Persistent Inequity & Dangerously Ignorant Denial

Another excerpt from forthcoming work:


In 2011, the Obama administration formed a national equity commission[1] to explore fiscal inequities across U.S. Schools. In one meeting of that commission, participant Eric Hanushek introduced the following table (A-36-1, in Figure 44) from the National Center for Education Statistics to assert that, on average, U.S. States had already raised levels of spending in high poverty districts to the point where, on average, high poverty districts spend more than low poverty districts.  This statement is factually correct, based on Table A-36-1 of the 2010 Condition of Education Report, of the National Center for Education Statistics. The implication being that school funding equity is not the problem, but rather, the problem lies with inefficiency in high poverty districts.

Figure 1


There are a few problems with using this table to draw these implications, setting aside that the dollar figures are not adjusted for differences in labor costs across settings.  While $10,978 (constant dollars) is in fact higher than $10,850, this difference is hardly enough to provide for the differences in programs and services needed to close achievement gaps between our highest and lowest poverty children. But perhaps most importantly, these broad, national average figures hide substantial variation both across and within states. Many states have highly inequitable school funding systems and many districts and the children they serve continue to be significantly disadvantaged by state school finance systems, ranging from imperfect to god-awful.

In 2014 I produced a report for the Center for American Progress identifying America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged School Districts.  This report came about as an extension of a series of blog posts in which I had identified what I referred to as America’s Most Screwed School Districts.  It had become increasingly clear to me that the indicators we created for the School Funding Fairness report card, while useful for describing overall patterns, were hiding important disparities within states behind the averages. For example, the disparities I pointed out in the previous section in Massachusetts and New Jersey. These are two of the best, most progressive state school finance systems in the nation, but even in these states there are districts which are high in student poverty and have far fewer resources than the other districts around them. Many districts, and thus the children they serve, were being overlooked in our indicators and subject to mischaracterization by others, without readily available rebuttal.

It is important to understand that the value of any given level of education funding, in any given location, is relative. That is, it does not matter whether a district spends $10,000 per pupil or $20,000 per pupil. It matters how that funding compares to other districts operating in the same regional labor market—and, for that matter, how that money relates to other conditions in the regional labor market. The first reason relative funding matters is that schooling is labor intensive. The quality of schooling depends largely on the ability of schools or districts to recruit and retain quality employees. The largest share of school districts’ 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 relative to other surrounding schools or districts and relative to nonteaching alternatives in the same labor market.[2] The second reason is that graduates’ access to opportunities beyond high school is largely relative and regional. The ability of graduates of one school district to gain access to higher education or the labor force depends on the regional pool in which the graduate must compete.[3]

Table 1 lists k-12 (unified) districts identified based on 2015 fiscal and poverty data, which have <90% state and local revenue of their labor market average and >150% of the poverty rate.  Many other repeat suspects like Philadelphia (w/approximately 90% revenue) continue to lie at the margins. Year after year, Philadelphia and Chicago have appeared as the two most screwed large urban districts. Along with Philadelphia, other Pennsylvania cities including Reading and Allentown face even more dire conditions, and along with Chicago, Illinois districts like Waukegan and Joliet make the list year after year.  While Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut have received additional aid in support of their magnet programs, creating an appearance of progressive funding in Connecticut, other districts including Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Britain have been entirely left out. It seems a relatively easy call to suggest that disparities of this type and magnitude are simply wrong – unfair – and should be remedied.

Table 1

America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged Districts 2015


Baker, B.D., Srikanth, A., Weber, M.A. (2016). Rutgers Graduate School of Education/Education Law Center: School Funding Fairness Data System. Retrieved from:

To put these disparities into context, we know that high poverty districts need not only equal resources but substantially more resources per pupil to achieve common outcomes for their students. One of the more rigorous studies to ask just how much more applied cost models to districts in New York state, finding that the costs associated with each additional child in poverty (U.S. Census poverty income level) were about 1.5 more (2.5 times) the costs of achieving the same outcome measures for children not in poverty.[4] Thus, a district serving 30% children below the poverty line would have costs approximately 75% higher or 1.75 times (.3 x 2.5) per pupil cost for a district with 0% census poverty.

As obviously problematic as these disparities are, they still have their detractors and deniers, which is especially disheartening. Take for example the twitter exchange below between Andy Smarick, Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, later appointed President of the Maryland State Board of Education and Author of The Urban School System of the Future[5], and Kombiz Lavasany, a research manager at the American Federation of Teachers.  The premise of Mr. Smarick’s book is that urban school systems have failed despite receiving massive resources. According to Mr. Smarick, urban traditional public school districts don’t and can’t work, and must be replaced with a portfolio of privately managed autonomous charter schools. This premise is largely borrowed from a 1997 book by Paul Hill, Lawrence Pierce and Jim Guthrie titled Reinventing Public Education.[6]

In the exchange below, Andy Smarick opines with great confidence that Philadelphia is among those large urban districts which have received massive sums of money, repeatedly, to “prop it up.”[7] The only hint at evidence here is the claim that Philadelphia’s state aid is among the highest in the state. Of course, that’s because Philadelphia is by far the largest district in the state (several times larger than any other district).

Figure 2


I might have taken less offense to Mr. Smarick’s proclamation had I not been under the false impression that most reasonably informed education policy wonks understood that Philadelphia was in fact one of (if not the) nation’s least well-funded large urban districts, operating in the context of one of the nation’s least equitable states. Apparently, it wasn’t so widely understood. Nonetheless, publicly available and easily fact-checkable data were and are pretty clear on this point.

Let’s take a look at Pennsylvania school finance and the position of Philadelphia within that mix. Figure 3 shows Pennsylvania school districts arranged by their poverty rates and by per pupil spending relative to districts in their surrounding labor market.  Again, the size of each circle represents the enrollment size of each district.  Philadelphia stands out as the large circle in the lower right area of the graph. That is, Philadelphia has a little more than double the poverty rate of all districts in its area, and has less than 80% of the current spending per pupil in 2015.  In other words, Philadelphia is the classic case of a “Screwed District” as I originally reported on my blog in June of 2012.[8]

Figure 3


Baker, B.D., Srikanth, A., Weber, M.A. (2016). Rutgers Graduate School of Education/Education Law Center: School Funding Fairness Data System. Retrieved from:

Figure 4 shows the plight of Philadelphia Public Schools over time, from 1993 to 2015.  During this period, child poverty rates climbed from just under double the labor market average to over double the labor market average.  Throughout the period of over two decades, Philadelphia has received substantively less in per pupil revenue and spent less per pupil on average than surrounding districts, despite having much greater need and facing much higher costs.  Despite bombastic rhetoric to the contrary, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has done little, if anything, for decades to “prop up” school spending in Philadelphia.  Evidence-free bluster to the contrary is reckless and irresponsible.

Figure 4


Baker, B.D., Srikanth, A., Weber, M.A. (2016). Rutgers Graduate School of Education/Education Law Center: School Funding Fairness Data System. Retrieved from:

Among the financially disadvantaged districts of the Commonwealth, are two other eastern Pennsylvania cities – Reading and Allentown.  Reading was the subject of a feature article in the Huffington Post by education writer Joy Resmovits back in 2012, in which Resmovits detailed the ground level impact of Reading’s funding plight, including substantial staffing cuts and elimination of the district’s preschool program.[9] Kansas City native Michael Q. McShane, then with the American Enterprise Institute (now with the Missouri-based Show-Me Institute) responded to the Resmovits column in a piece he titled “It’s not about the money” in which he argued: “Ms. Resmovits was right to point to Reading as an example of a property-poor district that cannot raise enough local funds to support education. However, as the 20-year changes in funding show, the state has worked to remedy this shortfall.”[10] McShane’s evidentiary basis for his claim was to show that the percent of Reading’s funding coming from the state had increased over time and was greater than that of other districts. Thus, the state was doing its part and responsibility for any failures should fall squarely on Reading school district officials. Clearly, however, as shown in Figure 5, the state’s efforts have been far from sufficient to remedy the shortfall.  The percent of revenue that comes from the state is irrelevant if the sum of state and local revenue remains insufficient. Reading is an especially flagrant case of savage school funding inequalities. Reading is a mid-size city district with nearly 250% of the poverty rate and about 73.6% of the state and local revenue per pupil of the surrounding labor market.

Figure 5


Baker, B.D., Srikanth, A., Weber, M.A. (2016). Rutgers Graduate School of Education/Education Law Center: School Funding Fairness Data System. Retrieved from:

While Philadelphia and Reading are particularly egregious examples of disparities, it is false to assume or make data-free proclamations regarding propping up large city school districts with vast sums of state aid. Figure 6 shows the relative poverty and relative state and local revenue for large city school districts with 50,000 or more students in 2013.  Again, Philadelphia and Chicago are most disadvantaged. Boston is most advantaged here, but its margin of poverty difference is still double that of its surroundings and margin of revenue difference only about 30% higher than surroundings.  Even Boston’s progressive spending differential falls well short of cost estimates for achieving common outcomes.[11] Thus it should come as no surprise that Boston students’ outcomes continue to fall short.

Figure 6



Baker, B.D., Srikanth, A., Weber, M.A. (2016). Rutgers Graduate School of Education/Education Law Center: School Funding Fairness Data System. Retrieved from:


[1] Mercury News. A 28-member commission studing the problem of school fundign inequities, will hold a meeting in San Jose March 4. Feb 24, 2011.

[2] Bruce, D. B. “Revisiting the Age-Old Question: Does Money Matter in Education.” The Albert Shanker Institute (2012).

& Baker, Bruce D. “Does money matter in education?.” Albert Shanker Institute (2016).

[3] Bruce D. Baker and Preston C. Green III as well as William Koski and Rob Reich explain that to a large extent, education operates as a positional good, whereby the advantages obtained by some necessarily translate to disadvantages for others. For example, Baker and Green explain that, “In a system where children are guaranteed only minimally adequate K–12 education, but where many receive far superior opportunities, those with only minimally adequate education will have limited opportunities in higher education or the workplace.”

Baker, Bruce, and Preston Green. “Conceptions of equity and adequacy in school finance.” Handbook of research in education finance and policy (2008): 203-221.;

Koski, William S., and Rob Reich. “When adequate isn’t: The retreat from equity in educational law and policy and why it matters.” Emory LJ 56 (2006): 545.

, available at

[4] Duncombe, William, and John Yinger. “How much more does a disadvantaged student cost?.” Economics of Education Review 24, no. 5 (2005): 513-532.

[5] Smarick, Andy. The urban school system of the future: Applying the principles and lessons of chartering. R&L Education, 2012.

See also: Wexler, Natalie. Should we give up on urban public school districts and replace them with something completely different? Greater Greater Washington. May 7, 2014.

[6] Hill, Paul, Lawrence C. Pierce, and James W. Guthrie. Reinventing public education: How contracting can transform America’s schools. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

[7] Smarick mentions Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York in an exchange here:

[8] Baker, Bruce D. America’s Most Screwed City Schools. School Finance 101. June 2, 2012.

[9]Resmovitz, Joy. Reading, Pennsylvania: Poorest U.S. City Loses Pre-Kindergarten, 170 Teachers. Huffington Post. June 15, 2012.

[10]McShane, Michael Q. Fact Checking HuffPost: It’s not about the money. American Enterprise Institute. Oct 5, 2012.

[11] Duncombe, William, and John Yinger. “Why is it so hard to help central city schools?.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (1997): 85-113.

Duncombe, William, and John Yinger. “How much more does a disadvantaged student cost?.” Economics of Education Review 24, no. 5 (2005): 513-532.