President Elect Joe Biden prioritized public school funding as the center of his education plan during his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President. Why did he prioritize public school finance and why is it so urgently important in 2021?
Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, in their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, explaining the problem: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’ Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights. But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)
In August of 2018, the late Jim Siegel at the Columbus Dispatch summarized an important report by Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter: “Nearly 77 percent of the total revenue increase from state funding and local taxes in the past 20 years occurred before 2009, according to a new analysis by the Ohio Education Policy Institute… State funding increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2009, but in the past 10 years it has actually fallen nearly 2 percent below inflation… Fleeter points to three key reasons why state funding slowed, starting with the great recession in 2008 and 2009, causing unprecedented drops in state tax revenue. GOP leaders also eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools. For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out…. And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year.”
It has seemed as though there was hope for better public school support in the Ohio Statehouse. The Ohio Legislature spent the biennium that ended on December 31, 2020, working with experts to design a more adequate and equitable formula. On December 3, 2020, the new plan passed the Ohio House by a margin of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate killed the bill by failing to schedule a vote before the end of the session. It is extremely unlikely that the plan will be reintroduced and passed in the next legislative biennium without changes that will reduce its cost and reduce its attention to the needs of Ohio’s poorest school districts.
The problem is not merely in states like Ohio with a history of long struggle to fund public education. The executive director of New Jersey’s Education Law Center, which litigated the extremely successful legal challenge, Abbott v. Burke and ensured that New Jersey’s school funding has been a national leader, David Sciarra reports that right now New Jersey is falling behind the funding guarantee established through the lawsuit: “In 2018, upward of 196 New Jersey school districts were funded below ‘adequacy,’ that is, the level required by the state’s school funding formula to deliver a thorough and efficient education. That year, the state owed public school students close to $1.5 billion… The governor and legislators made some modest progress in 2019 and 2020, when they increased state school funding by $355 million and $191 million, respectively. While the increase lowered the number of underfunded districts to 166, half of New Jersey’s students still attended underfunded schools, many in districts intensely segregated by poverty and race. And the progress was short lived. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, (Governor) Murphy scrapped a planned $335 million funding increase, and lawmakers jumped on board with ‘flat’ state aid reminiscent of former Gov. Chris Christie’s consecutive state budgets from 2010 to 2017. In short order, the state’s debt to public education is now back up to $2 billion, and lawmakers have abandoned their high-sounding rhetoric promising to close the funding gap by 2024.”
State and local school districts share over 90 percent of the responsibility for public school finance, with the federal government providing less than 10 percent. But funding even for the federal portion of public school finance has lagged. The Committee for Education Funding provides this chart which demonstrates that while, in December of 2020, Congress appropriated a small increase for FY 2021 in U.S. Department of Education Discretionary Funding, the appropriation remains $7 billion below the FY 2011 amount in inflation adjusted dollars.
But the bigger problem remains in the states, which increasingly have reneged on their responsibility. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes what has happened in too many states in the past decade: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33) Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)
In over 40 states, another problem has arisen. The tax dollars that states once invested in the public schools have been divided up into three separate education sectors: traditional public schools, publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, and private and religious schoosl which accept tuition vouchers paid for with public tax dollars.
In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the school finance implications of the expansion of school privatization at public expense: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)
In a groundbreaking 2018 report about California, political economist Gordon Lafer exposed the net loss of $57.3 million local school district dollars diverted from the Oakland Unified School District to charter schools every year.
Public vouchers to pay private school tuition have likewise expanded, with the financial impact too often felt in the school districts serving poor children. In November, 2020, for example, the incoming Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman introduced and rapidly passed without public hearings a revision of Ohio’s EdChoice private school tuition voucher program. Huffman rammed through changes which make the vouchers—which are fully extracted through local school district deductions—available only to students living in Title I districts. Wealthy districts are now protected from losing any of their school district budgets to this voucher program. Now, Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers undermine not only the adequacy of school funding, but also inequitably impact the state’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children.
The authors of both Schoolhouse Burning and The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door agree that the 2018-2019, Red4Ed teachers’ walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland to Chicago exposed the deplorable school funding conditions across many U.S. states. In some cases, those problems were addressed as the strikes were resolved, but the danger is that state budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 business shutdowns and layoffs will reduce state budgets further in this budget year and perhaps for several years to come.
Clearly, as Candidate Joe Biden and his advisors drafted an education plan, they were aware of the school funding collapse so carefully documented in each of these new books and in press coverage from state to state. Now that Georgia’s run-off election last week has provided our incoming President with a Democratic Senate majority, advocates for children and public schools must hold President Biden to his promises. First, Biden and Congress must immediately pass another COVID-19 relief bill that finally includes funding relief for state budgets and provides immediate help to ensure that children and their teachers are safely back to school as soon as possible. Then our new President needs to turn his education plan into a federal budget that triples funding for Title I, takes the first steps fully to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years, increases the number of wraparound Community Schools, and significantly expands enriched pre-Kindergarten for children living in poverty. Biden also needs to use federal policy to incentivize the states to provide enough funding to cover the real cost of educational services and to ensure that the school districts serving concentrations of poor children can begin to address long-standing opportunity gaps.