Education Funding

States Found to Vary Widely In School Spending

By Catherine Gewertz — June 05, 2002 3 min read
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New York and New Jersey spend more than twice the amount that Utah and Mississippi spend on each student in elementary and secondary schools, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Read the Education Finance Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The Census Bureau’s report examines education financing for the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent for which data were analyzed. It shows that New Jersey spent $10,283 per student, followed by New York at $10,039 and the District of Columbia at $9,933. Spending the least were Utah, at $4,331; Mississippi, with $5,014, and Arizona, with $5,033.

The average state per-pupil spending figure was $6,835.

The figures do not include capital expenses.

In addition to ranking the 50 states and the District of Columbia by how much they spend, the Census Bureau compiled other data profiling revenue, spending, and debt patterns at the state and district levels. The report was released May 23.

Education finance experts noted that higher spending doesn’t always lead to higher-quality education. But in the views of some analysts, the disparities between the highest- and lowest- spending states—while long-standing and therefore no surprise—were cause for concern.

Lawrence O. Picus, the director of the Center for Research in Education Finance at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said the figures reflect the differences in states’ costs of living and in their abilities to raise resources to finance public schools.

Federal Role?

In light of those variations, Mr. Picus said, it is difficult to pinpoint an appropriate per-pupil amount all states should strive to spend. Nonetheless, he contended, the fact that some states spend only $5,000 per pupil, when others spend more than $10,000, signals the need for measures to narrow the gap.

He suggested more federal funding for states less able to raise their own resources.

“A child in Mississippi deserves the same level of effort as one in Newark [New Jersey],” Mr. Picus said. “These figures should move us to find ways to solve some of those differences in resource availability.”

State-to-state comparisons of per-pupil spending must take into account the differences in each state’s demographics, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst who focuses on school finance issues for the Education Commission of the States, a national research organization in Denver.

For instance, Mr. Griffith said, school spending in New York outpaces that in Utah because of the Eastern state’s higher costs for land, supplies, and teacher salaries. New York’s schools also serve larger populations of students who are more costly to educate, such as those learning English and from low-income families.

State Studies

Because of their lower costs of education and smaller shares of disadvantaged students, states such as Utah can often emerge in studies as having relatively high student test scores while spending less than other states on education, Mr. Griffith said.

“You could say from looking at those figures that they seem to be providing the cheapest education with some of the best outcomes,” Mr. Griffith said. “But that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s really more about the cost of providing education.”

Mr. Griffith believes that the federal government cannot be relied upon to close the spending differentials among states, since that would require more than tripling the 7 percent that it currently supplies to K-12 education budgets.

Since costs and other factors vary so much from state to state, a better approach to equalizing spending is for each state to undertake the difficult process of figuring out an appropriate level of school spending, given the academic goals it wishes to achieve, and to revise its funding formula to ensure each district receives that amount, Mr. Griffith said.

Maryland recently passed such a measure, and Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, and Nebraska are among other states studying such changes, he said.

The University of Texas, in conjunction with the ECS, is planning a study to determine whether there is a national spending figure that would be an appropriate target for all states, Mr. Griffith said. (“Md. Schools Get Big Hike in Funding,” April 17, 2002.)

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Found to Vary Widely In School Spending

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