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States' School Funding a Picture of Stagnant Mediocrity, Report Says

For the second time, the Education Law Center has produced a report on school funding levels and fairness for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. How much has the relatively gloomy picture changed from the group's first report in 2010? Not a great deal, the group says, adding that the cries of poverty from states shouldn't necessarily get them off the hook.

Some quick background: The Newark, N.J.-based organization, which advocates for equal opportunities and funding for public school students, produced a "National Report Card" on school funding in 2010, and found that about four-fifths of the states earned a "C" grade or lower in terms of their "progressive" funding of education, meaning their direction of more resources toward poorer students. The executive director of the ELC, David Sciarra, told my State EdWatch predecessor Sean Cavanagh for an Oct. 2010 Education Week story: ""Most states are not doing a very good job of fairly funding their schools."

On June 19, the group released its second report using data from 2007, 2008, and 2009 that the group said were the most recent available to them. Overall, ELC said six states (Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont) did "relatively well" on the four measures it uses to determine the "fairness" of funding on an A-F grading scale, although that did not necessarily mean the states got an A or B on each of the four measures. Oddly enough, Kansas is going through a high-profile lawsuit in which 54 school districts claim the state is underfunding education based on the state constitution.

Three states (Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina) did "below average" on the four measures.

Let's look at the measure that examines how states distribute funding to districts with various poverty levels, using both state and local funds. The ELC report uses a regression model to predict a state's per-pupil funding based on various poverty levels. The model predicts states' funding in districts with 0 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, and 30 percent poverty levels.

Based on that model, the states that demonstrated the biggest funding commitment to their highest-poverty districts, relative to their lowest-poverty districts, were Utah ($1.59 spent in the highest-poverty districts for every $1 spent in the lowest-poverty districts), New Jersey ($1.42), Ohio ($1.37), Minnesota ($1.30) and Massachusetts ($1.23). The list of the top-ranked states in the 2010 report was very similar: Utah, New Jersey, Minnesota, Ohio, and South Dakota, with Massachusetts coming in sixth.

But 16 states earned "D" or "F" grades and received a stamp of "regressive" funding of relatively poor districts, although in some cases there was not enough of a pattern to demonstrate that the funding numbers were statistically significant. The 2010 report, meanwhile, gave only four states an "A" grade, three states a "B", and 19 states "D" or "F" grades.

(It should be noted that it's not hard to find schools where the poverty rates are much higher than 30 percent. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the 2009-10 school year, 19 percent of public-school students attended "high-poverty" schools where at least 76 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.)

In an interview, ELC's David Sciarra also said the report tried to cut through cries of poverty from states to get a better sense of how they prioritized school funding. This concept was captured in ELC's report by the "effort" measure, or the share of the state's "GDP" that was used to fund education.

Vermont, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, and Indiana did best on this "effort" scale, while Delaware, South Dakota, and North Dakota did the worst. Overall, 12 schools received an A, while 14 states (including Utah, the top-ranked state for targeting funding to the poorest districts) flunked the "effort" measure. That distribution of grades was similar in 2010.

"It's not often the case that the current downturn is really the problem. These are states that even when times were good made very little effort, in terms of tax effort, to fund their schools and to allocate funding in a way that's fair to students," Sciarra said.

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