Wider Gap Found Between Wealthy and Poor Schools

Greg Winter
October 6, 2004

fter narrowing in better economic times, the financial gap between poor and wealthy school districts has widened, a new report has found.

State and local money account for more than 90 percent of all education spending, but high poverty districts typically received $868 less per student from those sources than their counterparts with relatively few poor children did in 2002, the latest year for which data is available, the report found. As recently as 2000, the gap was down to $728.


The disparities were significantly more stark in some of the nation's more populous states. In Illinois, for example, high poverty districts received $2,026 less per child than those with the fewest poor students, the report found, even though researchers largely agree that it costs more to educate low-income children. In New York, the gap was $2,040, the largest in the nation.

The findings, released today by the Education Trust, a research group that supports the federal No Child Left Behind law, showed that whatever momentum had gathered to close the monetary gap between districts in recent years quickly dispersed as state budgets started facing serious challenges.

By 2000, tax receipts were hearty and schools of all kinds reaped the benefits. Districts with high concentrations of poor students often received slightly bigger increases in state aid than wealthier ones. Though parity was still elusive, the report found, the gap between districts with large numbers of poor students and those without them had begun to narrow.

But as a recession took hold, states slowed their education spending, leaving local governments to take on more of the burden, the report found. Wealthier districts made up for much of the slowdown by raising property taxes, a response few high poverty areas could manage. As a consequence, the gap started expanding again and now stands at its widest point in at least five years, the report found.

"A time like this is when the states would really like to be able to look to the federal government to help lessen that gap," said Scott Young, senior policy specialist at National Conference of State Legislatures, adding that the report's findings seemed accurate. "But now states have to use their federal money to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind."

Though it is a small piece of the entire puzzle, federal aid helps districts educate poor students nationwide. Moreover, the group says, federal assistance is not supposed to substitute for state efforts.

"The law is not designed so that states could just shortchange high poverty districts and the federal government would make up the difference," said Kevin Carey, the report's author. "It's to provide additional money, on top of what the states are already doing."

Part of the reason, Mr. Carey contends, is that it costs more to educate poor students. In fact, after factoring in the extra costs of overcoming the effects of poverty, districts with large proportions of poor students would have needed $1,350 more per child than they received in 2002 to achieve parity, the report found.

Not all states have widened the gap. In New Jersey, court rulings have forced increases in spending on poor students, and the disparity between districts now favors poor ones. Alaska, Delaware, Connecticut and other states have managed to reduce or reverse their gaps.