Is School Funding Fair?
Not in most states, according to a national report card dedicated to answering that question.
Back in 2010, the first edition of a national report card on school funding and fairness was released. Considering “fair” school funding to be “a state finance system that ensures equal educational opportunity by providing a sufficient level of funding distributed to districts within the state to account for additional needs generated by student poverty,” it concluded that most states do not do a good job of ensuring equality of educational opportunity for all children. Last month, the second edition of this report card (which included funding data through 2009) was released – and once again, many states are falling short.
Just six states performed well on all measures of fairness that the report considered. Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont maintained their performance from the 2010 report, with Kansas and New Mexico joining them (Connecticut and Wyoming fell out of this group in 2012). Three states received below average rankings on all indicators – Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina.
These indicators reflect a number of core principles, one of which is that “varying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs.” Another is that the overall level of education funding matters greatly. In total, there are four interrelated measures of fairness on which each state is evaluated:
- Funding level: The overall state and local contributions to per pupil revenue, adjusted to reflect differences in cost of living and other local factors. The report shows a large disparity between the highest and lowest funded states – using nationally adjusted figures, a student in Tennessee receives less than 40% of the funding of a comparable student in Wyoming.
- Funding distribution: How a state provides funding to districts based on their student poverty level. According to the report, just 17 states have progressive funding systems, providing greater funding to high poverty districts. Six states actually have regressive systems, meaning districts with higher poverty rates receive less funding than more well-off districts (the most regressive state is Illinois).*
- Effort: The ratio of state spending on education to that state's per capita gross domestic product. There is some good news here – an overall trend towards increasing funding effort in recent years (though Hawaii and Maine have each reduced their effort by over 20%).
- Coverage: The proportion of school-age children attending public schools and the income disparity between families using private/home schools versus public schools. In the lowest ranked states (the District of Columbia, Louisiana, and Delaware), about a fifth of the student population enrolls in private schools. Those students are from households with significantly higher incomes than public school students – as much as two and three times.
Of course, there are a number of limitations to this report. Some are methodological, and I encourage you to read the report to get a better sense of how exactly the authors made their calculations. But two broader limitations particularly concern me.
First, this report considers the district as the unit of analysis. This was done for a variety of reasons, including (as the report says) that districts are “the locus of the most significant disparities in school funding.” However, it does ignore that there are also disparities in funding among schools within districts. For example, I live near Washington, DC, where the district has struggled to equitably fund schools and continues to face criticism on the issue. Other systems face similar challenges. The report could mask even greater inequities for some populations of children.
And second, this report only includes data through 2009, early in an economic recession that still impacts many aspects of our lives. Since then, states and localities have continued to cut education budgets. While this report is a useful snapshot of times past, it does not reflect current realities – a fact that decision-makers who consult it (particularly in states ranked highly) need to consider.
But despite its limitations, the report is an interesting read. It raises important questions about our societal values around school funding. And the information provided will allow policymakers at all levels to ensure we demonstrate them.
*The District of Columbia and Hawaii were excluded from this measure, given that each contains only one school district.
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