Exactly how much more does it cost to boost academic skills for low-income students? At least 40 percent extra, according to research highlighted by education advocates in King County who wonder: Is Washington prepared to take that on?

Share story

While everyone from lawmakers to classroom teachers has acknowledged that it costs more to educate children to high standards when they start school with the disadvantages that come from growing up poor, few have been willing to put a price tag on this concept.

In other words, exactly how much more does it take?

Number-crunchers at the nonprofit Road Map Project, who focus on outcomes in King County’s highest-need schools, cite research showing that catching kids up costs at least 40 percent more — and possibly double the amount — of educating students from middle-class or affluent families.

Yet Washington’s school-funding plan operates as if all kids are essentially the same.

While the state does allocate extra money for low-income districts, it does not consider poverty as a foundational pillar when dividing up money between districts, a quirk that Education Lab recently explored in depth.

“There are a lot of ways you can put money into different buckets to mitigate the effects of poverty, but the fact is we hardly do any mitigation at all,” said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, which oversees Road Map.

“People generally think we’re a very progressive state, which means surely we must give more money to kids in poverty to help with their education. But the reality is, no, we don’t.”

National research confirms Ryan’s assessment.

Last year, the Education Law Center published a report evaluating every state in the nation through the lens of school-funding fairness. Washington, it said, was “flat,” showing little difference in state funding between low-income and wealthier students.

In South King County, there are 28,200 children attending 58 schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or higher. And last year, according to Road Map, low-income students in those schools generated $468, on average, in learning-assistance money from the state.

That’s about 7 percent more than the region’s average allotment for basic education of $6,349 per pupil.

So the question becomes: Is 7 percent enough?

“There’s no magic or definite number,” Ryan said. “But the local levy system furthers the inequity because it favors the places that have a strong tax base, so there’s a compounding effect. Our view is that we’ve got to start to understand this and then reverse it.”