America’s Most Screwed City Schools: Where are the least fairly funded city districts?

Posted on June 2, 2012



Contrary to reformy wisdom regarding spending bubbles… the harmlessness …. oh wait… the benefits of spending cuts… and the fact that we all know as a reformy fact that we’ve already dumped plenty of money into our high need districts nationwide – it turns out that there actually are still some school districts out there that appear somewhat disadvantaged when it comes to funding.

Soon, we will be releasing our annual update of our report on school funding fairness. In that report, we emphasize that school funding fairness is an issue primarily governed by and primarily a responsibility of the states. And school funding fairness varies widely across states.  First, the overall level of funding varies significantly from state to state. Second, the extent to which states provide additional resources to districts with higher concentrations of children in poverty varies widely across states. In fact, several large, diverse states still maintain state school finance systems where the highest need districts receive substantially less state and local revenue per pupil than the lowest need districts. These states include Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas among others.

It’s important to understand that the value of any given level of education funding, in any given location, is relative. That is, it doesn’t simply matter that a district has or spends $10,000 per pupil, or $20,000 per pupil. What matters is how that funding compares to other districts operating in the same labor market, and for that matter, how that money relates to other conditions in the region/labor market. Why? Well, schooling is labor intensive.  And the quality of schooling depends largely on the ability of schools or districts to recruit and retain quality employees. And yes… despite reformy arguments to the contrary – competitive wages for teachers matter!  The largest share of school district annual operating budgets is tied up in the salaries and wages of teachers and other school workers. The ability to recruit and retain teachers in a school district in any given labor market depends on the wage a district can pay to teachers a) relative to other surrounding schools/districts and b) relative to non-teaching alternatives in the same labor market.

In our funding fairness report, we present statewide profiles of disparities in funding with respect to poverty. But, I thought it would be fun (albeit rather depressing) here to try to identify some of the least well-funded districts in the country. Now, keep in mind that there are still over 15,000 districts nationwide. I’m focusing here on large and mid-sized cities using a Census Bureau Locale classification.

Following are two lists. In each case, I have selected districts where:

  • The combined state and local revenue per pupil is less than the average for districts in the same labor market (core based statistical area);
  • The U.S. Census Poverty rate for the district is more than 50% higher than the average for districts in the same labor market.

Put very simply, districts with higher student needs than surrounding districts in the same labor market don’t just require the same total revenue per pupil to get the job done. They require more. Higher need districts require more money simply to recruit and retain similar quantities (per pupil) of similar quality teachers. That is, they need to be able to pay a wage premium. In addition, higher need districts need to be able to both provide the additional program/service supports necessary for helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (including smaller classes in early grades) while still maintaining advanced and enriched course options.

The districts in these tables not only don’t have the “same” total state and local revenue per pupil than surrounding districts. They have less and in some cases they have a lot less! In many cases their child poverty rate is more than twice that of the surrounding districts that continue to have more resources.

Among the least well funded cities are Chicago, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, CT. All have much higher poverty than their surroundings.

Table 1. Least fairly funded large, midsize and small cities [Preliminary single year analysis]

District State State & Local Revenue Ratio  Poverty Ratio
West Fresno Elementary School District California 71%          1.97
Roosevelt Elementary District Arizona 74%          1.87
Alhambra Elementary District Arizona 75%          1.85
Reading School District Pennsylvania 78%          2.50
Allentown City School District Pennsylvania 78%          2.48
Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District California 79%          1.92
Chicago Public School District 299 Illinois 80%          1.67
Alum Rock Union Elementary School District California 82%          1.52
Isaac Elementary District Arizona 83%          1.91
Sunnyside Unified District Arizona 85%          1.70
Creighton Elementary District Arizona 87%          1.96
North Forest Independent School District Texas 87%          2.13
Manchester School District New Hampshire 87%          1.77
East Hartford School District Connecticut 87%          1.60
Murphy Elementary District Arizona 87%          2.88
Schenectady City School District New York 88%          2.53
Lansingburgh Central School District New York 89%          1.94
Pontiac City School District Michigan 90%          3.04
Kankakee School District 111 Illinois 91%          1.69
Utica City School District New York 91%          1.98
National Elementary School District California 91%          1.74
San Antonio Independent School District Texas 91%          1.66
Bloomington School District 87 Illinois 91%          1.73
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Michigan 92%          1.81
Hueneme Elementary School District California 92%          1.72
Dallas Independent School District Texas 92%          1.83
Balsz Elementary District Arizona 92%          1.66
Adams-Arapahoe School District 28J Colorado 93%          1.77
Binghamton City School District New York 93%          1.91
Fort Worth Independent School District Texas 93%          1.70
Norfolk City Public Schools Virginia 93%          1.77
Magnolia Elementary School District California 93%          1.65
Parkrose School District 3 Oregon 93%          1.69
Godwin Heights Public Schools Michigan 94%          1.57
Philadelphia City School District Pennsylvania 94%          2.12
Alief Independent School District Texas 94%          1.69
David Douglas School District 40 Oregon 96%          2.00
South San Antonio Independent School District Texas 96%          1.61
Lansing Public School District Michigan 96%          2.00
Clarenceville School District Michigan 96%          1.65
Harrison School District 2 Colorado 96%          1.81
Holland City School District Michigan 96%          1.71
Lebanon School District Pennsylvania 96%          2.08
Bridgeport School District Connecticut 98%          2.63
Edgewood Independent School District Texas 98%          1.71
Turner Unified School District 202 Kansas 98%          1.62
Biddeford Maine 98%          1.84
Saginaw City School District Michigan 98%          1.73
North Little Rock School District Arkansas 98%          1.63
Burlington School District Vermont 98%          1.90
Milwaukee School District Wisconsin 98%          2.09
Omaha Public Schools Nebraska 98%          1.72
Santa Ana Unified School District California 99%          1.63
Birmingham City School District Alabama 99%          1.77
Erie City School District Pennsylvania 99%          1.70
Crooked Oak Public Schools Oklahoma 99%          1.73
Lancaster School District Pennsylvania 99%          2.11
Lima City School District Ohio 99%          2.24
Gainesville City School District Georgia 99%          1.78
Oakland Unified School District California 99%          1.84

Data Sources: Based on Census Fiscal Survey (f33) 2008-09 [http://www.census.gov/govs/school/] and Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates

Table 2. Least fairly funded fringe districts of large, midsize and small cities [Preliminary single year analysis]

District State State & Local Revenue Ratio  Poverty Ratio
Clearview Local School District Ohio 67%          1.57
Cicero School District 99 Illinois 67%          1.60
Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 Illinois 68%          1.97
Posen-Robbins Elementary School District 143-5 Illinois 69%          1.74
Lincoln Elementary School District 156 Illinois 71%          1.76
Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview School District 89 Illinois 72%          1.52
Kannapolis City Schools North Carolina 72%          1.53
Round Lake Community Unit School District 116 Illinois 72%          1.72
Ravenswood City Elementary School District California 73%          1.82
Zion Elementary School District 6 Illinois 73%          1.99
Community Consolidated School District 168 Illinois 75%          1.79
Inkster City School District Michigan 75%          1.55
Woonsocket School District Rhode Island 76%          1.78
Dayton Independent School District Kentucky 76%          1.82
Port Huron Area School District Michigan 77%          1.93
Highland Park City Schools Michigan 78%          2.03
Harvey School District 152 Illinois 79%          1.76
Pawtucket School District Rhode Island 80%          1.56
Clintondale Community Schools Michigan 80%          1.68
Bessemer City School District Alabama 80%          1.86
New Miami Local School District Ohio 80%          1.78
Hamtramck Public Schools Michigan 80%          2.13
Chicago Heights School District 170 Illinois 80%          1.84
Kenosha School District Wisconsin 81%          1.63
Blackstone-Millville School District Massachusetts 81%          1.63
North Chicago School District 187 Illinois 82%          2.06
Waterbury School District Connecticut 82%          1.94
Ludlow Independent School District Kentucky 82%          1.52
Revere School District Massachusetts 83%          1.82
Chicago Ridge School District 127-5 Illinois 83%          1.67
Laurel Highlands School District Pennsylvania 83%          1.62
Brentwood Union Free School District New York 84%          2.17
Glendale Elementary District Arizona 84%          1.57
Pleasant Hill School District 69 Illinois 84%          2.08
Lennox Elementary School District California 85%          1.53
Rochester School District New Hampshire 86%          1.65
Spalding County School District Georgia 86%          1.64
Campbell City School District Ohio 86%          1.61
Castleberry Independent School District Texas 86%          1.55
Connellsville Area School District Pennsylvania 86%          1.65
Fredericksburg City Public Schools Virginia 87%          2.81
Alta Vista Elementary School District California 87%          1.58
Paulsboro Borough School District New Jersey 87%          2.58
Chelsea School District Massachusetts 87%          2.17
Uniontown Area School District Pennsylvania 87%          1.86
Pleasant Valley School District 62 Illinois 88%          2.07
Everett School District Massachusetts 88%          2.52
Carbon Cliff-Barstow School District 36 Illinois 89%          2.14
Madison Public Schools Michigan 89%          2.02
Freehold Borough School District New Jersey 90%          2.44
Caldwell School District 132 Idaho 90%          1.85
Twin Lakes No. 4 School District Wisconsin 90%          1.67
Edinburgh Community School Corporation Indiana 90%          1.70
Riverview Gardens School District Missouri 90%          1.79
Independence Public Schools Missouri 91%          1.61
Hazel Park City School District Michigan 91%          1.88
Winooski Incorporated School District Vermont 91%          2.19
Carteret Borough School District New Jersey 91%          1.79
Penns Grove-Carneys Point Regional School District New Jersey 92%          1.51
Speedway School Town Indiana 92%          1.54
Hopewell City Public Schools Virginia 92%          2.00
Bound Brook Borough School District New Jersey 92%          1.73
New Britain School District Connecticut 92%          2.46
Somersworth School District New Hampshire 92%          1.62
Watervliet City School District New York 92%          1.57
Centennial School District 28J Oregon 92%          1.59
William Floyd Union Free School District New York 93%          1.92
Fountain School District 8 Colorado 93%          1.65
Lowell School District Massachusetts 93%          2.55
Lorain City School District Ohio 93%          1.95
St. Bernard Parish School District Louisiana 93%          1.64
Cahokia Community Unit School District 187 Illinois 93%          2.79
Northridge Local School District Ohio 93%          2.20
Hudson Falls Central School District New York 94%          1.62
Reynolds School District 7 Oregon 94%          1.84
Woodbury City School District New Jersey 94%          2.00
Aldine Independent School District Texas 94%          1.63
Bartonville School District 66 Illinois 94%          1.65
Westwood Heights Schools Michigan 95%          1.81
Hazel Crest School District 152-5 Illinois 95%          1.81
New Kensington-Arnold School District Pennsylvania 95%          1.59
Cascade Union Elementary School District California 95%          1.63
Malden School District Massachusetts 95%          2.29
Seabrook School District New Hampshire 96%          1.64
Lynn School District Massachusetts 96%          1.87
Newport Independent School District Kentucky 96%          1.91
River Forest Community School Corporation Indiana 96%          1.60
Willow Run Community Schools Michigan 96%          2.19
Big Beaver Falls Area School District Pennsylvania 96%          1.70
Norwood City School District Ohio 97%          1.69
Beecher Community School District Michigan 97%          2.31
Jennings School District Missouri 97%          2.06
Hammond School City Indiana 97%          1.55
Freeport Union Free School District New York 97%          2.17
Monessen City School District Pennsylvania 97%          1.83
Copiague Union Free School District New York 97%          1.87
McKeesport Area School District Pennsylvania 98%          2.07
Lawrence School District Massachusetts 98%          2.41
Covington Independent School District Kentucky 98%          2.37
Clinton School District Massachusetts 98%          2.26
Adams County School District 14 Colorado 98%          1.82
Beloit School District Wisconsin 99%          1.71
Brooklawn Borough School District New Jersey 99%          1.51
Oak Park City School District Michigan 99%          2.21
Lindenwold Borough School District New Jersey 99%          2.08
Bay Shore Union Free School District New York 99%          1.88

Data Sources: Based on Census Fiscal Survey (f33) 2008-09 [http://www.census.gov/govs/school/] and Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates

Now, it’s one thing for reformy pundits to be making the absurd arguments I laid out in the introduction above. They simply don’t know crap about any of this stuff. I’m convinced of that. They simply don’t know what districts spend, how it compares to other districts – or even that school finance is primarily a state by state issue. Invariably, when speaking on issues of school funding, they make statements that are patently false – and most often passed down through the reformy bad graph archive.

What concerns me more is when local representatives of children attending these districts, including the superintendents of many of these school districts simply don’t stand up for their own constituents. Somehow, the solution for Philadelphia public schools is to close more of them? To shift more control to additional private managers? But to ignore entirely that Pennsylvania continues to maintain one of the least equitable state school finance systems in the country? The same applies to Chicago? Do we hear the City of Chicago’s leaders condemning the fact that Illinois also maintains one of the nation’s least fair funding systems? One of the nation’s most racially disparate state school finance systems?

I also don’t expect to see Governors of these states continue to point the finger of shame at these districts – and state departments of education continue to set up ill-conceived and unfair accountability systems and unfunded intervention strategies through new powers awarded to them under NCLB waivers.  When they do – if, for example, NY’s Governor Cuomo chooses to point the finger of shame at Utica (purely hypothetical), I sure as hell hope that Utica points right back! And I hope others including Schenectedy and Binghamton stand by their side. Likewise for Reading and Allentown, PA! These districts have been persistently slammed by their state school funding system. We are talking about districts that a) have 2.5 times the poverty rate of their surroundings and b) less than 80% of the state and local revenue.

And likewise for Bridgeport, CT along with New Britain and Waterbury! And what about Waukegan, IL… which by these measures has only about 68% of the average state and local revenue of their surroundings and nearly double the poverty rate!

Leaders in these cities should be outraged by their treatment under state school finance systems. We should be hearing it, and hearing it loudly. We shouldn’t just be hearing about how their incompetent and greedy teachers and administrators are to blame and how we need to simply shut down more of their schools and turn them over to someone else. Fairness in funding is a critical first step. It is a prerequisite condition. And without it, we can expect continued difficulties in these districts – difficulties that will certainly not be remedied by current slash/burn & blame policies.

Note: The analysis presented here is a preliminary run using a single year of national school finance data (but built on a 3-year panel). In several of these cases however, especially those that I call out individually, I have conducted numerous additional analyses which are consistent with those above. I can say with confidence that the Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York State disparities represented above are entirely consistent with analyses of multiple years of state data and federal data. Cities like Utica, NY, Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Britain CT, Allentown and Reading, PA are consistently among the worst funded districts relative to their state as a whole and their specific labor market surroundings. Riverview Gardens and other poor inner urban fringe St. Louis districts are also among the most disadvantaged, similar to low income, high-minority concentration Chicago suburbs. Texas and Colorado findings are also consistent. Others may be as well, but I’ve not yet had the chance to reconcile the findings for each city/state with state data systems.

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