In the current debate over education reform, one often hears that the United States "spends a lot," on public education, and that we keep spending more but are getting less for it. But what does a "lot" mean? Do all students, especially those attending high poverty schools, receive the funding necessary to meet rigorous academic standards? Do states direct school funding to students who need it the most? Is school funding in the 50 states fair?
To shed light on this crucial question, Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, Dr. Danielle Farrie of Education Law Center and I recently published "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card." The Report Card is built on the bedrock principle of "fairness." A fair system of school funding is one that provides all students with a sufficient level of funding to achieve rigorous academic standards, and allocates more funding to students with greater needs.
The Report Card rates the 50 states on the basis of four separate, but interrelated, "fairness indicators" -- funding level, funding distribution relative to student poverty, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage. Using statistical models of national data across all local public school districts, the Report provides the most rigorous, in-depth analysis of state education finance systems and school funding fairness across the nation to date.
The Report Card results should trouble all Americans concerned with improving our public schools. Even worse, the ratings for most states cast serious doubt on the capacity of the nation's high poverty schools to undertake and sustain necessary improvements. Simply put, many states do not provide sufficient funding or distribute that funding to address the needs of their most disadvantaged students and schools.
The Report found school funding most unfair in four states: Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina. Several states, including New York, Maine, New Hampshire and Michigan, have higher average spending levels but have substantially less funding in higher poverty districts. These, and a number of other states, have "regressive" funding systems.
Six states stand out as doing reasonably well on funding fairness -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, Wyoming and New Jersey. These states have "progressive" school funding, distributing more resources where student need is greatest. But even in these states, significant funding irregularities and inequities persist.
While there are a handful of bright spots, the Report Card shows that most states fall short on school funding fairness. And there are entire regions -- the South and West -- where public schools are chronically underfunded, along with states like California that educate a large percentage of low income students.
Every state can do better, but many state finance systems require a major overhaul.
The Report Card has already sparked a long overdue dialogue in state capitols and in Washington about school funding fairness, particularly for students in thousands of high need schools across the country. The Report gives policymakers, legislators, parents, business leaders and concerned citizens with crucial information to press for fair funding.
Current reform initiatives, such as attracting and retaining qualified teachers, providing high quality kindergarten and preschool, and offering extended learning time cannot be sustained or succeed without fair school funding.
And the federal push for adoption of "common core standards" across states and local communities demand that the states reform their finance systems provide the capacity for all students to achieve those standards.
For our nation to move forward, all public school students must have access to a high-quality education. Fair school funding is an essential precondition to achieving that goal.
View the National Report Card.