As schools enter a new era of tough federal demands to raise achievement among poor and minority students, a report released here today shows that in most states, school districts with the neediest students receive far less state and local tax money -- an average of just under $1,000 per student -- than schools with the fewest poor children.
The report, by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan group that represents schools in poor urban districts, found the greatest disparities in New York, where schools teaching the poorest students receive $2,152 per student less from state and local government sources than schools with the fewest needy students. In Illinois, the state with the second-greatest gap, the disparity is $2,060.
A comparison of districts by race shows similar shortfalls. In New York, schools with the most minority students take in $2,034 less per student than those with the fewest.
Although New York presents the greatest disparities in the nation, neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut have erased their gaps. Both states have lost lawsuits and faced a series of court orders over disparities in school financing.
Joe Conway, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki, said New York had reduced the gap between rich and poor schools by 23 percent since 1997, faster than the national average of 15 percent. ''The survey doesn't reflect the fact that we've provided record school-aid increases and targeted more and more money into high need districts, but it does show that we've been closing the gap at a far more rapid pace than the nation as a whole,'' Mr. Conway said.
Over all, the report found that in 30 of the 47 states that had submitted financial data to the federal government, school districts with the fewest poor students get substantially more, defined by the report as at least $100 per student, than districts with high concentrations of the poor. Similarly, in 31 of the states, schools with the fewest minority students get at least $100 per student more than schools with the most.
''The kids that are in the districts with the greatest needs get the fewest resources,'' said Michael Rebell, executive director and counsel at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which sued New York over disparities in school financing and is appealing a ruling upholding the state's formula for allocating money to schools.
Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, said that more money did not automatically close the achievement gap between rich and poor, or among black, Latino and white students. But Mr. Jerald said that evening out differences in financing and spending the money wisely to hire qualified teachers, lengthen the school day and purchase strong curriculums could help.
''The picture has become crystal clear,'' Mr. Jerald said. ''If you do both of those things you can really solve the problem.''
Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said he did not believe money was the most important factor. ''There are a lot of high-spending poor communities like Newark, which is spending upward of $10,000 per child, and it's overall a disastrous public school system,'' he said, adding, ''Just adding money to a school system doesn't cause test scores to rise. It truly does depend on how that money is spent.''
School districts have traditionally raised revenue through a variety of means, most often relying heavily on local property taxes. In recent years some states like Michigan have moved toward statewide sales taxes as a way to pay for schools, in part to alleviate disparities.
The report analyzed census data and the figures on state and local financing of schools submitted to the federal Education Department for the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent figures available, and compared them to school finance data in 1997. It did not include the federal contribution to education under Title I, which is generally weighted toward low-income schools. That money is not meant to pay for essentials but to give schools extra help.
The report defined the neediest school districts as those in the quartile with the most students below the poverty line.
Nationally, school districts with the fewest minority students spent $6,684 in state and local money to educate them, compared with $5,782 for heavily minority schools. The study showed that while the financing disparities grew in nine states, the gap between high- and low-poverty schools nationally shrank to $966 per student, from $1,139 per student in 1997, or 15 percent.
Mr. Conway, the governor's spokesman, said Mr. Pataki would use the report to advance an overhaul of school financing that he had proposed to the Legislature.
But Mr. Finn said he was surprised to see that in 26 states, including New York, state money aggravated disparities in financing between rich and poor districts, and white and black ones.