Unequal education spending: Variation between and within school districts


Unequal education spending: Variation between and within

school districts

The most common reason given for variation in the funding of schools is the

history of school finance systems in which public schools were supported almost

entirely by local property taxes. 21 Because of this well-known story, the majority

of efforts by advocates of equal public education spending have been aimed at

reducing spending inequities between school districts in the same states by

redistributing education spending from wealthier to poorer districts.

But in recent years, researchers have started to document a new level of maldistribution of resources at the district level. “Almost universally,” explains University of

Washington’s Center for Education researcher Marguerite Roza, “school districts

magnify those initial [between-district] inequities by directing more non-targeted

money to schools and students with less need.”22 The primary mechanism through

which this happens? Districts have teacher assignment practices that place the

least-experienced teachers in high-minority, high-poverty schools. Because novice

teachers earn so much less in salary, the total spending at these high-needs schools

is likely to be lower than spending at schools in wealthier neighborhoods that

employ veteran teachers.

The Center for American Progress published studies shining a light on these

within-district inequities in teacher salaries in California and Florida. The former

required painstakingly “pluck[ing], one by one, from online school accountability report cards,” the average teacher salaries at each school.23 Florida made the

job easier by collecting and reporting expenditure data, including actual teacher

salaries, at each school.

New Mexico
New York
New Hampshire
North Dakota
Rhode Island
U.S. Average
North Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia
South Carolina
Source: Author’s analysis of newly released U.S. Department of Education expenditure data, part of a reporting requirement under
the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, adjusted for regional cost differences. 

The latest data highlights both within- and betweendistrict inequities
Figure 2 exploits this new data to show the percentage of variation in per-pupil
spending occurring within and between districts in each state. The percentage
of variation that is within districts—

the part of the story that no one really talks
about and that is likely driven by teacher salary differences—ranges from
9 percent in Arizona to 77 percent in South Carolina.26 On average,27 41 percent
of the variation in spending between schools happens within districts; the
remaining 59 percent falls between districts in a state.
This is a major finding. Contrary to popular belief,28 individual districts themselves
are responsible for a sizable amount of the variation in per-pupil spending. The
common perception that discrepancies in wealth between districts are responsible
for most of the variation in per-pupil spending within a state is simply not the whole
story. In some states there is more between-district variation, and in those areas the
focus should continue to be on addressing those funding discrepancies. But in the
states at the top of Figure 2, 

the bigger problem appears to be within-district variation in spending.
Advocates of equitable education funding should target their strategies to individual states; the information in Figure 2 should help to contextualize reform
efforts in each state. But Figure 2 also shows that within-district discrepancies
in spending are a nationwide problem. The remainder of this paper presents a
proposed solution to that problem.

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