How ‘Progressive’ Is Your State’s School Funding?

By Sean Cavanagh — October 12, 2010 1 min read
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An advocacy group in New Jersey has released an intriguing study that judges states on how much money they direct to their neediest schools.

The authors, from the Education Law Center, use statistical modeling techniques to shine a spotlight on individual states’ funding systems. One especially revealing piece of their analysis looks at per-pupil spending, broken down by the amount that goes to each state’s wealthiest and poorest school districts. States that are devoting more money to poor districts, as opposed to better-off ones, have “progressive” funding systems, as the study puts it, while those that don’t are labeled “regressive.” (Memories of Econ 101 are returning to you as read this.)

States’ rankings on the progressive/regressive meter might surprise you.

The top-ranked state, in terms of devoting a sufficient share of state and local funding to needy districts, is Utah. While that state provides only $6,586 in mean revenues per pupil, its poorest districts receive much more, $8,608 per student, than the wealthiest ones do, at $5,700. That’s big-time progressivity, by the study’s measures, and Utah collects an “A” grade in that category. New Jersey ranks second, followed by Minnesota, and Ohio.

The least-progressive states include Nevada, which gives $9,916 per-pupil to its wealthiest districts, but just $7,383 to the poorest, as measured in the study. It earns an “F” grade, as does New Hampshire. North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, among others, also lurk near the bottom in that category. (All this can be found on Table 3, pages 16-17 in my version of the study.)

You might quarrel with the authors’ methodology, or their overall goals. Some state officials undoubtedly will. But what seems indisputable is that their focus on impoverished schools is critical to many of the debates playing out in public education today, given the nationwide focus on turning around low-performing schools, finding teachers to work in those schools, and arranging interventions to help struggling students. Many of the lowest-performing students come from impoverished backgrounds. Are schools with large numbers of needy students, specifically, receiving the funding they need?

What do you make of the study’s findings? How might it shape funding policies in the states, if at all?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.