The Politics of Inequality and Redistribution in U.S. Education Finance

Project Date:
Nov 2006
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Although income inequality has soared since 1970, inequality in educational spending across school districts has fallen considerably, brought about mainly through centralization of educational finance at the level of state governments. But very little is known about the long-term effects of redistributing school expenditures. Sean Corcoran, Thomas Romer, and Howard Rosenthal will investigate whether centralization has weakened electoral support for the public school system and undermined the overall level of educational expenditure. Centralizing educational finances can alienate voters by removing them from decision-making. Centralization may also produce tax revolts among politically influential and affluent communities that end up paying higher taxes for the same per pupil spending. Furthermore, states are generally more ethnically heterogeneous than their constituent districts, and research has shown that ethnic divisions often reduce voters’ willingness to fund public goods. Corcoran, Romer, and Rosenthal will ask why some states have both redistributed and boosted educational spending, while in other states redistribution has provoked voter backlashes that undercut overall school funding levels.


Last year, as visiting scholars at RSF, Corcoran, Romer, and Rosenthal began assembling a dataset on state and district educational spending from 1970 to 2000, along with political and demographic variables in each state. Through a combination of statistical comparison and historical analysis, the investigators will examine the long-run relationship between redistribution of school funding across districts, and statewide levels of expenditure per pupil. Corcoran, Romer, and Rosenthal will show how this relationship varies across states, depending on the way local legislatures, courts, and interest groups interact. Their study will shed light on the political ramifications of redistributive policies.


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