12/18/2012 10:06 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

Latest Race to the Top Grants Go to States at Bottom of School Funding Equity

Since 2009, the US Department of Education's (USDOE) Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative has given millions in federal funds to states conditioned on launching various education reforms. The USDOE has awarded these grant funds without regard to how equitably the states fund their schools. Since states control 90 percent of all school funding, successful reform requires adequate resources, especially in districts serving high concentrations of low-income students and students with special needs.

In early December, USDOE announced another round of RTTT grant awards, this time to 16 local school districts or groups of school districts. The 16 award winners will share $400 million to support USDOE school reform priorities, including personalizing student learning, improving achievement and educator effectiveness, closing achievement gaps, and preparing all students for college or career.

Once again, the RTTT grant process ignores the key precondition for sustaining any meaningful education reform -- a fair and equitable state school finance system. The winning RTTT districts are in 12 states, all of which have serious deficiencies in the way they fund schools. Some of the districts are in states with the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Based on data from the 2012 Edition of the National Report Card, Is School Funding Fair, issued by Education Law Center (ELC), here's how the states with the winning RTTT districts perform on school funding:

• Nine states have funding levels that, when adjusted to allow for state to state comparisons, fall below the national average: California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Washington. California and Texas funding levels are $8,897 and $8,862 per pupil, respectively, ranking 42nd and 43rd in the nation.

• Half of the states earn D's or F's on funding distribution, which measures whether the state allocates more funding to districts with higher concentrations of student poverty. Four states earn D's (Colorado, Florida, New York, Texas), and two states earn F's (Nevada, North Carolina).

• All but three states provide no additional funds to educate students in poverty. In most of these states, the average funding levels of the highest poverty districts are actually lower than levels in the lowest poverty districts. North Carolina, for example, funds districts with no student poverty at an average of $11,111 per pupil while only providing $8,699 to the highest poverty districts.

• Most of the states fail to make the effort to adequately fund their schools. Five states receive F's for fiscal effort: California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Washington. These states devote a relatively small proportion of their state economic output to fund public education compared to other states. Colorado, for example, provides only 3.1 percent of the state's fiscal resources to public education, while Vermont, the highest ranked state, provides almost twice that at 5.7 percent.

• North Carolina shortchanges its students the most on school funding, providing a very low level of funding overall, while funding higher poverty districts significantly below wealthier districts. The Tar Heel state also exerts low fiscal effort on public education funding.

Most of the latest round of RTTT grants will go to deeply underfunded districts and schools. These districts are in states that fail to provide a sufficient level of funding and, more importantly, do not provide additional resources in relation to student need and concentrated poverty. Many of these states have fiscal capacity but still fail to make even a reasonable effort to fairly fund their schools.

This flaw in RTTT follows a longstanding -- and profoundly disturbing -- approach to federal education policy that distributes federal funds to states even if they fail to fund their schools based on the actual costs of delivering rigorous standards to all students, including low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities and students in concentrated poverty. The result: the federal government, however unwittingly, sends its limited education dollars to "subsidize" states with unequal funding or, even worse, to back-fill state education aid cuts.

As with past federal reform efforts, it is likely that the winning districts won't be able to sustain the RTTT reforms given the inequity in their state's school funding system. It's time for USDOE to stop rewarding states with unequal school funding. The nation's students urgently need the federal government to begin pressing states to revamp their school finance systems based on the actual cost of delivering rigorous academic standards, including the additional funds required for students in high need districts and schools.