Financial figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau show states' education spending climbed in the years leading up to the economic downturn. Now, though, advocates ponder what the future holds for education funding as some states battle staggering budget deficits.
Nationwide, spending per pupil increased about 15 percent between fiscal years 2006 and 2009, according to census data. Total education expenditures jumped more than 20 percent in 11 states during the same period, with Alaska’s nearly 36 percent increase leading the way. Data compiled prior to 2006 is not comparable, according to the Census Bureau.
All states reported hikes in education spending. A few experienced more modest gains over the four-year period, with Delaware (5 percent) and Indiana (6.5 percent) remaining relatively unchanged.
For most school districts, times have changed considerably since then. Of all cuts, state funding reductions have typically been the most severe.
A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study issued in October reported state funding for elementary and high schools dropped below fiscal year 2008 levels in at least 30 states. Of the 46 states reviewed, the center found 37 reduced funding per student from the previous school year.
Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said future spending levels will hinge largely on the economy. "Schools today have less money than they did a couple years ago, and that condition will probably continue for a couple years," he said.
The federal government previously supplanted losses in state money with injections from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and Education Jobs Fund starting in 2010. Both programs included mandates for states to maintain education spending at defined levels.
But without an increase in revenues or additional federal aid, states face a tough road ahead.
"It’s going to be very difficult for state and local governments to muster increases in their education spending," said Raegan Miller, associate director for education research for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Over the past 40 years, Miller said education funding increased “substantially” relative to inflation.
The most recent complete data, fiscal year 2009, from the Census Bureau shows a wide range in spending per pupil. New York spent the most dollars per student at $18,126; Utah spent $6,356, the least amount.
Miller said state constitutional requirements outline different goals for providing public education. But these requirements, he said, are often vague. Washington state’s constitution, for example, declares it is the “paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children.”
The Census Bureau’s reported totals cannot be reliably compared among states. Figures reported do not account for discrepancies in cost of living, which are typically calculated for specific metropolitan areas. In addition, accounting methods vary among state agencies. (State-by-state differences are listed in Appendix B of the Census Bureau’s report on education finances)
How schools spend their money also matters. Miller said funding allotments should aim to change schools’ behavior to achieve better results.
"Future investments in education are crucial, but we have to make a point to do them wisely," he said.
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