California, and Washington state. Among them, the largest increase was in Minnesota, where per-pupil spending rose $5,860.

Concurrently, the average per-pupil gap between states rose by 255 percent from $81 in 1969 to $288 in 2010, according to an Education Week analysis. Some of the states with the most spending growth have been spurred by prominent court cases. In several legal battles, plaintiffs have successfully argued that their states were not meeting their constitutional requirements to fund public schools in a fair manner.

In seven of the top nine states and D.C. in terms of spending growth, the courts have ruled at some point in favor of plaintiffs seeking more equitable and adequate K-12 spending.

Overall, there have been court cases and rulings related to school-funding adequacy in all but five states, according to the National Education Access Network, a project based at Teachers College, Columbia University, that tracks school-funding lawsuits. In 24 states, there have been victories for plaintiffs seeking new, more equitable funding levels.

Irrationality and Inequity

The fact that K-12 per-pupil expenditures have increased across all states isn’t surprising, in part because of new mandates that deal with policies like educating students with special needs, said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark, N.J.-based group that promotes equitable school funding and criticizes what it deems inadequate funding efforts by states.

However, inequities between states persist and have grown because some states have aggressively targeted more resources to low-income children, while others have not, he said.

About This Series

War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This story is one of the first in a series of articles in Education Week during the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.

“The amount of funding that schools have within states to support their needs remains, by and large across the country, irrational,” Mr. Sciarra said. “Many states continue to resist doing the work of connecting their school finance formula, [and] their school funding, to the actual cost of delivering rigorous standards to give all kids the chance to achieve those standards.”

A counterpoint to this narrative is a state like New Hampshire, where per-pupil spending grew 249 percent between 1969 and 2010 (the third-highest growth rate after D.C. and Vermont). In 1997, the state Supreme Court ruled in the Claremont School District v. Governor of New Hampshire case that the state’s K-12 funding system violated its constitution because it was not “proportional and reasonable” given disparities in local property taxes. The state subsequently altered its school finance formula.

“All the states that have improved equity have added money, not just reallocated resources,” Mr. Sciarra said.

Money Spent Poorly

But the misallocation of education funding is precisely the problem state officials should guard against, regardless of any spending disparities across the country, argued Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

When you look at what really matters—student achievement—then the country hasn’t made much progress since the War on Poverty launched, Mr. Hanushek said.

He pointed to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and international tests that, he said, show U.S. student performance remaining “pretty flat” over recent decades even as K-12 spending has risen dramatically. What’s more, he said, high-spending states haven’t shown dramatically better student achievement progress than low-spending states.

“On average, we haven’t spent the money very well,” he said. “We’re still missing linking spending to outcomes.”

For example, he said, states are making dramatic changes in education policy, from remaking their accountability systems to tying teacher evaluations to student achievement.

“But those decisions have been divorced from any discussion about finance,” he said. “There’s no funding behind them.”

Still, amid the recent recession and resulting state-level budget cuts, the federal government has failed to push states to more equitable and adequate spending levels, through waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act and Title I funding, said Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington education advocacy group.

“The failure to provide equal funding, the failure to provide quality education, is a violation of states’ responsibility to their own constitutions, but also a violation of the federal mandate about how education has to be implemented,” Mr. Henderson said.

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Among States, Spending Gaps Have Widened

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