Report Says Poor Students Shortchanged
By Nancy Zuckerbrod
Poor students are shortchanged by federal and state school aid policies, a report released Wednesday says.
At the federal level, the Education Department gives states nearly $13 billion a year to help students in low-income districts.
The complex formula used to determine each state's share guarantees a minimum amount for small states. That means Wyoming and Vermont, for example, can get more money per poor student than do more populous states.
Federal school dollars also are tied to the amount that each state spends on education. States that spend more get more from Washington.
But this link rewards states more for their wealth than their efforts to educate poor kids, according to the Education Trust, a Washington-based children's advocacy group.
For example, the report shows Maryland has fewer poor children than Arkansas but gets about 50 percent more federal aid per poor child, $1,522, than does Arkansas, at $1,009.
The gap occurs even though Arkansas dedicates a larger share of its resources to education than does wealthier Maryland, the report says.
The authors say that when Congress reviews federal education spending in the coming year, lawmakers should rethink how they distribute funds for poor students.
"The least needy states get the most, and the most needy states get the least. That's perverse," said Goodwin Liu, an assistant law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the report's authors.
Liu acknowledges it could be politically difficult to change the formula for distributing funds if those changes lead to cuts for some states.
But there is some recent precedent for doing so. When the No Child Left Behind education law was passed in 2001, lawmakers put in a provision that targeted more federal aid to schools with high concentrations of poor children.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the incoming chairman of the committee that oversees education policy, is showing a willingness to re-examine how school aid is distributed.
"We cannot close the education achievement gap in this country without addressing the funding gap which keeps our low-income and minority children at a disadvantage," Kennedy said in a statement Wednesday. "States must take responsibility for ensuring access to resources for all our children, but the federal government has to do its part as well."
Like the government, states also are failing to allocate their own school dollars in a way that targets the neediest students, the report says.
In more than half the states, school districts with high poverty rates get less in state and local money than wealthy districts, according to the report.
It found that on average, states and local governments spend $825 less per student in districts educating the poorest students compared with what is spent in the wealthiest school districts.
The biggest gaps in funding between poor and wealthy districts occur in Illinois, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania.
In contrast, Massachusetts and Kentucky were singled out for targeting more money to high-poverty districts and for having measures to ensure the money is used to boost student achievement.
The report also highlights funding gaps within school districts, which often result from differences in how salaries are distributed. In general, wealthier schools have more senior, higher-paid teachers.
For example in Austin, Texas - a city with one of the largest salary gaps - the average teacher salary at the poorest school is $3,837 less than the average teacher salary at the wealthiest school, the study found.
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