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.

Experts Reject Christie’s School Funding Idea: Steal from Poorest Schools to Aid Rich Suburbs

In late June, Governor Chris Christie proposed an amendment to New Jersey’s state constitution for the purpose of imposing a new flat school funding plan across his state. Christie’s new idea is to give every school district across New Jersey the same per pupil state aid of $6,599. It would be up to local school districts to make up for cuts in what they now receive from the state, even though most poor school districts do not have the fiscal capacity to raise the rest. Christie’s stated reason is to lower taxes in the wealthy suburbs that have already been able to raise most of their school funding locally by levying millage on their local property.

In late June, the NY Times editorial board summarized the plan: “(A) flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources.  The state is required by law to send more money to those communities because they simply don’t have the tax base or property values to raise additional revenues on their own.  The New Jersey Supreme Court mandated this approach in Abbott v. Burke, a case named for Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden who received no services for a learning disability and was barely literate at the age of 15.  The court ruled in 1990, and in many rulings since, that New Jersey was bound by the State Constitution to fund districts at a level that allows all children to receive an education that enables them to participate in the economy and a democratic society… The 31 New Jersey school districts…known as ‘Abbott Districts’ educate nearly a quarter of the state’s students, more than 40 percent of its poor children and 56 percent of its English language learners.”

Christie’s plan would neither account for the disparities in school districts’ capacities to raise local revenue (disparities growing from the very different valuation of taxable property from school district to school district) nor recognize a central principle of educational equity, namely that some children need more services at school and those services cost money. The political philosopher Benjamin Barber defines this principle clearly in his 1992 book on public education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… 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.” (p. 13)  While Christie’s proposal would provide extra money for children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal requirement that even Chris Christie can’t ignore, his plan would help wealthy suburban school districts by increasing their state funding and would suck state money out of the property-poor and racially segregated school districts that serve the mass of New Jersey’s poorest children, including  immigrant children who need more expensive services to help them learn English.

Christie has also alleged that the property-poor school districts that received additional state aid under the Abbott school finance case have been spending outlandishly; his new plan, he says, would bring them in line.  The Education Law Center explains that Christie has been manipulating the numbers, and if Christie’s flawed calculation of school spending is corrected to account for students’ special needs,  it is clear that New Jersey’s richest suburbs—the ones Christie would help with his new flat plan—are the districts already spending the most relative to the needs of their students: “The most accurate way to compare resources in NJ districts is using a calculation—‘funding per weighted pupil’—that acknowledges that the cost of educating students is not the same, but varies based on the characteristics of a district’s enrollment… The concept is simple and universally accepted in education finance: children at risk from family and community poverty, those who are learning English, and students with disabilities need additional supports and interventions, and districts need additional funds to pay for them.”  And in New Jersey, “When calculated by weighted per pupil funding, 44 of the top 100 districts are high wealth, and only four are low wealth… Far from having ‘extravagant’ funding as the Governor claims, 26 of the … Abbotts are in the bottom half of districts in the state when ranked by weighted per pupil funding….”  And in fact, since Christie became New Jersey’s governor, the state has quietly been increasing funding for high wealth school districts and slowly decreasing the state’s support for the districts that serve the state’s poorest children.

The Education Law Center has also calculated the financial impact of Governor Christie’s flat funding proposal, and it is devastating: “”(U)nder the Governor’s plan, 143 districts would have their budges cut, with the poorest districts bearing the overwhelming brunt of the aid cuts.  These 78 low wealth districts would lose, on average, a staggering $7,417 per pupil, representing 40% of their total operating budgets.  Fifty-six middle wealth districts would be cut an average of $1,494 per pupil, or 8% of their operating budgets. In sharp contrast, all 129 high wealth districts… would not be cut but instead would receive a huge influx as state aid is transferred from the poorer districts.” Overall it is estimated that low and middle wealth districts would be forced to lay off 29,000 staff as a result of Christie’s redistribution of state school aid.

In two research briefs published this summer, school finance experts at Rutgers University evaluate Christie’s plan. In How Fair is the ‘Fairness Formula’ for New Jersey School Children & Taxpayers?  Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth explain Christie’s justification for a new school funding plan: “Governor Christie has touted his plan on the basis of several claims: that suburban school districts are overtaxed, that urban districts collect relatively small amounts of local taxes to support their schools, and that urban districts have not shown improvement even with large infusions of state aid.”  Weber and Srikanth note that lowering taxes for the rich ought not to be the goal of a school finance formula. While tax bills for residents’ of New Jersey’s wealthy suburbs may be high, it is because their incomes are considerable:  “As a percentage of income, New Jersey’s wealthiest districts have the smallest effective school property tax rates.”

What about Christie’s claim that New Jersey’s school funding for the state’s 31 Abbott Districts has failed to improve student achievement?  Weber and Srikanth review a number of reports that  measure academic improvement by test scores.  Some districts have succeeded better than others, of course, but overall: “The National Assessment of Education Progress… scores in fourth-grade reading and mathematics in central cities rose 21 and 22 points respectively between the mid-1990s and 2007… Eighth-grade NAEP scores are available starting in 2003.  Between 2003 and 2007, scores for the urban districts rose six points in eighth-grade reading and 18 points in eighth-grade mathematics, a considerably higher rate of growth than in the suburbs and statewide.”  “It is, admittedly, difficult to separate the effects of school funding reform from other potential causes of the growth in test scores for New Jersey’s at-risk and LEP (Limited English Proficient) students. This evidence, however, clearly contradicts the claim that the period of funding reform was a time of ‘failure’ for the schools that serve New Jersey’s most disadvantaged students.”

Last week, Bruce Baker and Mark Weber followed up with a new brief  demonstrating that New Jersey’s 2008, affirmatively equitable School Funding Reform Plan has not, as Christie alleges, made school funding in New Jersey inefficient in the poorest school districts.  This paper is extremely technocratic: “Efficiency analysis can be viewed from either of two perspectives: production efficiency or cost efficiency.  Production efficiency… measures the outcomes of organizational units such as schools or districts given their inputs and given the circumstances under which production occurs. That is, which schools or districts get the most bang for the buck? Cost efficiency is essentially the flip side of production efficiency. In cost efficiency analyses, the goal is to determine the minimum ‘cost’ at which a given level of outcomes can be produced under given circumstances.  That is, what’s the minimum amount of bucks we need to spend to bet the bang we desire?”

Let’s recognize some discomfort here with considering school districts as production units, students as products, and standardized test scores as the way to measure students’ progress.

But given Bruce Baker’s standing as a national school funding expert, what does he think about Christie’s contention that New Jersey’s current equitable system is inefficient?  “Contrary to current political rhetoric, New Jersey’s least efficient producers of student achievement gains are not the state’s large… Abbott districts—largely poor urban districts that benefited most in terms of state aid increases resulting from decades of litigation over school funding equity and adequacy. While some Abbott districts such as Asbury Park and Hoboken rate poorly on estimates of relative efficiency, other relatively inefficient local public school districts include some of the state’s most affluent suburban districts and small, segregated shore towns.” “Put bluntly, the Governor’s proposal not only fails on a) tax equity and b) student funding equity, as previously explained by Weber and Srikanth, but the ‘Fairness Formula’ proposal also fails on the more conservative economic argument of ‘efficient’ allocation of taxpayer dollars.”

This blog has previously covered Christie’s flat school funding plan here.

Kansas Scrounges, Creates Short-Term Funding Fix to Keep Schools Open

What just happened in Kansas vindicates school finance advocates who argue for the role of the judiciary to protect the rights of our children. Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, and the Kansas legislature have been experimenting with radical tax cuts for several years now.  Not surprisingly, Kansas has gone broke, and not surprisingly school funding—the most expensive line in most state budgets—has suffered.  But at the end of May, the Kansas Supreme Court told the executive and legislative branches of Kansas state government that despite tinkering and despite the legislature’s pretense that it had provided enough money and distributed it more fairly  (see here and here), the system has not been protecting the rights guaranteed to children and school districts under the Kansas state constitution.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that unless, by June 30, the legislature made significantly more money available to the school districts that lack the capacity to raise enough local revenue, schools could not open across the state in the fall of 2016. Late Friday, in response to this ruling, the legislature, meeting in special session, found an extra $38 million for poor school districts.  Hunter Woodall and Miranda Davis, report for the Kansas City Star: “A sense of urgency came from the Supreme Court’s warning in its recent ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30, if lawmakers didn’t make further changes. Many have programs, serve meals to poor children and provide services to special education students during the summer.”

The Senate passed the school funding measure 38-1, the House voted 116-6, and Governor Sam Brownback has now signed it. The NY Times quotes the response of Alan Rupe, attorney for the school districts who had brought the Gannon v. Kansas school funding lawsuit: “This amended legislation represents a compromise which will satisfy the court and allow schools to open.”  The legislative compromise rejected an earlier proposal to take money from all of the state’s districts to boost funding for poor districts by $13 million.

There does remain a smaller element of Robin Hood in this plan.  Three wealthy Kansas City suburban districts will lose some of their state aid, according to the Kansas City Star: “Blue Valley would lose about $2.4 million, Shawnee Mission about $1.4 million and Olathe about $75,000.”  The superintendent of Blue Valley, Todd White responded by affirming the common good: “When it comes down to it, we have to have a ‘we before me’ attitude.”

The Kansas City Star reports that bulk of the money will come from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority for $13 million, and from the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund, motor vehicle fees, and the state’s national legal settlement with tobacco companies.  John Hanna, writing for the Associated Press emphasizes the challenge of finding money in a state where tax cuts have resulted in an overall revenue shortage: “With Kansas facing an ongoing budget crunch, lawmakers avoided increasing overall state spending by diverting money from other corners of state government to schools…. The state’s fiscal woes complicated education funding issues.  Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy.  State tax collections have fallen short of expectations 10 of the past 12 months….”

In a followup analysis, Hanna continues: “Kansas is bracing for more contentious legal and political fights over education funding even after legislators approved a narrow, short-term fix to satisfy a court mandate and avoid a threatened shutdown of the state’s public schools.  Having directed lawmakers to make education funding fairer to poor areas, the Kansas Supreme Court will next consider the larger issue of whether the state spends enough overall on its schools.  The justices could rule by early next year; a trial-court panel said the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million… Kansas is likely to remain mired in the budget problems that have plagued it since Brownback persuaded lawmakers to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.  Any large increase in school spending… would require lawmakers to reconsider his signature tax cuts.”

Hanna continues: “Education funding debates often pit poor districts and small, rural ones against affluent districts in the Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, the state’s most populous county.  Educators across the state argue that regional tensions would ease if Kansas increased its overall spending on schools.  But Brownback, who blames the state’s ongoing fiscal woes on larger regional and national economic issues, said the budget will remain ‘very tight.'”

What’s the Matter with School Finance in Kansas is What’s the Matter in Many States

Yesterday the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments to see if changes made by the legislature and signed by Governor Sam Brownback in early April go far enough to remedy underfunding of public education and unequal distribution of state funds to support public schools.  The Court will decide, based on documents submitted and yesterday’s arguments from the plaintiffs and the state defendants, whether to shut down Kansas’ public schools for the upcoming school year, as threatened, or whether school funding in the state now passes constitutional muster. In its February decision, the Kansas Supreme Court said it would order the state’s schools shut down on June 30, if the legislature and governor neglected to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to distribute the funding equitably.

It is very hard to be bored by a school funding lawsuit in your own state, particularly if you have children in school and you know the school librarian and school nurse will be shared by several schools or your high school will lose its orchestra if the case goes the wrong way.  When a contested school finance case moves through your own state’s courts, you are even likely to find people arguing about it in bars, because its resolution will affect two things people really care about—their children and their taxes.  If it’s somebody else’s state, however, particularly if its way out in Kansas, well that might seem like their problem—their taxes—their children.

But here’s the thing: what’s the matter with Kansas school funding is likely also the matter in your state.  So it’s very much worth paying at least a little attention. While it used to be pretty widely accepted that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses and that the tax code ought to be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means, these days such principles are being widely questioned.  Like Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, Kansas has all-Republican government without bipartisan checks and balances—a Republican governor and both houses of the legislature dominated by Republican majorities. And just as what’s happened in a lot of these states, Governor Sam Brownback led his legislature to slash taxes—a $1.1 billion tax cut enacted in 2012 and even more in 2013.  The economy, according to trickle-down orthodoxy, was supposed to grow as a result and yield more revenue to the state, but the plan didn’t work.  States like Kansas are broke and can’t see how to afford to fix public education. Not all the states have pending lawsuits, but school funding is a problem not only in the one party states that have embraced austerity budgeting; it is also a long running problem in other places including Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

Here is what has been happening this year in Kansas. In February the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed an earlier trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional.  The Education Law Center explains the February decision: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.” Although in 2014, the legislature had made school funding adequate and equitable and satisfied the Court, in 2015, according to the editorial board of the Kansas City Star, the state gave up the formula it had recently devised and switched to school district block grants.

In March of this year, to satisfy the Court, the legislature devised a new plan, and Governor Brownback signed it into law in early April.  Press coverage of the new plan indicates that it cuts funding to some school districts but then awards it back without returning as much funding as the poorest districts desperately need.  It also includes a hold-harmless guarantee that ensures that no district will fall below the current funding level.  According to an April report in the Kansas City Star, a central problem is that because not enough total funds are available in this state that has drastically reduced taxes, it would be impossible to help the poorest districts without taking money from wealthier districts, and that, of course, is politically unpopular: “Fully funding equalization would have required spending an additional $38 million….”  The plan also allows school districts to raise local property taxes, likely to be an easier undertaking in the wealthier school districts.

A recent analysis by John Hanna for the Associated Press explains the political dilemma legislators faced in March as they developed the new plan required by the court: “It was necessary for legislators to prevent any school district from losing money even as they sought to improve funding for poorer ones, the state’s attorneys argue in court filings… Legislative committees considered proposals to boost total money to poor districts by taking funds away from as many as 100 districts.  But those measures garnered little support—partly because districts in Johnson County, the state’s most populous, faced big losses.”  Johnson County is home to the school districts of some of Kansas City’s well-off suburbs.

Alan Rupe, the attorney for the plaintiff school districts, Kansas City, Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City, is quoted as condemning the plan for its inherent inequity: ‘The state did not eliminate the distance between the districts caused by naturally occurring wealth disparities… It worsened the disparities and put the districts even further apart. They’ve done the worst possible thing.  They have left the valleys where they are and they have increased the mountaintops… I don’t think for a minute that creating greater disparity is going to satisfy the court. It’s sure not going to satisfy the plaintiffs.”  Yesterday Rupe told the justices that they have the power, “to restrict other spending in state government until or unless the schools receive other funds.”  Schools must be funded as essential public services, he said, according to the state constitution.

Whatever the outcome of the case currently before the Kansas Supreme Court, the Kansas City Star rates as zero the chance that the decision will solve the school funding problems across Kansas: “Another legal battle is under way over whether the state must spend an extra $550 million a year to fund K-12 schools.”

The decision expected by early June from the supreme court of Kansas will be important—whether legislative tinkering earlier this spring makes Kansas school funding satisfy the state constitution or whether the court will shut down public education in Kansas as of June 30 as a motive for the legislature to make more effort.

Pennsylvania Inches Toward Budget and Appropriations—for Last Year

At the end of March, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf allowed last year’s budget to become law without his signature.  While it would seem that the final arrival in late March of a state budget for the ongoing fiscal year that will end on June 30 would resolve a mass of problems for Pennsylvania’s schools, it isn’t going to be so easy.  In Pennsylvania a fight is brewing over what is called “the fiscal code” that will determine the distribution of the education dollars in the state budget.  The legislature had come up with a bipartisan proposal, but Wolf vetoed the legislature’s proposed fiscal code, believing that it fails to remedy some of the biggest problems—notably the funding crisis in the School District of Philadelphia.  And the amount in the budget is also far less than is needed by school districts across the state.

Here is Kevin McCorry’s explanation for Newsworks: “On Tuesday (April 5, 2016), Wolf released details of his ‘restoration’ funding formula to the protest of leading Republican state lawmakers.  Although Wolf allowed the state budget as passed by the Republican-controlled legislature to become law without his signature in late March, he vetoed the fiscal code code bill which, in part, acted as a roadmap for how new education funding should be apportioned… Wolf and other Democratic leaders argue that districts should first be made whole from cuts that occurred when the legislature agreed to Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 austerity plan that coincided with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.”  Corbett, a proponent of state tax cuts and austerity budgeting, devastated state support for school districts when he slashed $1.1 billion out of the public education budget.

Wolf says he does not oppose the legislature’s fiscal code distribution formula, but before it is implemented, some of the deepest cuts under Corbett must be restored.  On Tuesday, Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported, “Wolf said he is carrying through on his promise to restore funding that was cut during the Corbett years and to push for a fairer funding formula.  He said the bipartisan-backed formula that lawmakers wanted to see used—and he supports—‘cannot truly be fair unless the cuts are fully restored. Currently, only 4 percent of districts have seen their funding restored to 2010-2011 levels and we are currently over $370 million short from fully restoring the cuts.’ ”

There is $50 million of new money for schools in the budget passed by the legislature in late March.  On Tuesday, according to Murphy, “Wolf announced he planned to distribute the additional $50 million set aside in the March budget for basic education this way,

  • $25 million is being allocated for the restoration of the charter school reimbursement program.
  • $20 million is being allocated to continue to restore cuts made in 2011-2012.
  • $5 million is being allocated through the new basic aid education fair funding formula.”

Wolf had in December of 2015 already signed a partial budget that restored $150 million to schools.  Overall if Wolf has his way, according to McCorry of Newsworks, Philadelphia will see $76.8 million in additional state funds for the 2015-16 school year, “a 7.55 percent increase over last year.” McCorry adds, “Of the $5 million that Wolf plans to direct through the new student-weighted funding formula—which accounts for measures such as concentration of poverty, number of English language learners, and district geographic sparcity—Philadelphia looks to get 23 percent of the sum.”  He notes that Philadelphia serves 12 percent of the state’s students.

McCorry’s coverage focuses on Philadelphia, but the Corbett-created school funding debacle in Pennsylvania is far more widespread. Smaller cities like Reading and Allentown are struggling to provide adequate services for children, and the school funding crisis is also affecting poor rural school districts.

Several of these school districts filed a lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State, in November of 2014 that declares the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates filed an amicus brief last September, simply to ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case this spring.  Last September, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center noted: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation. The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

Despite the election in 2014 of a Democratic governor who ran on platform of correcting the school funding shortfalls imposed by Corbett and his all-Republican legislature, it will very likely take years to undo the devastation to Pennsylvania’s public schools, where, as reported in January by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pennsylvania’s general funding per student (in inflation-adjusted dollars) remains 13.2 percent lower than before the Great Recession in 2008.