A Research Synthesis / Unequal School Funding in the United States
Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner
What does the evidence say about unequal school funding and its effects?
Most people believe that students do better in well-funded schools and that public education should provide a level playing field for all children. Nearly half of the funding for public schools in the United States, however, is provided through local taxes, generating large differences in funding between wealthy and impoverished communities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a). Efforts to reduce these disparities have provoked controversy and resistance.
Those who oppose demands for more equitable school funding have embraced the claims of reviewers such as Eric Hanushek (1989), who wrote: Detailed research spanning two decades and observing performance in many different educational settings provides strong and consistent evidence that expenditures are not systematically related to student achievement. (p. 49)
But other well-known reviewers disagree. For example, in 1996, Rob Greenwald, Larry Hedges, and Richard Laine wrote: [Our analysis shows] that school resources are systematically related to student achievement and that those relations are large [and] educationally important. (p. 384)
Given such disputes, what should we believe about school funding and its impact? And given what we know today, what should we do about inequities in funding for education in the United States?
Differences in School Funding
Funding in the United States
Public school funding in the United States comes from federal, state, and local sources, but because nearly half of those funds come from local property taxes, the system generates large funding differences between wealthy and impoverished communities. Such differences exist among states, among school districts within each state, and even among schools within specific districts.
In 1998, for example, the state with the highest average level of public school funding (adjusted for differences in cost of living) was New Jersey, with an annual funding rate of $8,801 per student, whereas the state with the lowest average level was Utah, with a yearly rate of $3,804 per student (see fig. 1). This means that the typical student attending a public school in New Jersey was provided more than twice the fiscal resources allocated to his or her counterpart in Utah.