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Report finds most states shortchange high-poverty schools

Called "The Real Shame of the Nation," the study finds a close relationship between spending and test scores.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Poor districts get far less money than needed to help students achieve average scores on standardized tests, and a financial analysis shows that higher test scores follow the money, says a new national report.

The report examines the relationship between school funding and student achievement among the country’s school districts, grouped by states and subdivided by poverty levels.

Conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and released by the Education Law Center of New Jersey, the full report is titled The Real Shame of the Nation: The Causes and Consequences of Interstate Inequity in Public School Investments.

It found that almost all states fund public schools far below the level needed to enable students in the poorest districts to perform at the national average in standardized tests.

It also found that districts get what they pay for. Those that spent more than the amount needed to achieve average test scores typically exceeded the benchmark, while those that spent less than needed usually did not.

The report debunks the common idea that public education across the nation is failing. Instead, it presents a picture of high academic achievement in most states among students in affluent districts, with few exceptions.

“This groundbreaking report should serve as a wakeup call to policymakers and educators around the nation,” David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in New Jersey, said in a statement. “The U.S. education system as a whole is far from failing. Instead, particular states and regions of the country are letting their students and the entire nation down by failing to provide the resources needed for students to reach their potential.”

The authors call for a dramatic overhaul of federal education policy — both legislative and executive.

The report presents a “National Education Cost Model,” based on per-pupil spending, student achievement on standardized tests, and student and family income levels. The authors used the model to estimate how much states — and high-poverty districts within those states — would need to spend for their students to reach the national average on standardized test scores in English and math from 2009 to 2015.

The study found that Pennsylvania spends enough to educate its students to the national average — except in its poorest districts, which include Philadelphia. Wealthier districts in the state spend more than twice as much as it is estimated that they need to reach that level, while the poorest districts spend, on average, about three-fifths as much — a gap of more than $8,000 per student.

School districts in the Northeast United States generally had more funding than necessary. In contrast, Southern states have “far less than needed” to reach average national test scores, particularly Mississippi districts along the Mississippi River. The same is true of districts throughout much of Arizona.

The study describes a close relationship between spending and test scores. It also notes that states have varying capacities to fund schools and that a few high-capacity states still shortchange public education.

The study estimated that the cost of adequately educating students in poor districts is roughly three times the cost in wealthier districts — a difference of more than $20,000 per pupil. It sorts school districts within states into five groups, called quintiles, based on the percentage of students living in poverty.

In some states, only the wealthiest 20 percent of districts have enough funding to reach the national average — Arizona, Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

New Mexico and West Virginia spend so little that even their wealthiest districts do not reach average national achievement.

On the other hand, numerous states nearly achieve the national average even in their poorest districts: Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey and Vermont.

Report: The Real Shame of the Nation
Mississippi is one of the few states that doesn’t even fund its wealthier school districts adequately. The report contrasts Mississippi with Massachusetts — which, like Pennsylvania, spends enough in all but the poorest school districts. However, Pennsylvania’s gap between what the poorest districts need and what they actually get is more than double the gap in Massachusetts.

Only three states fund schools so well that they manage to achieve above the national average on tests across all districts regardless of their poverty levels: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.

These last two categories of states — the high-achieving with relatively small funding disparities between wealthy and poor districts — are also some of the most homogeneously white states in the country. New Jersey is the only exception. It likely reached this category by having one of the most progressive school funding formulas in the country.

Pennsylvania has a difficult time funding high-poverty districts, both rural and urban. State education aid has not kept up with need, resulting in increased reliance on funding schools through local property taxes. That creates a disparity, because wealthy districts can raise more money with lower tax rates than poor districts. At the same time, the state constitution does not allow taxing wealthier individuals at higher rates than others, as is done in New Jersey. State courts over several decades have also ordered the New Jersey legislature and governor to send more money to the state’s highest-poverty districts.

A case now in the Pennsylvania courts challenges the state’s school financing methods, saying the state government is responsible for financing a good education, but its current methods cause overreliance on local property taxes, which place a heavy burden on poor school districts compared to wealthier ones.

“Pennsylvania has long been one of the most disparately-spending states in the nation,” the report reads. “Even in terms of unadjusted spending, school districts including Philadelphia, Reading and Allentown have long been recognized as severely financially disadvantaged. … These districts only spend about half of what they would need to achieve national average outcomes and perform commensurately. By contrast, the Lower Merion district, immediately adjacent to Philadelphia, spends nearly four times what it would require to achieve national average outcomes; as expected, it far exceeds national average outcomes.”

And Philadelphia’s school board — whether it’s the School Reform Commission or another body — is in a uniquely difficult position, without the authority to raise funds through property taxes like other school boards in the state. To levy taxes, Philadelphia would need an elected school board, due to a 1936 state Supreme Court ruling. Otherwise, the schools rely on the city for local funding.

At the same time, the state share of education spending has dwindled in Pennsylvania over the last three decades and is now just a little over a third — one of the lowest proportions in the country.

“These extreme interstate variations in funding and student achievement outcomes require a new and enhanced federal role aimed at reducing interstate inequality,” the report states. “Congress must make reducing funding and outcome disparities within and between states (and regions) a priority, using federal funds to leverage state action that results in school funding reform.”

That would require targeting new federal funds to states “with large spending gaps” but revenue too low to close those gaps, and incentives for wealthier states with large funding inequities to close those gaps themselves. For many states, these gaps exist only for poor districts and would require incentives taking that into account.

The report’s lead author, Bruce D. Baker, suggests that federal solutions need to be carefully tailored to the circumstances of each state.

“Some states need to increase school funding across the board to ensure equitable outcomes for their students,” Baker said in a statement. “Others need to target increases to higher-poverty districts. And the federal government should find new avenues to support states with comparatively less ability to boost school funding on their own.”

The racial and wealth demographics of the states reveal interesting patterns. The states with relatively high test scores in high-poverty districts are some of the whitest and wealthiest in the country, while those doing a relatively poor job serving impoverished students are not only some of the poorest states, but also among those with the largest non-white populations proportionately.

According to U.S. Census data, of the 10 poor-performing states mentioned above, only one — West Virginia — has a white population much higher than the national average of 63 percent. Seven others are well below the national average.

The three poor-performing states with white populations equal to or larger than the national average (Alabama, South Carolina, and West Virginia) are among the poorest states in the country.

All but two of the low-performing states have Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The two Democratic exceptions are California and New Mexico, which are also the states with the largest ethnic minority populations in the country, excluding Hawaii. The high-performing states are a mixed bag in terms of the partisan makeup of their state legislatures.

Among the lowest-performing states, only California is above the national median household income. Among the highest-achieving states, 82 percent are in the wealthier half.

The report ends by calling out “pundits” for using “false international comparisons” that don’t take into account the vast internal inequities in funding and the resulting inequality of education across the United States. These comparisons are used to assert that funding doesn’t matter.

Meanwhile, the same pundits advocate “market-based incentives and competition, the proliferation of charter and voucher schools, the elimination of employee job protections, mass closures of ‘failing schools,’ and the statistically driven elimination of ‘bad teachers.’

“Rarely, however, do education reform advocates acknowledge the egregiously uneven investment in public schooling across states and its relation to the divergent quality and performance of individual state education systems,” the report reads. “It’s time to discard the notion of a failure in educational outcomes as a national problem.

“Improving state school systems requires new and meaningful investments, targeted at substantially raising the level of school funding in those states — and in particular districts within those states — that, over time, have seriously neglected and shortchanged thousands of their schools and millions of students,” the report reads. “The true shame of our nation stems not from an aggregate failure in student achievement, but from our collective inability to address urgent achievement and spending deficits not only within but between districts and states.”

***Comparisons of racial and income demographics use 2012 U.S. census data, the most recent year for which data is easily accessible.

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