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Not Making The Grade: School funding policies in eight Southern states fail students of color and those living in poverty, new report says

Funding for public schools across the South continues to lag far behind the rest of the nation, a failure that is having an outsized impact on students of color and students living in or near poverty, according to a new study by Education Law Center (ELC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The report – Inequity in School Funding: Southern States Must Prioritize Fair Public School Spending – examines school funding in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, based on criteria established by ELC’s national Making the Grade report, an annual state-by-state analysis of public school funding. The report ranks and grades each state based on three key measures: funding level, funding distribution and funding effort.

“We are currently in a place where partisan politics, not data or evidenced-based practices, are driving school policy,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “These efforts are steeped in white supremacy and seek to undermine public schools.” 

The impact of unfair school funding in the South is deeply rooted in the region’s history of racial segregation, which continues to influence education politics and policymaking and can be seen in the proliferation of private school vouchers and resistance to culturally responsive and inclusive teaching. This history means that Black and Latinx students and those living in or near poverty – groups that are overrepresented in public schools throughout the South – are more likely to bear the consequences of poorly resourced public schools.

The report found that the eight Southern states examined have “woefully insufficient” school funding levels, and most of them fail to equitably distribute additional funds to high-poverty school districts.

“Southern states have a long history of neglecting public education, depriving students – especially students of color and those from low-income families – of the opportunities that would help them succeed in school and life,” said Danielle Farrie, who is the ELC research director and the report’s author. “It is past time for lawmakers in these states to move beyond political distractions and prioritize investments in public education.” 

When Southern schools are compared to those in other states, the report found that:

  • All eight states score in the bottom third for school funding. Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi scored in the bottom 10, all spending more than $3,000 (and for Florida and Mississippi, more than $4,000) less per child each year than the national average.
  • Alabama, Florida and Texas have regressive funding practices, meaning high-poverty school districts receive less funding than low-poverty districts. On average, high-poverty districts in Florida and Alabama receive about $1,500 less than low-poverty districts.
  • Georgia barely meets the report’s conservative definition of progressive funding, with high-poverty districts receiving, on average, only 8% higher per-pupil funding than low-poverty districts.
  • Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have “flat” funding distributions that disadvantage students in high-poverty districts because they do not provide additional resources to help close persistent economic and racial achievement gaps. 
  • All eight states reduced their effort to fund public schools in the last decade, resulting in a combined loss of $189 billion in state and local revenue. Florida, Georgia and Alabama all lost out on more than $2,000 per pupil by allowing school revenue to lag behind economic growth.

The report defines fair funding as “the funding needed in each state to provide qualified teachers, support staff, programs, services and other resources essential for all students to have a meaningful opportunity to achieve the state’s academic standards and graduate high school prepared for citizenship, postsecondary education and the workforce.”

Photo Illustration by SPLC