Per Pupil Spending and Poverty’s Persistent Penalty: An Empirical Analysis of 2016 District-Level NCES Data

25 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2019 Last revised: 14 Feb 2020

Date Written: February 10, 2020


It remains largely uncontested that students from low-income households—as well as the schools they attend—require additional resources to offset the challenges low-income students typically confront relating to access to equal educational opportunity. Federal elementary and secondary education programs, including Title I, supplement financial resources for students in poverty and schools that serve high concentrations of low-income students. Because federal programs operate within a complex, multi-level school finance system, however, tests of their ability to offset student poverty’s “penalty” require empirical approaches that reflect the school finance system’s multiple layers. Results from this study—which draw from 2016 school district-level data, focus on three common per pupil spending metrics, and exploit multilevel regression models—suggest that a student poverty penalty persists and is robust to multiple per pupil spending approaches. While these findings generally comport with prior and related empirical research, less clear, however, is what can be plausibly inferred from these findings. To some degree a persistent student poverty penalty is one, perhaps inevitable, artifact of the nation’s traditional reliance on local property tax revenues for elementary and secondary public school funding. Alternative explanations include inconsistencies in how various states and school districts implement Title I. Whatever the cause (or causes), the persistence of a student poverty penalty—and the discomforting challenges it poses to the equal educational opportunity doctrine more generally—warrants similarly persistent careful study and policy attention.

Keywords: Education, empirical, school finance

Suggested Citation

Heise, Michael, Per Pupil Spending and Poverty’s Persistent Penalty: An Empirical Analysis of 2016 District-Level NCES Data (February 10, 2020). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-05, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Heise (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

308 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-0069 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

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