School finance: Red vs. Blue

Patrick Gibbons

Over the last 40 years there have been 139 separate lawsuits in 45 states over state funding of K-12 education. As a result, courts have deemed school finance systems unconstitutional and inadequate in 28 states, forcing those states to increase per-pupil spending.

However, it has now been several years since a state has lost an “adequacy lawsuit” – owing to the fact that much evidence suggests increasing spending has not resulted in greater student achievement. Nevertheless, two researchers – Christopher Berry, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Charles Wyson, a law student at Stanford University – writing for Education Next, set out to uncover how partisan control of state politics affects the allocation of resources following a state’s defeat in an adequacy lawsuit.

Examining spending levels in 23 states and 13,000 school districts between 1988 and 2005, the researches divided the states into three categories: states where the governorship and legislature were controlled by Democrats, states where politics was controlled by Republicans and states with divided governments. Each category was divided further into income groups: poor districts, two levels of middle-class districts and, finally, wealthy districts (each based on how many low-income students were in the district). The study produced some expected and unexpected results.

Not surprisingly, states under Democrat control experienced the largest increase in state spending for K-12 education. However, state increases in K-12 education were also offset by the largest decreases in local funding. Thus there was a trend among all income groups in Democrat-controlled states to centralize funding. Unexpectedly, however, was that the net increase – which was between $750 and $1,000 per pupil – was actually slightly higher in the wealthy districts than in the poorest districts.

Divided government produced smaller gains across all groups in terms of state spending, but the spending was clearly targeted to poorer districts. After subtracting local funding decreases, however, there was virtually no change in spending, although some districts actually experienced a decrease.

Republican control saw greater gains for poor districts, while Republicans also decreased state-level funding for wealthy districts – a result you might expect from Democrats. However, local funding increased for upper-middle and wealthy districts – something that did not occur under Democrats or divided government. The net increase in K-12 funding results in poor districts receiving more money than wealthy districts – something that did not occur in Democrat-controlled states. Although Democrats centralized spending across all income groups, Republicans appeared to centralize spending for low-income districts and decentralize spending for all other groups. It should be noted, however, that just three of the 23 states that lost an adequacy lawsuit were under Republican control.

The researchers conclude:

“Clearly, reforms implemented by Democrats produce the largest net increases in funding for all students. However, by delivering roughly equivalent funding increases to districts at all income levels, Democrat-led reforms do not target new resources to districts serving poor students. Reforms implemented by divided or Republican governments deliver concentrated benefits to districts serving poor students. In these instances, however, the actual flow of new dollars into poor districts is more meager than when Democrats are in control.”