Here at Ed Money Watch, we frequently write about the federal distribution of funds to states, but what states actually do with those funds once they get them is somewhat clouded by a lack of transparency. A new report published this summer by the Education Law Center and Rutgers University Graduate School of Education argues that inequities at the district level are perpetuated by the formulas states use to allocate federal, state, and local funds to school districts.
The Education Law Center report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” measures ‘fairness’ in school funding – defined as providing schools with adequate funding to educate the students in their district, including additional costs created by higher poverty rates – on four metrics. The report is actually an update to a 2010 report from the group, with updates to increase accuracy. But despite evidence to the contrary, the study starts from the assumption that more spending equates to better outcome from students, and therefore, using a series of metrics, defines ’fairness’ only by funding distribution.
The report’s authors suggest the achievement gap between low-income or minority students and their wealthier peers is not the result of failing schools so much as inequity perpetuated by states’ funding systems. Instead, it recommends, the federal government must address those fundamental inequalities in distributing federal dollars, while states and school districts should dramatically increase their expenditures if they hope to improve students’ outcomes. However, there are some pretty serious flaws in the starting assumptions – namely that students’ outcomes don’t always align with higher funding levels.
For one of their four measures, the authors used data that control for things like poverty, regional variation in wages, population density, and other factors. The study calculates state and local per pupil spending that should level the playing field if all states spend the same amount of money per child. (This assumes that the federal distribution of funds to states is fair, which it is not necessarily.)
The states were split nearly equally above and below the national average of $10,774 in 2009. The top-ranked state, Wyoming, had a per pupil expenditure that totaled $19,520, while Tennessee was ranked 51st at $7,306 – a pretty dramatic difference. But here’s the problem: Tennessee had a higher high school graduation rate and similar test scores in fourth- and eighth-graders as Wyoming. So it’s hard to argue that Wyoming is more “fair” than Tennessee when the states are getting the same results.
The report also looks at how states distribute funding to school districts according to poverty rates. A progressive system – a “fair funding” state, according to the report – would provide more funding for districts with higher concentrations of poverty than for high-income, low-poverty districts . Yet only 17 states in 2009 provided progressive funding, while 16 actually gave less state and local funding to their poorest school districts (though 11 of those didn’t show a pattern in the distributions). Another 15 states revealed virtually no difference in funding for low- and high-poverty districts. That claim tracks out, to some extent – Massachusetts and New Jersey, both of which rank fairly highly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have progressive systems, while Alabama’s low NAEP scores are supported by a regressive system.
Another measure, effort, examines the percentage of each state’s gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to education spending, rather than the specific ways in which funds are distributed to districts. It is a more subjective measure than the others, given that the report’s authors assign a grade to each state according to their own arguable standard for the percentage of funding that should be dedicated to education. In spite of those questions, though, the data did reveal a few interesting points. For example, Hawaii and Maine both reduced their funding efforts by more than 20 percent from 2007 to 2009. And states’ wealth didn’t seem to be a determinant for this factor; Delaware has the third-largest per capita GDP in the country, but the Education Law Center ranked it 51st in effort.
Given the financial constraints that federal, state, and local governments are facing in the ongoing economic recession, the report’s authors are optimistic and more than a little unrealistic in insisting that states must increase their overall funding for education to see improvement. Their starting assumption that more money inherently leads to better outcomes is not always supported. We would have been interested to see a study that tied these fairness measures to student outcomes, instead, given that results are what count. Furthermore we already know that the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act has its own inequity problems in its Title I distribution formulas, so state systems are hardly the only offender when it comes to “fair” funding distribution. Still, we agree: States, as well as students, would be better served if they revised their funding distributions to be more equitable, especially because an extra influx of cash seems so unlikely.