New Edition of “Is School Funding Fair?” Shows Which States are Investing in Equity

On Wednesday the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education published the fifth annual Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  The report, “evaluates and compares the extent to which state finance systems ensure equality of educational opportunity for all children, regardless of background, family income, place of residence, or school location.”  The report is based on the newest data available—2013. Very recent fiscal developments are not being tracked here.

The report makes several assumptions: “Varying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs.  The costs of education vary based on geographic location, regional differences in teacher salaries, school district size, population density, and various student characteristics.  State finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty.  The overall funding level in states is also a significant element in fair school funding.  Without a sufficient base, even a progressively funded system will be unable to provide equitable educational opportunities.”

Bar graphs demonstrate how states rank by how much they invest in education, how they distribute state funding across local districts to accommodate the needs of school districts that serve many children in poverty, and by their investments in K-12 public education relative to their fiscal capacities as measured by their gross state product.  There is a fourth factor called “coverage,” that measures the proportion of students in public and private schools and the median household income of these students.

The report is a state-by-state snapshot and it is comparative.  It does not cost-out needed services and then judge each state’s level of investment next to that ideal level of expenditure. “(B)ecause the evaluations are comparative and not benchmarked to a defined outcome, high grades or rankings are not indicative of having met some obligation or having outperformed expectations.”

The report’s findings?

Funding Level:  Spending $17,331 per pupil, Alaska ranks highest in its educational investment.  (A recent NY Times report on Alaska’s fiscal distress due to the collapse in oil prices will likely reduce Alaska’s expenditure-per-pupil in 2016.) New York ($16,726 per-pupil) and New Jersey ($15,394) are second and third.  Idaho spends the least on public education at $5,746 per-pupil, with the other low-spending states in the bottom ten being Utah, Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, and California.  “Relative funding rankings have remained largely consistent over time.  Despite recent fluctuations in the economy and attendant variations in spending, with only a few exceptions the lowest ranking states tend to remain in the bottom, and high spending states tend to remain at the top.”

Funding Distribution:  Seven states are given high marks for distributing additional funding to students in settings of concentrated family poverty—Delaware, Minnesota, Utah, Ohio, New Jersey, South Dakota and Tennessee.  Some states actually have regressive funding systems that send less money to very poor school districts: Nevada, North Dakota, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Vermont, Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

School Funding Effort:  The Education Law Center’s new report references the Center on Budget and Policy Priority’s report about the number of states that continue to spend less on K-12 education than prior to the Great Recession in 2008.  The Education Law Center points out that even several years after the Great Recession, some states continue to reduce their investment in K-12 schools relative to their fiscal capacity to support education.  The five states that made the greatest reduction in their effort to fund education between 2012-2013 are Ohio (- 9%), Arizona (-8%), Michigan (-8%), Louisiana (-7%), and Maine (-7%).

The report’s authors summarize: “Only a handful of states… have generally high funding levels and also provide significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest.  Low rankings on school funding fairness correlate to poor state performance on key resource indicators, including less access to early childhood education, non-competitive wages for teachers, and higher teacher-to-pupil ratios.”