Equity & Diversity

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

By Andrew Ujifusa & Michele McNeil — January 22, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity States Have Restricted Teaching on Social Justice. Is Teacher Preparation Next?
A new Florida law will restrict what teacher-preparation programs can teach about racism and sexism.
5 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. DeSantis signed legislation earlier this month that would restrict teacher training and educator preparation institutes from teaching on social justice.
Phil Sears/AP
Equity & Diversity Opinion 70 Years After 'Brown,' Schools Are Still Separate and Unequal
The legal strategy to prioritize school integration has had some unforeseen consequences in the decades since.
4 min read
A hand holds a scale weighing integration against resource allocation in observation of the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Noelle Rx for Education Week
Equity & Diversity How a DEI Rebrand Is Playing Out in K-12 Schools
School districts continue to advance DEI initiatives, though the focus is more on general inclusion and belonging for all.
9 min read
Ahenewa El-Amin speaks with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Ahenewa El-Amin speaks with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024. State leaders in Kentucky are pushing the message of making sure all students feel they belong in school including by offering ethnic studies courses.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion 70 Years of Abandonment: The Failed Promise of 'Brown v. Board'
If the nation is going to refuse integration, Black people must demand we revisit the separate but equal doctrine, writes Bettina L. Love.
4 min read
A Black student is isolated from their classmates by an aisle in the classroom.
Xia Gordon for Education Week