Funding for public education in most states is inadequate and inequitable, creating a huge obstacle for the nation’s growing number of poor children as they try to overcome their circumstances, according to a set of reports released Monday by civil rights groups.

Students in the nation’s highest-spending state (New York) receive about $12,000 more each year than students in the lowest-spending state (Idaho), according to the reports, and in most states school districts in wealthy areas spend as much or more per pupil than districts with high concentrations of poverty.

In addition, many states were spending less on education in 2012 than they were in 2008, relative to their overall economic productivity, according to the reports.

The two reports – the Education Law Center’s fourth annual report card on school finance and a companion piece co-authored with the Leadership Conference Education Fund – are meant to help galvanize policymakers and activists to take on longstanding school funding disparities.

“School funding decisions are one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund. “The evidence from across the country is clear and compelling: Our nation must dramatically change the way that educational resources are distributed so that there is true equity in America’s classrooms.”

Henderson pointed to a little-known 1973 Supreme Court case as one reason for why inequitable funding has been such a difficult problem for activists to tackle.

In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, justices ruled that it was legal to base state school funding formulas on local property taxes, even though doing so resulted in unequal resources. The court also ruled that there is no federal constitutional right to an education.

Henderson called the decision a “triumph of states’ rights over human rights,” and said in the long term he wants to see that decision overturned. In the short term, he said, activists need to put pressure on states.

In 2012, just 15 states had school funding systems that funnel more resources to students in poor districts than those in affluent districts, according to the Education Law Center’s analysis.

The remaining states either devote the same funding to the poorest and richest districts, or they send more to districts serving the most affluent students than they send to districts serving the poorest children. Many students in the poorest districts come to school hungry, are in need of health care or lack a stable home life. Such children generally are considered more expensive to educate.

The reports argue that the growing number of poor children and the increasing segregation of impoverished children makes school funding a more urgent issue than ever. Children from low-income families are now the majority in U.S. public schools, according to the Southern Education Foundation.

The four states with the most progressive school finance systems – South Dakota, Delaware, Minnesota and New Jersey – provided their poorest districts with between 30 percent and 38 percent more money per pupil than their most affluent districts, according to the report.

Contrast that with Nevada, which regularly scrapes bottom in state-by-state comparisons of academic performance: In the Silver State, the poorest districts got just 48 cents for every dollar that went to the wealthiest districts.

Nevada legislators this year recognized the disparities, passing a measure to direct more funds to schools serving high concentrations of poor students and students with special needs.

The difference between the school finance system in Nevada and some of its neighboring states is clear in “fairness profiles” that are part of the Education Law Center’s report card.

The fairness profiles are line graphs that show both the level of per-pupil funding in each state and the distribution of that funding. Flat lines, such as for Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, mean that funding is the same for all districts regardless of poverty level; a line that angles down, such as Nevada’s, means that the system is regressive, i.e. poorer school districts get less per-pupil funding.

A line that angles up — such as Delaware and New Jersey, below — means that the system is progressive, i.e. poorer school districts get more per-pupil funding.

A few states, such as Utah, have progressive school finance systems but spend so little on average that they still aren’t doing enough, the report argues.

The “fairness profiles” are based on the Education Law Center’s analysis of federal data from 2012. Some states have made school funding changes since then, while others — such as Pennsylvania, one of the most inequitable in the nation — are considering policy overhauls.

Most of the nation could afford to spend more on education, the report argues, pointing to the falling level of “effort” on education spending in most states. Effort is defined in the report as the ratio of state and local education spending to economic productivity – or the state’s gross domestic product.

In all but four states – West Virginia, Illinois, Wyoming and Connecticut – the level of effort fell between 2008 and 2012. Florida saw the biggest decrease, with its effort declining by 25 percent, but many states saw significant decreases during that time period.

One of the key challenges for education activists seeking more money has always been the lack of a direct connection between taxpayer investment and student achievement. The Education Law Center does not confront that issue in a comprehensive way in its report, but it provides snapshots: state rankings for preschool enrollment, pupil-to-teacher ratio and teacher wage competitiveness.

Read the reports below.