It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

It Looks As Though Proposed Ohio School Funding Overhaul May Have to Wait Two More Years

There was a sense of hope on March 25th, when Ohio State Representatives Bob Cupp and John Patterson proposed a new, bipartisan school funding plan for Ohio, a plan that was intended to serve as the House’s education proposal for the 2020-2021 biennial budget, which must be passed by June 30.  We owe these two legislators enormous thanks for overcoming partisan rancor and setting out to try to address school funding injustice in our state.

Under a patched together mess of additions to old formulas, Ohio’s school districts have suffered for years from state funding that hasn’t met the state’s constitutional obligation. The problem has become more serious as state revenue for schools has declined. Following the Great Recession a decade ago, Governor John Kasich and his all-Republican legislature continued the phase out of local business taxes, eliminated the state estate tax and reduced state income taxes. In a state where all tax increases are required by law to be voted, school districts have been forced to ask their residents to increase local property taxes and at the same time to cut programming.  Just as school teachers have been striking all year across other states to highlight outrageous problems with large classes and shortages of counselors, social workers, nurses and librarians, Ohio’s students and teachers have been experiencing the same funding inadequacies.

The proposed Cupp-Patterson Plan was supposed to fund schools adequately—according to a calculation of what it actually costs to provide required services.  It was supposed to be stable without the kind of quirks and changes Ohio school districts have noticed recently in their state funding.  And it was supposed to be equitable by considering not only a district’s property valuation but also the community’s aggregate income in calculating what Ohio calls the local chargeoff—the calculation of what a school district has the capacity to generate in local taxes. Currently in Ohio, 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee; they have been getting from the state just what they got last year and the year before and the year before that.  The new Cupp-Patterson plan was designed to flip that situation and restore the awarding of formula-calculated funding to at least 510 districts.

The only problem was, once the computer runs for the state’s 610 school districts were released, it became apparent that many of the state’s very poorest districts, especially poor urban districts with concentrated poverty, ended up with zero new funding—at the same level where they were last year.

This past weekend, the Speaker of the Ohio House, Larry Householder told the Columbus Dispatch that the new plan probably cannot be adjusted quickly enough to be part of Ohio’s 2020-2021 biennial budget:  “I think Cupp-Patterson needs a lot more work… I don’t think it can be done in the time frame for this budget.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel explains the problems with the plan and Householder’s concerns: “Over two years, the plan would mean a $280 increase per pupil on average for districts with student poverty rates of at least 60 percent.  Meanwhile, the increase is $392 per pupil for districts with poverty concentration of less than 15 percent.  Several urban districts get little or no additional money.  For Householder, that means more new money for districts that, thanks to local tax revenue, are already funded at an ‘excellent level,’ while less is going to schools where kids have ‘tons of disadvantages.’ That, he said, compounds a revenue imbalance that already exists between poor and wealthy districts. ‘It’s going to create a funding system that’s going to bring a greater amount of inequity between school districts… And there’s no way that it doesn’t.'”

For a fascinating analysis of the complexities that must be addressed by any Ohio school funding plan, I encourage readers of this blog to listen to Jim Siegel’s podcast from last Thursday: Why Is School Funding Still Broken? Siegel talks with two people who bring very different experiences to the conversation. Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s school funding expert has been tracking and advising the legislature about Ohio school finance since 1991.  Julie Wagner Feasel is a member of the school board in Olentangy, a suburban school district just north of Columbus and the fastest growing school district in the state in terms of families moving in.

We learn from Julie Wagner Feasel that even the state’s wealthiest school districts—as measured by property valuation and family income—have been ill-served by our current formula. Olentangy is a wealthy suburban district that for several years has been receiving less state funding than the amount the state awards to private schools for auxiliary services.  Between 2009 and 2014, Olentangy gained 6,000 students at a time when the formula was frozen and the district was on guarantee.  Between 2014 and 2019, the district has been under a “gain cap,” freezing the district’s state funding as it gained another 4,000 or 5,000 students.  Under the proposed Cupp-Patterson formula, which awards what the district needs as measured by its rapid growth, Olntangy will get a significant boost just because its state revenue has been frozen for over a decade.

In the podcast, Howard Fleeter defends the needs of the state’s poorest school districts, those which have lost population but still need additional funds to address the barriers that confront the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. Fleeter suggests that districts serving a high concentration of student poverty need a third more revenue per pupil.  Fleeter disputes Wagner Feasel’s worry that more money would just be absorbed by teachers’ salaries: “Putting resources into classrooms is important. There is important value in teaching, and with salaries, you get what you pay for. To attract good teachers and keep them, you must pay them well… Stability in staff makes a successful school.”

Fleeter also explains why it is enormously complicated to create a state school funding formula that addresses the needs of all 610 of Ohio’s school districts.  We have more big cities than any state except California or Texas—Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, and then a bit smaller—Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown, and then a couple of tiers slightly smaller but still big cities.  We have rural Appalachian poverty and then a whole different rural economy on the west side of the state. Then there are the growing outer suburbs and the inner suburbs that are more urban.  How do we calculate equity and adequacy across this array of very legitimate needs?

In his report on the plan’s likely delay, Siegel quotes Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder commenting on the complexity of the problem: “If all we had to do was worry about poor, rural school districts, we could fix that in a heartbeat… But we’ve got everything under the sun in Ohio.”

It will perhaps take another biennial budget cycle before Ohio can create the political will to pass a truly equitable new school funding plan.  In the meantime, however, the Cupp-Patterson plan addresses one concern that could and should be resolved in a stand-alone bill. Ohio has been operating for years with a punitive accountability system beginning with the state report cards that brand the poorest school district with low grades, the third-grade guarantee, the location of charter schools and the EdChoice voucher eligibility in what the state consider academically distressed (low-scoring) school zones and districts, and finally the state takeovers that are currently being seriously challenged in other stand-alone bills.

The Cupp-Patterson Plan proposes to substitute full state funding of school privatization—vouchers and charter schools—for what is now a school district deduction plan.  While today, the child who secures a voucher or leaves for a charter is counted in a school district’s Average Daily Membership, and then carries the voucher or charter amount out of the school district’s budget, in the Cupp-Patterson Plan the state would fully fund the cost of these privatization schemes. In a number of school districts today, the child carries away more in the school district charter school or voucher deduction than the state’s per-pupil funding to that district. Because standardized test scores correlate, in the aggregate, with family and neighborhood economics, the current plan punishes the state’s poorest school districts by locating voucher and charter eligibility in those districts and then extracting the funding for the vouchers and charters from their local budgets. The current plan exacerbates inequity by further reducing the school district budgets in already poor school districts.

The state should not wait two years to address this inequity in the next budget. If the legislature is going to privatize education, the full expense should fall on the state budget and not on the already meager budgets of the state’s poorest school districts.

Long Awaited Bipartisan School Funding Plan Proposed for Ohio

Yesterday  Ohio Representatives Robert Cupp (R-Lima) and John Patterson (D-Jefferson) released a much needed, bipartisan proposal for a new Ohio school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, of course, is preliminary.  It will be proposed as the substance of the Ohio House Education Budget and would have to be enacted by the Legislature. (Quotes in this post come from the preliminary PowerPoint presentation from Monday afternoon’s session.)

Conceptually the plan described yesterday afternoon would raise the level of state support for K-12 public education to a more adequate level and additionally address what is currently inequitable distribution of funding across the state’s 610 school districts.  The Cupp-Patterson Plan considers not only each school district’s capacity to raise funds from its local property tax base but also considers the amount and concentration of family poverty.

The details are not yet available, and of course, the details matter a lot in a school funding formula.  A state can make its formula more equitable, while at the same time underfunding the total allocation of state funds; such a plan merely levels down all districts.  We’ll need to look at the amount of funding the Cupp-Patterson Plan recommends.  Then, of course, because this plan is intended to serve as the basis of the Ohio House Education Budget, we’ll need to look at what the Legislature agrees to fund. A workable school funding formula would need to be fully funded.

In recent years without a fair and adequate formula, Ohio has merely imposed punitive, outcomes-based school accountability—punishing the lowest scoring schools and school districts.  Currently Ohio rates and ranks schools and districts on a state report card largely derived from aggregate standardized test scores—which have for decades been shown to correlate less with school quality and more with family and neighborhood poverty.  The state has driven state and local dollars out of the lowest-scoring school districts—through a school district deduction system—to pay for students carrying away vouchers for private school tuition and a fixed amount to charter schools. The bottom-scoring school districts  have been seized by the state, with state overseers appointed, the local school board discredited, local democracy destroyed.  But the state has at the same time provided too little funding for its poorest districts.

Yesterday’s presentation addresses the school-district-deduction penalty for school choice: “Students participating in school choice programs… will not be included in resident district student count”; the vouchers and charter allocation will be funded by the state.  This provision will ensure that no school district will lose more state charter and voucher dollars than the district would receive for those students in state aid. The current school-district-deduction for school choice has been a serious and inequitable problem for many school districts.

For the first time Representatives Cupp and Patterson have proposed to increase financial support for our state’s poorest school districts as measured not only by the size of their property tax base but also by aggregate family income.  The goal is to increase the capacity of the poorest school districts to better support families and meet the children’s needs. Yesterday’s presentation declares: “Ohio school funding is a patchwork not based on student needs.”

The new plan challenges the state to: “base state school funding on what students actually need to succeed in a rapidly changing world; assess every community’s capacity to pay its fair share—transparently; and treat all Ohio’s school districts and taxpayers as fairly as possible.”  Its proponents claim their formula considers what it really costs to operate a school district and address the needs of every child.

Representative Cupp promises that the formula  will be fair and stable—characteristics that Ohio’s funding formula has chronically lacked. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel quotes Cupp: “Our current funding formula, forged in the last recession, is seriously flawed… It’s not any longer even functioning as a formula.”

Currently, according to yesterday’s presentation, 80 percent of Ohio’s school districts are on guarantee—meaning they receive what they got last year—or that their funding from the state has been capped.  In order for a formula to work, a state must fund it, but when 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee, it means the state is not budgeting enough money to pay what the state’s own formula says the districts need.  If the new plan is enacted by the legislature and fully funded, the authors of the new plan project that 84 percent of Ohio’s school districts will be on the formula with only 16 percent—the wealthiest districts in the state—on guarantee.

In a tweet, Innovation Ohio’s @Steve Dyer who attended the presentation in Columbus, reported an additional promise made when the formula was presented: “Wow. will build in inflationary increases and re-examine the costs every four years.”

Ohio’s current funding plan is also unstable.  It calculates each district’s state funding by comparing each school district’s local funding capacity to a constantly changing state average. Hence a district’s funding can vary relative to an average that changes every year, at the same time the district’s needs remain constant.  In the new plan, “State/local shares are calculated using residents’ income and each district’s property value and won’t shift unless that district’s income or property values change.”  The new formula will be based 60 percent on property valuation and 40 percent on the income of the school district’s residents.

The new Cupp-Patterson formula is a foundation plan which provides a base cost per child. Additionally it adds categorical funding depending on the number of children who fall into particular categories designated in state law—for poverty, preschool, special education, gifted education, English language learning, career-tech, STEM, Open Enrollment, students leaving for charter schools, students carrying away a voucher, transportation needs, and the presence of an educational service center.

The new plan’s designers explain that the plan will combine state and local dollars according to a formula that will cover actual costs, provide freedom to districts to use state funds for local needs they determine, and ensure that every district has enough money for quality classroom instruction, co-curriculars, social-emotional needs, counselors, technology, safety, and professional development for teachers. The plan includes enriched pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds living in poverty, and it funds special education at 100 percent, instead of the current 90 percent level.

The new plan grew out of a two year Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty, a special task force chaired by Representative Robert Cupp.  In its final report, the Cupp Task Force emphasized the need for greater support for schools serving children in poverty. The Task Force’s recommendations include wraparound health and social services, expanded early childhood education, equitable access to career education, and enough money that all Ohio school districts can afford  challenging curriculum and well-qualified teachers.  The Governor’s budget proposal released last week addresses the need for wraparound social and medical services.

Reporting yesterday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias quoted Representatives Cupp and Patterson declaring that their plan would finally make Ohio’s school funding constitutional: “(T)hey say it will reduce Ohio’s reliance in school funding on local property values—the core of a landmark series of rulings from the Ohio Supreme Court that found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional more than 20 years ago… ‘I think this meets all the requirements of the DeRolph decision,’ Cupp said.”

Representatives Cupp and Patterson and the public school educators and school finance experts who worked with them to create the new plan conclude: “We ask our legislators and all Ohioans to consider our plan in its entirety, as a essential roadmap to guide school funding decisions.” The proposed formula is comprehensive.  If the members of the Legislature tinker with it, and unless members of the legislature fund it, it will lose its capacity to distribute school funding adequately and fairly.

Of course the biggest question is about Ohio’s capacity, after years of tax cuts, to pay for an adequate and equitable school funding plan. Patterson was asked this question yesterday afternoon and Siegel reports his response: “Asked if, based on what they know about recent two-year revenue estimates from the state budget office and the Legislative Service Commission, there is enough money to pay for the plan, Patterson said, “The question is do we have the will to fund what we really need to fund if we truly believe that every student ought to have a chance to succeed?  This is an investment in Ohio.”

This is a preliminary analysis of the principles and concepts in the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.  Details about the cost of the plan and how each school district will fare will be released on Friday.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel adds that Cupp and Patterson “hope to phase-in the proposal over four years, and during that time, no district would get less money than they currently receive.”

New School Finance Report Confirms Funding Shortages Striking Teachers Have Been Showing Us

For nearly two decades the preferred spin of policymakers at federal and state levels has been that financial investments (inputs) are far less important than evidence of academic achievement (outcomes as measured by standardized tests). And the outcomes were supposed to be achieved by pressuring teachers to work harder and smarter. Somehow teachers have been expected to deliver a miracle at the same time classes got bigger; nurses, counselors and librarians were cut; and teacher turnover increased as salaries lagged.

Statements of justice in public education have always been a little vague about the most direct path to get there.  One of my favorite definitions of public education’s purpose is from Benjamin Barber’s 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research, which math illiterates would reject. Schooling allows those born poor to compete with those born rich; allows immigrants to feel as American as the self-proclaimed daughters and sons of the American Revolution; allows African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought here in bondage, to fight for the substance (rather than just the legal forms) of their freedom.”  (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 12-13)

There are many reasons to consider Barber’s principles carefully in Trump’s America. In the specific case of the provision of education, however, we ought to consider this question: Can these words—“Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer”— be achieved without our society’s investing in tangible inputs like class size and numbers of counselors and the presence of school music programs?  For a year now—in walkouts and strikes—schoolteachers have been telling us that policymakers are naive to believe inputs don’t matter.  In a new report, K-12 School Funding Up in Most 2018 Teacher-Protest States, But Still Well Below Decade Ago, the Center on Budget and Priorities (CBPP) confirms teachers’ outrage about the collapse of financial investment in their schools.

CBPP’s new report summarizes school funding in several of the states where striking teachers have called attention to their states’ long collapse of funding for K-12 public education: “Protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, four of the 12 states that had cut school ‘formula’ funding—the primary state revenue source for schools—most deeply over the last decade. Despite last year’s improvements, however, formula funding remains well below 2008 levels in these states.”

CBPP explains further that to end teachers’ strikes, legislators too frequently went for a quick fix instead of a stable solution: “Three of the four teacher-protest states that increased formula funding last year used revenue sources that may prove unsustainable…. Arizona teachers ended their strike after Governor Doug Ducey signed a budget giving them a 20 percent salary increase over three years.  But the budget doesn’t include the new revenue required to finance the planned spending…. North Carolina’s legislature increased funding for schools without raising new revenue to do so, even though the state faces a revenue shortfall next year for covering ongoing needs, primarily due to unsustainable income tax cuts that began to take effect in 2014… Oklahoma funded pay increases for teachers and other public employees that included a hike in cigarette taxes, a boost in gasoline taxes, and an increase in the tax rate on oil extraction.  While these revenue sources were adequate to cover the pay hikes, they may not be in the future.”

Even the emergency increases after teachers’ strikes are not enough: “Most of the teacher-protest states had cut their formula funding so deeply over the last decade that even last year’s sizeable funding boosts weren’t enough to restore funding to pre-recession levels.  For example, in Oklahoma, per-student formula funding remains 15 percent below 2008 levels, including inflation adjustments.  And per-student formula funding in Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well, is still well below pre-recession levels.”

In twelve states, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil formula funding remains below the 2008 level—down by 20 percent in Texas, 15 percent in Oklahoma,15 percent in Alabama, 13 percent in Kentucky, 12 percent in Kansas, 9 percent in Michigan, 8 percent in West Virginia, 8 percent in Utah, 7 percent in North Carolina, 6 percent in Arizona, 3 percent in Mississippi, and 3 percent in Idaho.

Why does per-pupil formula funding matter so much?  “K-12 schools in every state rely heavily on state aid. On average, 47 percent of school revenues in the United States come from state funds. Local governments provide another 45 percent; the remaining 8 percent comes from the federal government… Most states target at least some funds to districts with greater student need (e.g., more students from low-income families) and less ability to raise funds from property taxes and other local revenues. These features make state formula funding an especially important source of funding for schools in high-poverty areas, which disproportionately educate children of color.  That said, this targeting often doesn’t fully equalize educational spending across wealthy and poor school districts… Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding… generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.”

Statewide aggregate data shows that local school districts have to some extent been able to cushion the effect of reduced state funds: “In 2016, for the first time since the recession hit, a majority of states (26 states) provided higher levels of total state and local funding per student than they did before the recession took hold.” “While combined state and local funding in 2016 was nearly back to pre-recession levels nationally, state funding was down $167 per student while local funding was up $161.  Local funding increases help school districts absorb deep cuts in state funds, but a shift toward local funding raises equity concerns.  Because school districts in neighborhoods with high property values find it much easier to raise adequate revenue than districts where property values are low, a shift toward more local funding can exacerbate school funding inequities.”  Besides worrying about inequity, it is important to note that in 24 states—nearly half—the level of combined state and local school funding in 2016 remains below pre-recession funding when adjusted for inflation.

We have watched and listened all year to a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and falling salaries.  CBPP concludes its report with a table displaying falling pay between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 school years.  Teachers’ salaries rose in only 8 states and the District of Columbia.  In 42 states salaries, adjusted for inflation, dropped. The collapse in salaries is shocking particularly in the states where salaries have fallen farthest—by 16 percent in Mississippi, 15.6 percent in Colorado, 15.3 percent in Oklahoma, 11.4 percent in Illinois, 11.2 percent in West Virginia,  9.8 percent in Arizona, 9.7 percent in Indiana, 9 percent in Ohio, 8.8 percent in Washington, and 8.8 percent in Virginia.

Talking about education in stark terms like inputs vs. outcomes seems cold. This year striking school teachers have helped us visualize what it means. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms with solid data what the teachers have been showing us.

Stunning New Report: How Can Our Society Repay A Long Education Debt to Our Poorest Communities?

How can our society overcome nearly a quarter century of catastrophic public education policy designed by neocons, supply side economists, billionaire privatizers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council?  A new report, released yesterday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, outlines three steps by which we can recommit ourselves to a public school system prepared to serve and nurture all of America’s children.

  1. Congress must fund fully two federal programs designed to help school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty and children with special needs: Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
  2. Together the federal government, states and local school districts must, by 2025, launch 25,000 sustainable, wraparound Community Schools to ensure that children and families in our poorest communities have access to supports that will enable the children to achieve at school; and
  3. The U.S. Department of Education must recommit itself to its primary purpose: ensuring equity across America’s over 90,000 public schools.

The report challenges federal and state governments together to address today’s reality: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per-pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources. By failing to provide adequate funding, we deny these children the chance to fulfill their potential.”

School finance is a three part bargain, with each school district taxing itself (currently roughly 45 percent of school funding); states providing revenue (currently about 47 percent) and creating a state distribution formula to overcome disparities in local capacity; and the federal government providing a relatively smaller amount (currently roughly 8 percent) to support students with particular needs and to oversee civil rights. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools outlines five policy mistakes which have compounded a fiscal crisis over time for public schools in poor communities and areas without sufficient capacity to raise funding locally:

  1. Congress has failed to fund Title I and the IDEA at the levels promised when these programs were enacted.
  2. Local funding in the poorest communities is inadequate even when the citizens make a significant tax effort; and the states have failed to distribute their funds to eradicate inequity across local school districts.
  3. Current tax policies at the federal level and in many states have become regressive in the extreme, with tax policy benefiting corporations and the very wealthy, and services for the rest of us—public schools, for example—suffering.
  4. States have increased spending for incarceration and reduced education budgets at the same time school districts have increasingly replaced counselors and social workers with what are called School Resource Officers (guards).
  5. Privatization—investments in privately operated charter schools and private school tuition vouchers—at federal, state, and local levels has deliberately devastated traditional public schools when funds are extracted to pay for charters and vouchers out of fixed or declining public school budgets.

When Congress established Title I in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the intent was to provide significant extra dollars to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—an overwhelming challenge for any school district: “Not only did lawmakers recognize the need for additional resources—they attempted to quantify it.  Embedded in the law is the authorization… to provide school districts an additional 40 percent for each Title I-eligible child so that their schools could offer supplemental supports such as reading specialists and smaller class sizes. Having established that 40 percent target in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.” In graphic form, the report demonstrates that Title I funding declined between 2005 between 2017: from 18 percent of the original 40 percent Congressional commitment in 2005 to only 12 percent today.

The report concludes: “The impact of those under-funded appropriations is wrenchingly clear. If Title I was fully funded by Congress, the nation’s high-poverty schools could provide: health and mental health services for every student…; and a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and a full-time additional counselor for every Title I school; OR a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom across the country.”

The story is similar with what was promised in 1975, when Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  But there is one difference: In the IDEA, Congress mandated specific services schools must provide for disabled students. “The financial assumption underlying IDEA is that on average, the cost of educating a child with disabilities is twice the cost of educating a non-disabled student. IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.”  Again, the report graphically presents the underfunding of the 40 percent promise. In 2005, Congress funded 18 percent of he cost of IDEA’s mandated services, and the percentage has declined since then to 15 percent today.  When funding support is lacking from the federal government for mandatory IDEA services, school districts must cover the rest of the cost with general fund dollars—meaning larger classes for the general student population, fewer counselors, no librarian, no school nurse.

Please read the report (executive summary) for a more detailed picture of where our society has gone terribly wrong and what we need to do to make it right.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools represents parents, youths, teachers, and community and labor organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.

Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall.  It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.

The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”

The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB).  Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”

While The Court approved this system as the path to equity,  the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong.  Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.

Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said.  But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”

Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”

In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.

What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008.  Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.

On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

By Threatening Protections for Teachers, “Janus” Case Also Threatens Students’ Interests

Jeff Bryant’s piece on Tuesday about what the St. Paul Federation of Teachers accomplished in its recent negotiations and threatened strike couldn’t be more timely. The union negotiated an agreement with the school district on February 12, 2018.

After all, on Monday, February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME.  This is the most recent case to challenge union “agency” or “shop” fees charged to teachers or other public employees who elect not to join a union but whose interests are represented by the union they have chosen not to join. These non-members are already exempt from paying the portion of union membership fees that cover the union’s political activity. The current case was brought by Mark Janus an Illinois member of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council.

The Associated Press‘s Mark Sherman explains the Janus case targeting public employee unions: “The unions represent more than 5 million government workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia.”  The U.S. Supreme Court considered the same issue two years ago in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but the justices split 4 to 4 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. At the time, after Justice Scalia’s death, Louis Freedberg reported for EdSource that the, “U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition from the plaintiffs… to rehear the case that the court had already ruled on in a 4-4 opinion….” Experts are less optimistic about the Janus case, because President Trump’s very conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch will likely decide the case.

These court cases to deny membership dues to public employee unions are, of course, an attack on the continued existence and political power of the unions themselves. These days teachers unions are in the cross hairs because of their size and political power.  Jeff Bryant covers the recent settlement negotiated between the St. Paul, Minnesota teachers union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and the school district’s administration only hours before a threatened teachers’ strike. Bryant’s piece demonstrates why a decision to undermine teachers unions in the Janus case would undermine the public interest—in this case by denying urgently needed services for the children in the schools of St. Paul, Minnesota. At the heart of the union contract being negotiated were demands that the school district invest in direct programming for children.

Nick Faber, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, is described by Bryant, framing the threatened teachers’ strike about “things that have to do with students.” Bryant continues: “While the union got quick tentative agreements on ‘cost-neutral’ proposals the district was most reluctant to agree on things that cost money, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices—an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. Reducing class sizes necessitates hiring more teachers and perhaps building more classrooms.  Improving the learning experiences for children who don’t speak English well or who have learning disabilities requires hiring new staff specialists….  And implementing new discipline practices means teachers have to be trained in the new practices and they need time for the process of reconciliation to play out.”

Bryant explores serious school funding challenges even in a state known historically for being relatively generous to schools: “Minnesota, normally thought of as one of the more progressive states in the nation, has for the past few decades trended with most of the rest of the country in cutting public services while giving more tax breaks to private organizations and the wealthiest individuals.  Education funding has been particularly hard hit, with aid to public schools nearly $1 billion short, in inflation adjusted dollars of what it was in FY 2003, according to a calculation by the North Star Policy Institute. Nearly $400 million of this reduction is concentrated in just two districts: Minneapolis and St. Paul, the districts with the highest concentrations of low-income black and brown students. Recently, Minnesota increased education spending to slightly exceed pre-recession levels. But funding increases have been too small to keep pace with the growing needs of educating English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

No strike by school teachers during a contract negotiation can command an increase in either state funding or local school taxes, but, according to Bryant, “Using their contract negotiations as leverage, St. Paul teachers aimed to address under-funding by publicly calling on the district to join forces with them to go after big money holders to pay their fair share to support public schools.”  One demand is that large, tax-free nonprofits, which are making relatively small  “compensatory” donations to the schools as gifts, begin to make gifts that are commensurate with their size. “The city had also given businesses millions of dollars in various forms of tax abatements….  And big businesses use their charitable contributions to local schools for public relations purposes while dodging far larger amounts of tax contributions they could be paying to the community.” “St. Paul Federation of Teachers presented a detailed analysis showing Minnesota corporations had benefited from changes in state laws to substantially lower their effective tax rates and sequester much of their holdings in offshore tax havens.”

It will be important to watch whether the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ advocacy for fairer and more generous taxing policies pays off by yielding local changes in policies like tax abatement and in state school finance increases, but in the meantime, according to union president Faber, “We spend a lot of time coalition building with other local organizations.” Bryant concludes, “One consequence of this kind of broad-based organizing is that parents in St. Paul are visibly on the teachers’ side and have become vehemently opposed to any proposals to further cut funding for their children’s schools.”

Minnesota is a state where public employee collective bargaining remains strong, unlike its neighbor, Wisconsin, which led the attack on public sector unions—beginning in 2011, after the 2010 red tide in which eleven states experienced the election of trifecta Republican governments—senate, house, and governor. Here is Gordon Lafer, in The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, describing the anti-union wave across these states: “Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states. All of this–deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensations, and the dramatic rollback of public services–was forcibly championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state… Furthermore, cuts in public services were not made reluctantly—as a temporary calamity to be mitigated whenever possible—but were embraced by legislators as an affirmative policy choice. Many of the states that enforced the most draconian cuts simultaneously adopted new tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy…”  (pp. 45-46) “The labor movement serves as the primary political counterweight to the corporate agenda on a long list of issues that are not per se labor-related. To the extent that unions can be removed as a politically meaningful force, the rest of the agenda becomes much easier to execute.” (p. 93)

As we watch what happens with the Janus case later this spring, it will be important to remember that in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the teachers’ contract came up for negotiation this winter, the teachers demanded as negotiating points the expansion of programs needed by their students. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers lifted up the need to reduce class size, improve education services for English learners and special education students, and redesign the discipline system to focus on mediation and reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. And the union made a point of challenging tax breaks to benefit corporations and the wealthy, who, teachers insisted, should be supporting the wellbeing of the community and its children.

Update: For an in-depth discussion of the Janus case and its implications, check out this article in today’s Detroit News.

David Sciarra’s Prescription for Curing Chris Christie’s Education Malaise in New Jersey

A lot of us worry about how far backward our society is falling in its commitment to public responsibility. It seems overwhelming to try to imagine how states and the federal government can crawl out from a deep hole dug by tax cutting, privatization, and elimination of services and programs many of us have assumed government will provide. Kansas during Sam Brownback’s tenure as governor has stood out for the failure of his experiment in tax slashing and supply side, trickle-down economics.  But despite that Governor Chris Christie was checked by Democratic legislative majorities, he also left a stain on public education.  Christie formally left office on January 15.

Here is how the executive director of the Education Law Center, David Sciarra describes Christie’s problematic public education legacy: “He set the tone in the 2010 state budget—his first—when he pushed through a $1 billion school-funding cut, wiping out two years of increases under the School Funding Reform Act (SRFA), the landmark weighted funding-formula enacted in 2008. In his budgets over the next seven years, Christie refused to fund the SFRA formula, blowing a $1 billion annual hole in district budgets and forcing cuts to essential staff, programs and services. But there’s more: He staunchly resisted expanding preschool; pushed for vouchers; allowed the state school construction fund to run dry; approved big expansions by out-of-state charter chains with no regard for the impact on district budgets; opposed restoring local control to state operated districts; and ignored the need to support improvements in struggling district schools. He even tried to replace the SFRA with the flat per-pupil funding.”

Sciarra’s catalog of failures omits Marc Zuckerberg’s experimental and ill-fated $100 million gift to fund the massive charter school expansion in Newark.  Newark’s schools had been under state control for two decades when Governor Christie and then-Newark-Mayor Cory Booker hatched their grand plan, sold it to Zuckerberg and orchestrated Zuckerberg’s presentation of his big check on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Dale Russakoff’s The Prize covered the damage to the community. Here are this blog’s posts on the unsuccessful  Zuckerberg-Christie-Booker experiment.

Sciarra has a personal and professional understanding of the urgent need to address the damage inflicted by Chris Christie. Long before Christie’s tenure, thanks to the Education Law Center, New Jersey became a beacon for adequately funding its schools and doing more than other states to ameliorate school inequity.  The Education Law Center, which Sciarra now leads, litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke. On its website, the Education Law Center traces the lengthy history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”  Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case was, in 1998, the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In 2013, David Kirp, a public policy professor at the U. of California at Berkeley, published Improbable Scholars, the story of the improvement of the public schools in one New Jersey school district. In the book, Kirp describes the long impact of Abbott v. Burke, probably the most effective, court-driven school funding remedy across any of the fifty states: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

With the 2017 election of Phil Murphy as governor, New Jersey became an all-Democratic state with Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature.  What does David Sciarra believe ought to be Governor Murphy’s priorities? Here is his list: move toward full funding for every school district under the School Reform Act; continue to expand the esteemed Abbott preschools for all three- and four-year-olds; refuse to institute private school tuition vouchers; and refuse to expand charter schools which threaten public school funding and school integration.

The decades of legal challenges brought to challenge Abbott v. Burke demonstrate that threats to adequate school funding, equitably distributed will not disappear.  Realizing that children’s needs remain vulnerable, Sciarra quotes from the writer of the 1998 Abbott V decision, who recognizes that ongoing threats to New Jersey school funding, “render it essential that (children’s) interests remain prominent, paramount and fully protected.”

Public School Funding Matters, Even in this Political Season

If you really think about it, you might find it surprising that in Tuesday night’s Vice Presidential debate neither candidate for Vice President of the United States spent any time really talking about many of the issues that affect us all from day to day. Although they strongly disagree, both Tim Kaine, Virginia’s U.S. senator and former governor, and Mike Pence, Indiana’s current governor, care deeply about education, which is surely among the everyday matters of concern for America’s citizens. Mike Pence has been a strong promoter in his state of the preferred educational policies of the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, and Tim Kaine’s wife was, until the current campaign got underway, the state superintendent of education in Virginia.

However bizarre the campaign for President is this year, you will likely find it reassuring to be reminded that in some places the voters are paying attention to the condition of their public schools.  On Tuesday evening, just before the Vice Presidential debate, for example, the PBS NewsHour aired a story about forty teachers in Oklahoma who have chosen to run this fall for positions in the Oklahoma state legislature.  Reporter Lisa Stark explains: “Oklahoma schools have already lost a lot. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in per-pupil spending. And since 2008, the legislature has cut spending per student by 24 percent, the largest drop in the nation, leading to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms. More than 100 districts have approved four-day school weeks.”

Stark interviews Oklahoma’s teacher of the year who is running for state senate, along with other candidates—a recently retired 35-year  special education teacher, and a high school English teacher recently laid off in budget cuts. They are running for office based on their personal experience in the state’s under-funded schools.  Stark also speaks with David Boren, former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor and now president of the University of Oklahoma: “We’re headed for dead last in what we spend in the nation among all the states on the education of our students, and we’re losing our best and brightest teachers to all the states that surround us, because they pay so much more in their salaries, every single one of them.  So, we’re at a crossroads.” Boren supports a ballot measure to raise the sales tax by one percent for education and boost annual teacher salaries by $5,000: “It’s not a perfect solution, but we can’t sit here and wait. Are we going to wait until we have 100,000 students in classrooms with no teachers, qualified teachers?  Are we going to go to three-day school weeks?”

And on Tuesday, the day of the Vice Presidential debate, Chalkbeat NY reported: “More than 20 parents, students and educators are marching 150 miles from New York City to Albany to demand the state pay billions of dollars they say New York’s schools are owed under the terms of the 2006 settlement (in the school funding case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York). The suit argued that the state needed to increase education funding in needy school districts in order to provide all students with a sound basic education.  But after the recession hit, the will to funnel billions more into schools waned.” Supporters of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, the sponsor of the march to Albany, are hopeful that progress can be made to press New York’s legislature to fund what the court called “a sound, basic education.”

To mark the 10th anniversary of New York’s school funding decision, the Alliance for Quality Education also released a new report that declares: “2016 marks ten years since New York State was found in violation of its constitutional obligation to provide ‘a sound basic education’ to each student in the state…  Ten years later there are still schools across the state that offer limited access to art and music, or to sequences of Advanced Placement courses or other electives. Some schools have classes with 30 or even 40 students. Some schools do not have enough teachers or support staff.  Schools have guidance counselor to student ratios as high as 1 to 800 while the recommended ratio is 1 to 250.”  The state created the Foundation Aid formula as part of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement but it has never been fully funded.  The Alliance for Quality Education explains that in the current year’s budget, the state assembly included a multi-year plan fully to fund Foundation Aid, but the governor and senate balked. This week marchers from New York City to Albany continue to press the legislature to fulfill its commitment: “The Governor and the Senate Majority should join the Assembly and commit to fully funding CFE.  The 2017-18 state budget must provide $3.9 billion in Foundation Aid over two years.  Such commitment must include funding the Foundation Aid formula at $1.95 billion each year.  The Foundation Aid formula must also be revised to reflect current data and poverty level of each district.”

Then there is Kansas, where a task force appointed by Governor Sam Brownback has just proposed eliminating monthly reports that compare tax collections with projections.  The Associated Press‘s John Hanna explains: “Kansas has struggled to meet revenue targets and balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging as an economic stimulus.  Tax collections were nearly $45 million less than anticipated in September and fell short of expectations for 32 of the 45 months—71 percent of the time—since the first tax cuts took effect.  For at least several decades, monthly comparisons of tax collections against projections have indicated how the state’s budget is faring.  But the term-limited governor’s fiscal policies are a major issue in legislative races, and the reports have been a regular dose of bad news ahead of the November election.”

While Governor Brownback and his allies seem to want to hide the bad news, the voters in Kansas seem to be paying attention, partly due to a long slide in funding for public schools.  Hanna reports: “The governor is term-limited, but his political allies face a potential backlash.  Fourteen GOP conservatives lost their seats in the August primary, and Democrats hope to cut into Republican supermajorities in both chambers in the Nov. 8 election.  If they do, they and GOP moderates could form governing coalitions that attempt to roll back key Brownback tax policies.”

It is worth paying attention to these nuts-and-bolts political stories that are not making the headlines in this fraught political season.