It’s all very confusing. Parents are opting out of testing all over the state of New York. They don’t like the new Common Core tests where the reading level is set a year-and-a-half to two years above the age expectations for the kids and where the cut score for measuring proficiency is set way too high, which all means that a lot of kids are scoring really low. And parents don’t like that Governor Andrew Cuomo is tying the children’s scores on these new, hard, and hard-to-pass tests to 50 percent of the ratings for their kids’ teachers. Opting out is a way to protest all this, and many are—in some districts enough to invalidate any generalizations that can be made about the scores.
Then across the states there are the massive attacks on taxes. To grow the economy and create jobs, we are told, we have to cut taxes and give everybody more money to spend. Never mind that cutting taxes to the bone means we can’t afford the things we need— repair of roads and bridges—replacement of water mains so they don’t explode into geysers on the coldest day of the year—public schools with enough teachers and school counselors. Nobody on TV or in the newspaper seems to connect the dots between the meager budgets and growing potholes and exploding class sizes. The broadcast network news has copied the local news—weather, fires and shootings—and our local newspaper here in Cleveland (that is delivered only four days a week now) filled its front page this past week with stories about LeBron James and Ringo’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
But underneath all this confusion and distraction are the questions about money. When it comes to public education, the two questions to ask are surprisingly simple—though it may be hard to find anybody who will answer them. (1) How much money is enough? (2) Have we ensured that the money we plan to spend is distributed fairly so that children’s opportunity isn’t determined by who their parents are or where they live? And then there is an important rule to remember: Spending cuts at the federal level put a greater burden on the states to make up the difference, and cuts by the states increase the financial burden on local school districts (which can’t themselves meet a standard of equity because local jurisdictions have vastly different capacities to raise money due to the value of the property that can be taxed and the wealth or poverty of the people who pay the local taxes).
So… What is going on underneath all the conversation about the opting out? Even though your local paper may not be covering it, there is a lot of wrangling in Washington, D.C. and across the state capitols during this spring’s federal and state budget season about arithmetic and how to arrange the numbers to prove the schemes of various politicians. How can we cut taxes and still have enough? How can we pretend we have enough and blame the problems of abject poverty in public schools on something else? Can we use test scores or opting out or teacher evaluation schemes as a distraction? Can we pretend that privatizing schools will save enough money that the budget appears to be balanced?
At the federal level, a huge fight is brewing, one that some people predict could again threaten a federal government shutdown in the fall. The House of Representatives is committed to perpetuating the federal budget cuts and freezes we collectively call “sequestration.” According to an article on Wednesday in The Hill, “Appropriators are proposing to cut funding next year in the following funding bills: Financial Services and General Government; Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and Education; and Interior and the Environment. The figures point to a brewing conflict between the GOP-led Congress and the White House that could lead to another government shutdown fight in October… Compared to 2015 spending levels, Republicans are proposing to cut about $2 billion from Financial Services and General Government, $246 million from Interior and the Environment and $4 billion from the Labor-HHS-Education Bill.” The president, by contrast, in the federal budget he proposed in February, sought an increase of $3.6 billion, a 5.4 percent increase over 2015 levels, for the U.S. Department of Education. It’s certainly not a lot of money when it would be spread across 90,000 public schools in America, but at least a good part of those increases were proposed for the big formula programs that school districts need to support their services for the most vulnerable groups of children. The president proposed to add $1 billion to the Title I formula, along with small but symbolically important increases for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and for services for English language learners. Any increase would help, as these programs have been frozen for several years.
The issues of adequacy and equity are at the heart of debates across the states, probably most visibly in New York, where Governor Cuomo set off a firestorm by tying any increase in school funding to the new scheme by which students’ test scores count for 50 percent of each teachers’ evaluation. What has been less frequently discussed is that the budget deal Cuomo hammered out with the legislature appropriates far less money than is needed and does a poor job of distributing extra to the poorest school districts. In a recent report, New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute describes urgent needs in 178 “priority” or “failing” schools the state identified in February: “The school districts that are home to these priority schools teach students who…. live in communities that are among the poorest in the state with the least resources to improve local schools… Over three-fourths of the students in priority schools are eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. Many of these students are not proficient in English or are from minority families with disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty.” The Fiscal Policy Institute recommends that New York remedy its school funding problems as it promised to do back in 2006, after its high court ruled its school funding unconstitutional: “Foundation Aid is the largest source of direct state assistance to schools and was intended to address inequities. In 2006… the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was failing to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive the ‘sound basic education’ that the state constitution guarantees. The state legislature adopted the current Foundation Aid formula to settle that lawsuit… However, years of austerity budgets have undermined the promise of the CFE settlement legislation—funding for school districts is just about where it was in fiscal year 2006-2007…. The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”
Then, of course, there is Pennsylvania, which Emma Brown recently described in the Washington Post as the most inequitable in school funding: “Nowhere is that gap wider than in Pennsylvania, according to federal data. School districts with the highest poverty rates here receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil, than the most affluent districts. This spring the new governor (Tom Wolf), has outlined an ambitious plan to address the inequities, but it faces opposition in the state house.” “‘There was a wide recognition that the system was broken,’ Wolf said in a recent interview, adding that cuts to public school funding were both an economic and moral mistake… Advocates and teachers have cheered his proposal to increase education funding by $1 billion. But Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit even without that new spending on schools, and so Wolf’s plan depends on changes in state taxes, including a new tax on gas production and increases in both personal income and sales taxes. Those ideas are not popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature….” Brown describes King High School in Philadelphia: “In 2011, after posting low test scores for years, King became a ‘promise academy,’ an approach to turning around schools that includes a longer school day and a rich set of extracurricular offerings—such as rowing, archery or a poetry club—meant to entice reluctant students. But after one year, budget cuts put an end to the extra learning time and the enrichment activities…. King also absorbed hundreds of students from a rival school that was closed to save money…. Some class sizes have risen into the 40s. All students are from low-income families; one-third read proficiently, and half graduate on time.” Ironically, earlier this week a local Commonwealth Court dismissed a school funding equity case brought last year by several school districts, parents and community groups. In The Notebook, Dale Mezzacappa reports that the case will be appealed, but in the meantime it is alarming to read that attorneys for the state defended the current system because, they said, “the legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all districts have enough funds to stay open.” The attorney for the plaintiffs labeled that “a 19th-century standard.”
And then there is Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback slashed taxes so low several years ago that the state is going broke. In February, when tax receipts came in nearly $50 million short of what had been predicted, Governor Brownback cut funding for K-12 public schools and higher education by $44.5 million below what struggling schools had expected this year. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal this week, six school districts so far have announced they will close early in May because they have run out of money. “Shawnee Heights made its decision as early as February, after Gov. Sam Brownback announced he would trim K-12 funding midyear. Brownback’s allotment plan was then replaced by the Legislature’s K-12 block grant bill, which cut about $50 million in operating and maintenance aid from the budgets of most school districts. The cuts took effect for the current fiscal year.” The state’s funding lawsuit is being appealed in the state courts.
In his new book about the 50-year impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Jack Jennings, long time Washington expert on the federal role in education, describes our society’s history of unequal opportunity: “(P)er-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be. Students from families of higher socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children from low-income families… Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, which monitors trends in the world’s economically advanced countries, summarized the funding situation in this way: ‘The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.'” (Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, p. 179)