States Struggle With ‘Unfair' School Funding, Report Finds

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More than half of states have per-pupil funding levels below the national average – part of an overall bleak picture of U.S. public education painted by a report released Thursday.

States Struggle With ‘Unfair’ School Funding, Report Finds
© (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images) NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 27: Students line up in the morning at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on September 27, 2021 in New York City. New York City schools fully reopened earlier this month with all in-person classrooms and mandatory masks on students. The city’s mandate ordering all New York City school staff to be vaccinated by midnight today was delayed again after a federal appeals court issued a temporary injunction three days before the mayor’s deadline. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

The findings from the Education Law Center, a nonprofit focused on education equity, point to the “persistence of unfair school funding across the country,” according to a news release. States in the South and West are struggling the most to provide adequate funding for public school students, and a majority of states fail to provide higher dollar amounts to the high-poverty schools and districts that are the most in need, the annual “Making the Grade” report found.

“This year’s report makes clear that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the condition of school funding in many states was bleak,” Danielle Farrie, the Education Law Center’s research director and report co-author, said in a statement. “While the obligation to fully invest in public education rests primarily with the states, it is time for the federal government to use the tools in its toolbox to incentivize fair and equitable school funding across the country.”

The authors assigned grades to each state based on three education funding measures: level, distribution and effort. Funding level refers to per-pupil spending, distribution refers to the allocation of funds to districts relative to their concentration of students from low-income families and effort measures the share of a state’s gross domestic product that is made up by its K-12 public education system. Data was compiled from 2019-based surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

A whopping 22 states received F grades in at least one of the three metrics. Two states – Florida and Nevada – got Fs in all three, while five others got the lowest possible grade in at least two categories. Most of these states also had school-aged children poverty rates in the high teens. Mississippi – which had the highest poverty rate among states, according to the report – got an F in funding level but a C and B in distribution and effort, respectively.

States With at Least Two F Grades and Their Per-Pupil Funding Levels

State Cost-Adjusted Per-Pupil Funding
Alabama $11,694
Arizona $9,717
Florida $10,979
Nevada $10,317
North Carolina $10,595
Tennessee $11,139
Utah $10,039

Utah provides an interesting case, as its progressive funding system – when higher per-pupil funding is provided to high-poverty districts – led it to an A grade in the distribution measure, but it received F grades for level and effort. The state’s low funding level – just over $10,000 per pupil, the second-lowest in the country – means that even its highest poverty districts “are funded at the overall national average, which is unlikely to provide the opportunities and resources those students need,” according to the report.

For the distribution metric, 20 states scored a D grade or lower, meaning that low-poverty districts in those states received more per-pupil funding than high-poverty districts. Most of those states have a regressive system, which means that high-poverty districts get lower funding levels. The most drastic example was Nevada, where students in high-poverty districts received 32% less funding than those in low-poverty districts. Connecticut and New Hampshire were other states that saw similar gaps.

Not all of the report’s findings were grim. More states have progressive funding systems (18) than regressive (15) or flat (14), where there is no meaningful difference in funding by poverty level, according to the Education Law Center. Wyoming was the only state with across-the-board A grades, while Alaska – which was tied with Utah for having the most progressive funding system in the country – received a B grade for its funding level and As for the other two metrics. The report also highlighted California for recently overhauling its school funding system and subsequently seeing both its funding level and distribution rank jump.

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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