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School Funding Varies Among States

If money buys good public schools, New Jersey and New York are buying the best, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which said both states spend more than $10,000 per student each year, far above the $6,835 national average.

The figures, taken from spending in the 1999-2000 school year, are the most recent available, but state budget crunches could change the school funding landscape in coming years.

"There's clearly pressure on state budgets, and since education is the single largest line item in every state budget, there's pressure on education budgets," said David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He said 17 states cut education funding in their 2002 budgets, while 12 have already cut it in their 2003 budgets.

The annual survey was released Thursday. The Education Department issued similar figures earlier this month.

The Census survey shows that heavily populated states such as New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts tend to spend more per pupil, while rural states, such as Alabama, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Mississippi and Tennessee, spend far less.

But better funding doesn't always buy better schools, said Mary Conk of the American Association of School Administrators.

"You've got to look at what money gets you and where you're spending it," she said.

Construction and living costs, for instance, can drive up spending in urban areas, with schools essentially spending more to get the same goods and services that rural ones get.

"Clearly it's going to be more expensive to build a school and staff it (in New York) than it would in Kansas," Shreve said.

Also, spending within a state is often higher in more affluent suburbs, which can draw from higher local property taxes. State legislatures have spent the past decade tackling the problem, but it's just now getting the attention of Congress. Lawmakers on Thursday were scheduled to hear testimony on the inequality of state funding formulas.

"A child's education should be determined by the size of their dreams, not the numbers of their ZIP code," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who heads the Subcommittee on Children and Families. "We need to fundamentally change the way we deal with education in this country so that all children have the same opportunities and chance for a successful and productive life."

President Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige have for months pointed out that spending more money per pupil doesn't necessarily guarantee better results - an idea that has gained support in Congress. The idea is still hotly debated in schools.

National Education Association spokeswoman Denise Cardinal pointed out that higher per-pupil funding can translate to more teachers and smaller class sizes, which have been shown to help student achievement.

But the Census figures show that the struggling Washington, D.C., school system spends virtually the same per pupil as New York and New Jersey, while its students lag behind many others in several areas, including skill levels and graduation rates.

"D.C. being on there points out that you can make foolish investment decisions with big resources and the kids don't benefit," said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates for urban and minority students.

By Greg Toppo

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