Spending per pupil varies widely across the country - and it's hurting these people most

Posted May 26

Spending per pupil varies widely from school district to district and from state to state — even when regional cost-of-living adjustments are made, a new interactive map published by Education Week shows.

The data are adjusted for regional costs of living, so a high cost-of-living state like New York, which must pay teachers and staff more, is properly measured against low-cost states like Nebraska.

In addition to adjusted spending, the Education Week report grades the states on equity, or how equally funding is distributed within the state.

There are great disparities, from state to state and from district to district.

The underlying problem, critics have long argued, is that state spending formulas that rely heavily on local property taxes provide vastly more money to wealthier neighborhood schools.

"In the U.S., school funding comes from a combination of three sources," NPR reports. "The balance varies from state to state but, on average, looks like this: 45 percent local money, 45 percent from the state and 10 percent federal."

"You've got highly segregated rich and poor towns," Bruce Baker of Rutgers University told NPR. "(They) raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases, and (Illinois) really doesn't put much effort into counterbalancing that."

If gaps exist within regions, they also are marked between them. The lowest-rated states, adjusted for per-pupil spending and equity concerns, are Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Texas.

Aside from Wyoming, an aberration noted below, the highest-spending states are in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, with Vermont taking top honors with over $19,000 per pupil.

The interactive map can be deceptive. Many poor, rural school districts actually spend more per pupil than either low-income urban districts or their wealthier suburbs. Economies of scale are lacking in small districts. So it is not surprising that West Virginia, Alaska and Wyoming are all in the top 15 per-pupil spending.

The best-funded school in Idaho, for example, is Avery, which has just 17 pupils, according to Public Schools Review. The map shows the school as dark green, suggesting at a casual glance that it is doing quite well. It's not. A 2013 article by Idaho Public Radio suggests the town, at that point, was "struggling to keep its last 25 residents."

Yet the Education Week interactive map suggests some striking differences even among neighboring and nearly identical neighborhoods.

In the Chicago suburbs, Morton Grove School District spends $10,237, below the national average, while Skokie School District, which borders it to the west, spends $15,915, well above the national average.

But the two districts have similar free and reduced-price lunch enrollment, the key marker for poverty, and Morton Grove actually has somewhat higher median home values, according to the real estate website Zillow.



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