Report Finds Most States Shortchange High-Poverty Schools

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“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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