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Why equal education funding isn't as easy as apple pie

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When a judge in February ordered New York State to spend an extra $5.6 billion to bring New York City school funding up to the level of surrounding counties, he left a question unanswered: How much difference will all those billions make for children in failing schools?

Unfortunately, based on studies of spending patterns in New York and other big-city school systems, the answer is "not much."

That's because of the dark secret that our research has uncovered: Some big-city schools get plenty of money. We have studied actual spending on every school in six big urban districts. Knowing that districts' official budgets ignore many factors that drive spending - for example, differences in the salaries paid teachers in one school versus another, or differences in the services particular schools get from the central office - we followed every dollar.

This work reveals that per-pupil spending can be more than twice as high in one school than in another just across town.

We found that per-pupil spending differences between high schools within Seattle, Denver, and Baltimore, for example, are greater than between the highest and lowest spending districts in their respective states.

What is it that sets apart well-funded schools?

Their principals know how to tap into the roughly 50 percent of school funds controlled by the central district budgets. And their student demographic tends to appeal to veteran teachers with the highest salaries. The rest of the schools get much less money, because they get a smaller chunk of central budgets and are able to attract only the less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.

And these spending disparities aren't particularly strategic. Certainly, some pots of money are intended for poor kids, but lots of others tip the scales toward more advantaged schools.

Money for centrally controlled services (teachers who move among schools delivering specialized services, bilingual specialists, health providers) is spent virtually willy-nilly, depending on downtown administrators' habits and professional contacts. Funds for these purposes are not accounted for on a per-day or per-school basis. Consequently nobody - not principals and surely not superintendents and school board members - knows how these funds are distributed.

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