Education Funding

How School Funding Falls Short, by the Numbers

By Mark Lieberman — December 28, 2022 1 min read
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America’s convoluted system for funding public schools results in highly unequal circumstances for school districts and their students depending on their home state.

That’s the central takeaway from Making the Grade 2022, the latest iteration of an annual report from the nonprofit Education Law Center on school finance differences among states.

Using 2020 U.S. Census data on school funding, the report analyzes combined state and local spending on K-12 schools using three metrics. This year’s report, published in December, also cites data from 2008 to 2020 to illustrate how school funding evolved between the start of the Great Recession and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many states, the picture was rosier before the recession hit than it is now.

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The report’s analysis is organized around three categories:

  • Funding level: How much money do schools get per pupil?
  • Funding distribution: How much more money do high-poverty districts get than lower-poverty districts?
  • Funding effort: How much do states provide for schools relative to their overall gross domestic product?

Here’s a by-the-numbers guide to understanding the school funding landscape as illustrated in the report.

Change over time

6    That’s the number of states where funding dropped by more than 10 percent between 2008 and 2020. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Wyoming. More than a dozen others saw level funding or drops of up to 10 percent during that period.

18    The percentage decrease in Florida’s funding for school districts between 2008 and 2020, from $14,065 per pupil to $11,509 per pupil. That’s the largest drop of any state.

How much money school districts got

11    The number of states where average funding per pupil fell short of the national average by more than $3,000. Districts in Arizona and Nevada, the two states with the lowest per-pupil funding on average, got more than $5,000 less per student than the national average, which was $15,446 per student.

$16,000    The approximate difference in average per-pupil funding between the states with the lowest and highest funding levels. At the low end, Arizona and Nevada districts get an average of $10,244 per student. Districts in New York and Vermont, the two highest-spending states, get between $23,000 and $26,000 per student on average.

How states fared on the report’s grading metrics

1    The number of states this year that received an “F” grade from the Education Law Center on all three metrics (funding level, funding distribution, and funding effort). That dubious honor goes to Nevada.

Educate Nevada Now, an advocacy group, weighed in on the report in a press release the day it was published.

“Seeing us toward the bottom in funding effort is the most disheartening aspect of this report, as it shows how indifferent and uncommitted Nevada is towards the education of its students,” said Amanda Morgan, the group’s executive director. “We don’t value them despite having the financial capacity to do more.”

1    The number of states that received an “A” grade on all three metrics this year. The honor goes to Wyoming. Even there, though, satisfaction with school funding isn’t universal. The state teachers’ union is suing the state for allegedly failing to meet its constitutional obligation to fund schools adequately. A judge recently denied a motion to dismiss the case.

8    The number of states that scored an F on two of three metrics. Nine states scored an A on two of three metrics.

12    The number of states that scored an A or B on the crucial equity metric of funding distribution. Ten states scored an F.

How well states target resources to high-need students

31    The number of states that lack school funding systems that direct more resources to districts with large shares of students living in poverty.

6    The number of states where high-poverty districts get at least 20 percent fewer dollars per pupil than low-poverty districts. For instance, in New Hampshire, low-poverty districts get an average of $19,121 per pupil, while high-poverty districts get $13,923.

While most states fail to ensure that high-poverty districts get proportionally more resources than low-poverty districts, a handful of states go above and beyond to address that gap. In Utah, high-poverty districts, on average, get nearly double the average haul than low-poverty districts. Five other states provide at least 33 percent more dollars per pupil to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty ones.

$19,000    The gap between the states with the highest and lowest average funding for high-poverty districts. It’s even more vast than the gap between average school funding for states regardless of poverty level. Nevada spends slightly less than $10,000 per pupil on average for low-poverty districts, while Wyoming spends close to $29,000.

The share of state resources devoted to K-12 schools

4    The percentage of gross domestic product that states with an A or B grade for effort devoted to public schools. Eleven states devote more than 4 percent of that figure to public schools. Nine states, meanwhile, dedicate less than 3 percent of their GDP to school spending.

$752 billion    The amount of additional money schools would have received nationwide if all states had maintained their 2008 level of effort through 2020. That’s roughly equivalent to the total annual amount spent on public schools in the United States, including federal, state, and local dollars.

32    The number of states that would have been offering more funding per pupil now if they had maintained their 2008 level of effort through 2020. In 13 states, that figure would have grown by more than $2,000 per pupil.

A preview of what’s to come

49    The number of states that saw general fund revenue for the most recent fiscal year that exceeded their budget predictions, according to the National Association of State Business Officers’ Fall 2022 Fiscal Survey of States. In some cases, the final total came in more than 20 percent above what was expected. Those figures are already spurring advocates in many states to push for substantial increases in funding for K-12 schools.

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