Poor school districts receive fewer resources than affluent ones in half the nation's states, and Virginia has one of the largest funding gaps, according a report by a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
Virginia districts with the most impoverished students received an average of $1,105 less per student than did districts with the most affluent students, based on 2001-2002 financial data compiled by the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to close the achievement gap between poor or minority students and other children.
The largest spending gaps, at more than $2,000 per student, were reported in New York and Illinois. Virginia had the third largest, followed by Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont and Louisiana.
Maryland's gap was the 11th largest at $558 per student. Hawaii and the District each comprise a single school district, so neither was included in the study.
"It's of great concern that after making some progress in the late 1990s, the trend started to move back in the other direction," said Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst with the Education Trust. "We think that's very much connected to the budget crunch that some of the states were under."
Rich communities with a thriving tax base are able to devote more money to schools than poorer districts, he said. "You look at a district like Norfolk: It's a higher-poverty district and a lower-paying district," Carey said. The city has innovative programs to help its students, he said, but "they're sort of financially hamstrung."
Thomas M. Jackson Jr., president of the Virginia Board of Education, said the budget approved this year by the General Assembly should help poorer districts. In May, the General Assembly approved a $60 billion two-year budget that included $1.5 billion more for schools than the previous two-year budget and pays some costs previously borne by the districts.
"That was certainly a statement that they're aware of this problem and they're trying to address it," Jackson said.
Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said a gap may persist because affluent school districts can devote more local money to education if they choose. But the $1.5 billion funding increase over two years "has got to be good news for poorer school districts," she said.
Jackson also said that money is not an automatic indicator of student success. He named several counties -- Scott, Page, Carroll and Bland -- that have a per-pupil expenditure far less than the state average of $8,186 yet were able to meet federal achievement standards this year.
The report gathered financial data on each of the country's 14,000 school districts from the Census Bureau and the Department of Education. Its calculations are based on the total state and local revenue each district received for the 2001-02 school year, the latest for which the numbers are available from the federal government.
To calculate the gap, state and local funding for districts with 25 percent or more students living below the federal poverty line was compared with per-pupil expenses in the richest districts. Adjustments were made for special education students, who cost more to educate, and the cost of living.
The Education Trust recommends targeting money directly to poor students and reducing reliance on local tax revenue to pay for education. According to information the group compiled from Census Bureau data, Virginia ranks 41st among the states in the amount it gives to localities for education. Maryland ranks 45th.
Nancy S. Grasmick, superintendent of schools for Maryland, noted that the funding gap between rich and poor districts in her state should shrink after the state increases funding under the so-called Thornton Commission recommendations. About $1.3 billion over five years will be targeted to districts with high numbers of poor students, students who are learning English and special education students. She concurred with the study's contention that it costs more to educate children in those groups.
"When you have heavy concentrations of these students, it is a different challenge," Grasmick said.