Kansas has long been at the center of school funding debates. Just last week the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state had created “unreasonable, wealth-based disparities” among school districts by cutting funding during the recession.
But Kansas is by no means the only state where massive inequality exists between schools in rich districts and schools in poor districts.
Although school funding is not uniform throughout the country, many states depend on property taxes to raise school funds, which enable districts with wealthier residents to raise more money. To remedy that disparity, many states raise funds through other means and distribute them to districts with lower property tax bases. But many states cut that funding during the recession, extending inequities between districts, said David Sciarra, executive director at the Education Law Center, which advocates for public school funding.
“What happened generally is that states cut their education budgets, which always hurts the poorest students because they’re the ones who most rely on state aid,” Sciarra said. “But the states haven’t really stepped up since the recession has eased and put the money back in that they took out, to move further down the path of funding adequacy.”
According to a report card on school funding released last month by Sciarra, Danielle Farrie of the Education Law Center and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, many states give less aid to poor districts than they do to wealthier districts, including Nevada, Illinois and New York, which each received a failing grade on the funding distribution section of the report card. Those states — and others, including North Carolina and New Hampshire — received low scores because they funded high-poverty districts at a rate of 90 percent or less than they funded wealthier districts in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available.
Nevada, where advocates are contemplating a lawsuit, got the worst marks for distribution of school funding. There, school districts with higher poverty levels received 69 percent of the funding that wealthier districts received, according to the report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.”
“The deep political resistance in state capitals to raise additional broad-based tax revenue and then target it toward the poorest communities in the state, that’s a problem,” Sciarra said.
Kansas received a grade of C in the funding report. During the recent legal battle, the state had argued that increasing school funding did not necessarily improve education quality, and that schools were receiving record amounts of money when federal and other funds were taken into account.
California received an A in the report because its poor school districts received 9 percent more funding than rich ones in 2011. It was one of only 14 states in 2011 that gave poorer districts markedly more money per pupil.
The report shows just how much the discrepancies grew during the recession. Between 2007 and 2011, New Jersey’s “fairness level” dropped to a B from an A, while Vermont’s dropped to an F from a C. Between 2010 and 2011, the fairness levels fell in 27 states, the report says. Funds from the stimulus act had previously remedied some disparities, but they ran out in 2011.
Meanwhile, poverty in school districts has been growing. In 2011, 16 percent of students were in high-poverty schools, where poverty rates were greater than 30 percent, up from 7 percent of students in 2007.
According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 34 states are spending less per student than they did before the recession hit.
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