The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 23 states, richer school districts get more local funding than poorer districts

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) talks to fifth-graders during a visit to an elementary school in Bellefontaine, Pa., on Monday, March 9. According to new federal data, Pennsylvania’s state and local per-pupil spending in its poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the state’s most affluent school districts, the highest differential in the country. Wolf has promised to increase state education spending and to address inequities. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark)

Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts. Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.

But in 23 states, state and local governments are together spending less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts, according to federal data from fiscal year 2012, the most recent figures available.

[See how spending differs between the nation’s poorest and most affluent school districts.]

In some states the differences are stark. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts. In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent.

Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts (where average spending is $9,270 per child) than they are in the most affluent (where average spending is $10,721 per child).

“What it says very clearly is that we have, in many places, school systems that are separate and unequal,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview. “Money by itself is never the only answer, but giving kids who start out already behind in life, giving them less resources is unconscionable, and it’s far too common.”

In Pennsylvania, for example, millions of dollars in state budget cuts to education during the past several years have contributed to a funding crisis in Philadelphia, a high-poverty district where many schools don’t have full-time counselors or nurses, and where parents contribute funds to help buy such essentials as paper.

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) did not respond to requests for comment about the disparities. Wolf was elected in November 2014 after making education a central platform in his campaign, promising to increase state spending on schools and to address inequities. Wolf recently proposed spending an additional $2 billion on public schools during the next four years and has been touring the state’s public schools. A spokesperson for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) also did not respond to request for comment.

Bill Talbott, of Vermont’s state education department, said that the federal findings are “contrary to what we believe,” pointing to an independent evaluation of the state’s school finance system that found “virtually no relationship between wealth (measured by both district property wealth and personal income) and spending levels.”

Talbott said state officials couldn’t pinpoint the reasons for the two different findings on short notice.

In general, wealthier towns and counties are able to raise more money through taxes to support their schools than poorer localities can. Many states have developed school-finance systems that send extra dollars to poorer areas in an attempt to mitigate those inequities. But the state aid is often not enough to make up the difference.

Federal spending — including through Title I, money meant to bolster programs for poor children — is serving as an equalizer, according to the federal data. When federal dollars are included, just five states are spending less in their poorest districts than in their wealthiest. Nationwide, the average disparity drops from 15 percent to less than 2 percent.

But federal spending was never intended to equalize funding for poor children, Duncan said. It was meant to add more money for students who need more services.

“The point of that money was to supplement, recognizing that poor children and English language learners and students with disabilities come to school with additional challenges,” Duncan said. “This is about trying to get additional resources to children and communities who everyone knows need additional help.”

In 23 other states, students in the poorest school districts are getting more state and local tax dollars per pupil than students in the most affluent districts. The differences are biggest in Indiana and Minnesota, which respectively spend 17 percent and 15 percent more in their poorest districts than in the most affluent.

Federal spending boosted expenditures in the poorest districts significantly in both Indiana (25 percent more than affluent districts) and Minnesota (21 percent more than affluent districts).

The graph below shows funding differences between school districts for each state, with the ability to look at just state and local funds and also funding that includes federal dollars.

Three states (Colorado, Iowa and Utah) provide essentially the same funding for the poorest and wealthiest school districts, with differentials of less than half a percent. The federal analysis does not include Hawaii or the District of Columbia, since in each of those jurisdictions a single district comprises more than half of the student population.

The National Center for Education Statistics released the data on its Web site last month. The figures are based on poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau and financial information reported by school districts.

The data sheds light on the wide variation in education spending among states as Congress is trying to rewrite the main federal education law, No Child Left Behind.

Much of the debate about the law has centered on its standardized testing requirements, but teachers unions and many advocates and Democrats see the law as the federal government’s most powerful tool to improve equity among schools.

The Obama administration wants Congress to add another billion dollars to Title I, a $14 billion program. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, wants the law to require schools and districts to publish an “opportunity dashboard” that would shed light on how much access children have to the kinds of resources many parents want, including arts and sports programs, nurses and counselors, and advanced coursework.

House Republicans included neither of those proposals in their bill to rewrite the law, the Student Success Act, legislation that the Obama administration has said would devastate schools in the poorest communities.

The House began debate on its version of the rewritten legislation last month, but postponed a floor vote. The Senate has plowed ahead with bipartisan talks between Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member.

Alexander and other Republican leaders in Congress want to shrink the role of the federal government, giving states far more latitude to decide how to spend federal dollars and address struggling schools. But many Democrats and civil rights groups want the federal government to have more control in order to ensure equity among schools and students, arguing that some states, if left to their own devices, would ignore the needs of poor and minority children.

Alexander also is pushing for a policy called “Title I portability,” which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow low-income students as they move from school to school. The Obama administration and many Democrats, including Murray, argue that such a policy would exacerbate funding inequalities between the poorest and wealthiest communities.

Asked to address the concerns about civil rights and Title I portability in light of the new federal data showing spending inequities in poor school districts, a spokeswoman for Alexander said that conversations between Alexander’s and Murray’s staff continue. “This is one of several questions staff are addressing together,” she said.

The Senate education committee is expected to mark up a bipartisan draft during the week of April 13.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House education committee, previously responded to criticisms of the House bill and its inclusion of Title I portability with this statement:

“The Student Success Act offers states and families new opportunities to rescue children from failing schools. Encouraging good schools to serve more low-income students is the right thing to do. Ensuring low-income children receive the best possible education and their fair share of federal assistance is the right thing to do.”

This post has been updated.