In my favorite passage from Linda Darling-Hammond’s book, The Flat World and Education, she wonders, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)
The legislature in my state, Ohio, has appointed a constitutional modernization commission that is threatening to address the issue of continued school funding litigation another way, by removing the “thorough and efficient” education clause from the state constitution. Their goal: remove the state’s responsibility for protecting of equity of school investment across Ohio’s 613 school districts. A new report from Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s expert on school finance, clearly demonstrates why our legislators may be worried about litigation. Fleeter examines the per-pupil funding set-aside for school districts serving significant populations of children in poverty and documents that while the percentage of students who qualify for disadvantaged pupil aid has increased by 61.8 percent since Fiscal Year 1999, poverty aid has increased only 8.06 percent during the same period. Fleeter declares, “Ohio’s commitment to providing additional funding to districts with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students has not even remotely kept pace with the rapid increase in the number of students in poverty across the state.” Ironically Ohio will be formally assigning letter grades to school districts and schools across the state beginning this fall. It will not be surprising when a large number of school districts serving extremely poor students receive the low grades. (Fleeter’s report for On the Money, a Hannah News Service Publication, is dated May 9, 2014 and titled “Eduction Funding for Economically Disadvantaged Students in Ohio.” This publication is behind a paywall and available only to subscribers.)
Meanwhile in Michigan, the Detroit News reports that public schools in Pontiac recently received a $10 million emergency loan to provide cash flow until the end of the school year. The Oakland County School District, where Pontiac is located, has accrued a $51.6 million deficit. Mosaica, a for-profit charter company hired by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the Muskegon Heights School District, is severing its five year contract after just two years. The state recently granted Muskegon Heights a loan of $1.4 million, “which district Emergency Manager Gregory Weatherspoon said will be used partly to pay back $761,000 owed to charter operator Mosaica Education, Inc., which has been fronting some payroll in the tiny west Michigan district.” Highland Park, another Michigan school district being managed by a charter operator, The Leona Group, has sought a loan of $600,000. School funding looms as a large issue in the upcoming gubernatorial election this fall. While Governor Rick Snyder claims to have increased school funding, according to Michigan Public Radio his figures include debt service, money for Michigan Virtual University, and the school employees’ retirement fund. A table in Michigan Public Radio‘s report indicates that in the ten years from the 2003-2004 and the 2013-2014 school year, the basic foundation per-pupil allowance has grown by only $29.
In Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia predicts another round of layoffs and deep cuts, possibly even deeper than the bare bones budget implemented last fall that encompassed closure of 24 schools and hundreds of staff laid off. Pennsylvania lacks a stable funding formula, and the Philadelphia schools lack their own separate funding stream, rendering them dependent on an allocation from the city government. According to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, advocates are simultaneously lobbying the city council and the state legislature (as part of state budget negotiations) just to patch together enough to match last year’s meager allotment. The state faces an overall budget shortfall and is considering a cigarette tax; Philadelphia school advocates seek a percentage of that tax. Or perhaps they can secure a greater share of city property tax revenues. It is thought they will secure $120 million from a sales tax extension. The school district treasurer claims to be “drawing up a budget that assumes the $120 million and nothing beyond that. The consequences of that would include about 1,000 layoffs, class sizes of 41 in high schools, and a 16 percent reduction in school police.”
Even in New Jersey, one of the states where school finance is more adequate and more equitably distributed, there are problems due to the failure of Governor Chris Christie’s administration to comply with the remedy in the case of Abbott v. Burke. On April 30, the Education Law Center reported that, in response to a motion filed by the Education Law Center, the state’s education department sent notices to all New Jersey school districts to demonstrate the disparity between actual school aid in 2014-2015—which Governor Chris Christie proposes to increase by $20 per student—and each districts ‘adequacy budget’ as defined by the weighted funding formula established by the School Funding Reform Act. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center declares, “The aid notices issued today confirm what every pubic school parent and educator knows: Governor Christie has decided not to follow the law and provide our public schools with the essential resources students need to be successful.”
Gene Glass and David Berliner cover the issue of school finance equity in their new book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools: “Despite our many disagreements about education, Americans are unified in embracing the ideal of equal educational opportunity… In practice, however, the principle of equal funding is almost universally violated.” (p. 175)