The image of school funding inequities in the American mind is often urban schools serving predominantly low-income students of color going without, while just miles away, suburban schools serve more white, affluent students in gleaming facilities with an army of college counselors. 

Those “savage inequalities,” as they were termed in a prominent 1991 book, certainly still exist in some parts of the country. There’s another key driver of school funding inequity, though, one that is harder to see and might be harder to fix: massive differences in spending between states. 

Connecticut, for instance, spends more than twice as much as Mississippi, which has dramatically more poor students. A number of the states that spend the most per student (Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, for instance) also have relatively few low-income students. And many of the states that spend the least (Arizona, Mississippi, and California) serve more low-income students and students of color.

There are exceptions. But that pattern likely explains in part recent reports showing that districts serving low-income students and students of color get less in state and local education dollars. That matters, as dollars translate into more education services and better academic outcomes, according to recent research.

“Because there’s so little power given to the federal government with issues related to school funding, the issue is largely left to states,” said Rebecca Sibilia, who leads EdBuild, which released the report showing a $23 billion disparity faced by districts composed largely of students of color. “Cross-state inequities truly demonstrate that when it comes to school funding, your luck is driven largely by lot.”

These disparities are difficult to change because education spending is predominantly a state and local responsibility. The federal government is perhaps best positioned to step in to make up for these differences — and already does, to a degree. 

Funding concerns have prompted a number of Democratic presidential candidates to promise to help level the playing field across districts. But doing more, experts say, won’t be easy, and some will object to an increased federal role in education.

“The feds are never going to cough up that big a share” of education spending, said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor who has done research for the Education Law Center, which favors more school funding. “We’ve got to find a way to come up with better leverage on states.”

How differences in funding between states drive school funding inequities

It seems like a math riddle: In most states, school districts serving mostly low-income students get similar amounts of state and local funding for schools as the affluent districts in the same state. And yet if you look across the country, low-income districts are at a notable disadvantage. 

The reason is that national comparisons look beyond, say, affluent Greenwich, Connecticut vs. the low-income Hartford, Connecticut, to include Greenwich vs. low-income Jackson, Mississippi, where there are even starker spending disparities.

An analysis by the Education Trust pegged that nationwide disparity at $1,000 less per student in districts that serve mostly low-income students, even adjusted for cost differences between states. There was a similar pattern for districts serving predominantly students of color. (These figures, as well as EdBuild’s $23 billion number, don’t include federal dollars. More on that later.)

Certain states spend less on their education systems — because of economic constraints, because  elected leaders have not prioritized school spending, or both — and that itself is correlated with a state’s share of white and non-poor students. 

There are exceptions to this general pattern, of course, particularly, when considering race. For instance, Maryland’s public schools spend a lot of money and are also composed largely of students of color; Colorado has relatively few poor students, but doesn’t spend much on schools. 

And while school spending does not perfectly correlate with outcomes like test scores, the two are related. With that in mind, Baker and colleagues estimated how much money would need to be spent in each state to get different groups of students to the national test score average. In many parts of the country, spending was already there, while elsewhere — particularly, the South, Southeast, and California — it lagged far behind, according to the report, which was released by the Education Law Center.

To take one extreme example, Baker estimated that the wealthiest school districts in Connecticut would only need to spend around $6,000 per pupil to get their students to average performance. In fact, those districts spent over $17,000 and their students perform much better than average. 

On the other hand, the poorest districts in Mississippi would need to spend over $26,000 per student to get to average. In reality, they spent about $9,000 per pupil.

Why it would be tough for the federal government to address state funding differences

Again, these funding differences are decided by states and localities and limited by economic conditions. 

There are ways for the federal government to help close those gaps, though. It already targets resources to the country’s poorest schools, including through the nearly $16 billion Title I program, which likely eases some of the disparities between states. (In total, about 10 percent of K-12 public education spending comes from the federal government.) 

A number of Democratic candidates want to go further. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have both proposed tripling Title I spending, and Beto O’Rourke recently laid out a plan to create a $500 billion federal fund to encourage and help states close funding gaps, including the one identified by EdBuild. 

The approaches each have pros and cons, Baker and Sibilia said. 

“Expanding poverty-directed federal funding is a reasonable thing to do,” said Baker, referring to growing Title I. “The problem is when you do that, states might take it as an opportunity to reduce their own effort.” In other words, states could try to lower how much they spend on their poorest districts if they realize the federal government will foot the bill instead. (Regulations known as “supplement not supplant” have attempted to limit this.)

O’Rourke’s plan takes a more aggressive tack — pushing states to do their part and excluding them from a major pot of federal money if they don’t. States could lose out, O’Rourke’s plan warns, if they fail to “demonstrate they are providing equitable funding across schools and districts including additional funding for high-need students.” 

In some ways, it reads like a Race to the Top for school funding. That underscores why the idea might prove controversial, particularly in light of objections during the Obama administration that the federal government had overstepped its role in education. Conservatives are also likely to balk at increased spending on schools and the higher taxes necessary to fund that.

Still, Sibilia likes this idea because it would better leverage scarce federal dollars to push states to make changes. 

“Just putting more money into Title I is just not going to lead to the kind of change that I think all of these candidates are trying to get to,” she said. “A provision with teeth, like Beto’s, would be interesting.”

At the same time, the approach comes with risks for funding advocates. If the feds withhold dollars from states that have the least equitable funding systems, their students could end up doubly disadvantaged, with access to fewer state and federal dollars than students elsewhere in the country. In other realms — namely Medicaid expansion — a number of red state leaders have rejected federal money targeted at low-income households. 

“You have to provide the carrot/stick,” said Sibilia, “and unfortunately the stick is just going to hurt the kids you’re trying to help to begin with.”