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off the charts

K-12 Funding Still Lagging in Many States

Some states still provide much less K-12 funding per student than in the 2008 school year, when the Great Recession hit, according to new Census Bureau data and state budget documents.

In seven states, combined state and local school funding in the 2017 school year was at least 10 percent below pre-recession levels in inflation-adjusted terms, Census data show. Florida, the deepest-cutting state, was down 22.7 percent; Arizona, 22.6 percent; and Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, all over 10 percent (see graph). In all, 22 states plus the District of Columbia remained below pre-recession levels.

While some of the deepest-cutting states have increased funding somewhat since 2017, often after teacher protests, they haven’t fully restored the cuts, the evidence shows. For example, as of the current (2019) school year, Oklahoma cut “formula” funding — its main form of state support for elementary and secondary schools — by 15 percent per student over the last decade, our analysis of state budget documents finds. In two other teacher-protest states, Arizona and North Carolina, formula funding is still 6 percent and 7 percent below pre-recession levels, respectively.

Nationally, combined state and local school funding per student has finally recovered from the recession. In the 2017 school year, it was $267 above the 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation — a modest 2 percent increase. But state funding was still $32 per student below pre-recession levels, while local funding was up $299.

This shift from state to local funding can worsen funding inequities among school districts. Local funding relies heavily on local property taxes, so school districts in neighborhoods with high property values can more easily raise adequate revenue. States can offset local inequities using funding formulas that provide significantly more to lower-income districts, but only about 11 states did as of the 2015 school year, according to an analysis by the Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. Since children of color are likelier than white children to attend high-poverty schools, largely due to historical racism and ongoing discrimination and bias, most states’ failure to better fund high-poverty schools perpetuates racial inequities.

Steep K-12 funding cuts impede reforms that improve student outcomes, like upgrading teacher quality, reducing class sizes, and extending learning time. States imposing these deep cuts weaken our shared future.