New Edition of “Is School Funding Fair?” Shows Which States are Investing in Equity

On Wednesday the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education published the fifth annual Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  The report, “evaluates and compares the extent to which state finance systems ensure equality of educational opportunity for all children, regardless of background, family income, place of residence, or school location.”  The report is based on the newest data available—2013. Very recent fiscal developments are not being tracked here.

The report makes several assumptions: “Varying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs.  The costs of education vary based on geographic location, regional differences in teacher salaries, school district size, population density, and various student characteristics.  State finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty.  The overall funding level in states is also a significant element in fair school funding.  Without a sufficient base, even a progressively funded system will be unable to provide equitable educational opportunities.”

Bar graphs demonstrate how states rank by how much they invest in education, how they distribute state funding across local districts to accommodate the needs of school districts that serve many children in poverty, and by their investments in K-12 public education relative to their fiscal capacities as measured by their gross state product.  There is a fourth factor called “coverage,” that measures the proportion of students in public and private schools and the median household income of these students.

The report is a state-by-state snapshot and it is comparative.  It does not cost-out needed services and then judge each state’s level of investment next to that ideal level of expenditure. “(B)ecause the evaluations are comparative and not benchmarked to a defined outcome, high grades or rankings are not indicative of having met some obligation or having outperformed expectations.”

The report’s findings?

Funding Level:  Spending $17,331 per pupil, Alaska ranks highest in its educational investment.  (A recent NY Times report on Alaska’s fiscal distress due to the collapse in oil prices will likely reduce Alaska’s expenditure-per-pupil in 2016.) New York ($16,726 per-pupil) and New Jersey ($15,394) are second and third.  Idaho spends the least on public education at $5,746 per-pupil, with the other low-spending states in the bottom ten being Utah, Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, and California.  “Relative funding rankings have remained largely consistent over time.  Despite recent fluctuations in the economy and attendant variations in spending, with only a few exceptions the lowest ranking states tend to remain in the bottom, and high spending states tend to remain at the top.”

Funding Distribution:  Seven states are given high marks for distributing additional funding to students in settings of concentrated family poverty—Delaware, Minnesota, Utah, Ohio, New Jersey, South Dakota and Tennessee.  Some states actually have regressive funding systems that send less money to very poor school districts: Nevada, North Dakota, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Vermont, Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

School Funding Effort:  The Education Law Center’s new report references the Center on Budget and Policy Priority’s report about the number of states that continue to spend less on K-12 education than prior to the Great Recession in 2008.  The Education Law Center points out that even several years after the Great Recession, some states continue to reduce their investment in K-12 schools relative to their fiscal capacity to support education.  The five states that made the greatest reduction in their effort to fund education between 2012-2013 are Ohio (- 9%), Arizona (-8%), Michigan (-8%), Louisiana (-7%), and Maine (-7%).

The report’s authors summarize: “Only a handful of states… have generally high funding levels and also provide significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest.  Low rankings on school funding fairness correlate to poor state performance on key resource indicators, including less access to early childhood education, non-competitive wages for teachers, and higher teacher-to-pupil ratios.”

Distracting Us All from the Issue of Adequate Public Expenditure for Education

It’s all very confusing.  Parents are opting out of testing all over the state of New York.  They don’t like the new Common Core tests where the reading level is set a year-and-a-half to two years above the age expectations for the kids and where the cut score for measuring proficiency is set way too high, which all means that a lot of kids are scoring really low.  And parents don’t like that Governor Andrew Cuomo is tying the children’s scores on these new, hard, and hard-to-pass tests to 50 percent of the ratings for their kids’ teachers. Opting out is a way to protest all this, and many are—in some districts enough to invalidate any generalizations that can be made about the scores.

Then across the states there are the massive attacks on taxes.  To grow the economy and create jobs, we are told, we have to cut taxes and give everybody more money to spend.  Never mind that cutting taxes to the bone means we can’t afford the things we need— repair of roads and bridges—replacement of water mains so they don’t explode into geysers on the coldest day of the year—public schools with enough teachers and school counselors.  Nobody on TV or in the newspaper seems to connect the dots between the meager budgets and growing potholes and exploding class sizes.  The broadcast network news has copied the local news—weather,  fires and shootings—and our local newspaper here in Cleveland (that is delivered only four days a week now) filled its front page this past week with stories about LeBron James and Ringo’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

But underneath all this confusion and distraction are the questions about money.  When it comes to public education, the two questions to ask are surprisingly simple—though it may be hard to find anybody who will answer them.  (1) How much money is enough?  (2) Have we ensured that the money we plan to spend is distributed fairly so that children’s opportunity isn’t determined by who their parents are or where they live?  And then there is an important rule to remember:  Spending cuts at the federal level put a greater burden on the states to make up the difference, and cuts by the states increase the financial burden on local school districts (which can’t themselves meet a standard of equity because local jurisdictions have vastly different capacities to raise money due to the value of the property that can be taxed and the wealth or poverty of the people who pay the local taxes).

So…  What is going on underneath all the conversation about the opting out?  Even though your local paper may not be covering it, there is a lot of wrangling in Washington, D.C. and across the state capitols during this spring’s federal and state budget season about arithmetic and how to arrange the numbers to prove the schemes of various politicians.  How can we cut taxes and still have enough?  How can we pretend we have enough and blame the problems of abject poverty in public schools on something else? Can we use test scores or opting out or teacher evaluation schemes as a distraction? Can we pretend that privatizing schools will save enough money that the budget appears to be balanced?

At the federal level, a huge fight is brewing, one that some people predict could again threaten a federal government shutdown in the fall.  The House of Representatives is committed to perpetuating the federal budget cuts and freezes we collectively call “sequestration.”  According to an article on Wednesday in The Hill “Appropriators are proposing to cut funding next year in the following funding bills: Financial Services and General Government; Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and Education; and Interior and the Environment.  The figures point to a brewing conflict between the GOP-led Congress and the White House that could lead to another government shutdown fight in October… Compared to 2015 spending levels, Republicans are proposing to cut about $2 billion from Financial Services and General Government, $246 million from Interior and the Environment and $4 billion from the Labor-HHS-Education Bill.”   The president, by contrast, in the federal budget he proposed in February, sought an increase of $3.6 billion, a 5.4 percent increase over 2015 levels, for the U.S. Department of Education.  It’s certainly not a lot of money when it would be spread across 90,000 public schools in America, but at least a good part of those increases were proposed for the big formula programs that school districts need to support their services for the most vulnerable groups of children.  The president proposed to add $1 billion to the Title I formula, along with small but symbolically important increases for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and for services for English language learners.  Any increase would help, as these programs have been frozen for several years.

The issues of adequacy and equity are at the heart of debates across the states, probably most visibly in New York, where Governor Cuomo set off a firestorm by tying any increase in school funding to the new scheme by which students’ test scores count for  50 percent of each teachers’ evaluation.  What has been less frequently discussed is that the budget deal Cuomo hammered out with the legislature appropriates far less money than is needed and does a poor job of distributing extra to the poorest school districts.  In a recent report, New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute describes urgent needs in 178 “priority” or “failing” schools the state identified in February: “The school districts that are home to these priority schools teach students who…. live in communities that are among the poorest in the state with the least resources to improve local schools… Over three-fourths of the students in priority schools are eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. Many of these students are not proficient in English or are from minority families with disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty.”  The Fiscal Policy Institute recommends that New York remedy its school funding problems as it promised to do back in 2006, after its high court ruled its school funding unconstitutional: “Foundation Aid is the largest source of direct state assistance to schools and was intended to address inequities. In 2006… the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was failing to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive the ‘sound basic education’ that the state constitution guarantees. The state legislature adopted the current Foundation Aid formula to settle that lawsuit… However, years of austerity budgets have undermined the promise of the CFE settlement legislation—funding for school districts is just about where it was in fiscal year 2006-2007…. The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”

Then, of course, there is Pennsylvania, which Emma Brown recently described in the Washington Post as the most inequitable in school funding: “Nowhere is that gap wider than in Pennsylvania, according to federal data. School districts with the highest poverty rates here receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil, than the most affluent districts.  This spring the new governor (Tom Wolf), has outlined an ambitious plan to address the inequities, but it faces opposition in the state house.”  “‘There was a wide recognition that the system was broken,’ Wolf said in a recent interview, adding that cuts to public school funding were both an economic and moral mistake… Advocates and teachers have cheered his proposal to increase education funding by $1 billion.  But Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit even without that new spending on schools, and so Wolf’s plan depends on changes in state taxes, including a new tax on gas production and increases in both personal income and sales taxes.  Those ideas are not popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature….”  Brown describes King High School in Philadelphia: “In 2011, after posting low test scores for years, King became a ‘promise academy,’ an approach to turning around schools that includes a longer school day and a rich set of extracurricular offerings—such as rowing, archery or a poetry club—meant to entice reluctant students.  But after one year, budget cuts put an end to the extra learning time and the enrichment activities…. King also absorbed hundreds of students from a rival school that was closed to save money…. Some class sizes have risen into the 40s.  All students are from low-income families; one-third read proficiently, and half graduate on time.”  Ironically, earlier this week a local Commonwealth Court dismissed a school funding equity case brought last year by several school districts, parents and community groups.  In The Notebook, Dale Mezzacappa reports that the case will be appealed, but in the meantime it is alarming to read that attorneys for the state defended the current system because, they said, “the legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all districts have enough funds to stay open.”  The attorney for the plaintiffs labeled that “a 19th-century standard.”

And then there is Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback slashed taxes so low several years ago that the state is going broke.  In February, when tax receipts came in nearly $50 million short of what had been predicted, Governor Brownback cut funding for K-12 public schools and higher education by $44.5 million below what struggling schools had expected this year. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal this week, six school districts so far have announced they will close early in May because they have run out of money.  “Shawnee Heights made its decision as early as February, after Gov. Sam Brownback announced he would trim K-12 funding midyear.  Brownback’s allotment plan was then replaced by the Legislature’s K-12 block grant bill, which cut about $50 million in operating and maintenance aid from the budgets of most school districts.  The cuts took effect for the current fiscal year.” The state’s funding lawsuit is being appealed in the state courts.

In his new book about the 50-year impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Jack Jennings, long time Washington expert on the federal role in education, describes our society’s history of unequal opportunity: “(P)er-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be.  Students from families of higher  socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children from low-income families… Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, which monitors trends in the world’s economically advanced countries, summarized the funding situation in this way: ‘The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.'” (Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, p. 179)

Politicians Create Fiscal Crises As Excuse to Cut Essential Services

In a recent NY Times column, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman describes the Republican budgets recently proposed in both houses of Congress: “Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar ‘magic asterisk’—a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from…  And the question we should ask is why. One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue…. But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation… What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class…. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer…  Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”

Budget proposals at the federal and state level are really abstract promises, and by the time they don’t work out as promised, months or sometimes years have passed.  Apart from keeping up the outrage, it’s hard for most of us even to remember what was promised by whom, and how the math was supposed to work out.  What we are left with is cuts in our local schools, which we are likely to blame on the local school board because these folks we know are easier to blame.  The fact is, however, that austerity budgeting through the federal sequester—which will be coming up again this year—and through state budget cuts is causing us to lose the services we value in our communities.

Krugman, for example, points out in that same column that the Republican budget proposals now in Congress result in, “savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies.  Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance.”  And as this blog frequently reminds you about public school funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit.” “Adding to states’ struggles, federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.”

To understand how this is working out in practice, you have only to look at Kansas, a fiscal disaster in process where Governor Sam Brownback has created a fiscal crisis by slashing taxes.  Because public education funding is always a big line in the state budget (State constitutions make states responsible for what is usually about half of public education funding.), when state budgets collapse, public schools are inevitably hurt.  Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week‘s “State EdWatch” columnist, describes what just happened in Kansas: “The Kansas Legislature has approved a plan to end the state’s current K-12 funding formula and replace it with block grants, a move that would also cut general state aid to public schools…. That would mean Kansas spending on schools would no longer take into account districts’ enrollment, demographics, or transportation needs.  The idea to shift K-12 spending into block grants was initially proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is dealing with one of the more serious budget crises in the nation.  At the start of the year, the state faced a $280 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year (fiscal 2015) and a $436 million shortfall for fiscal 2016, after the governor signed significant tax cuts into law earlier in his tenure.  Brownback advertised the block-grant proposal as a way to increase spending flexibility for districts, although local K-12 officials are not pleased with the $51 million in expected state aid that they would lose for fiscal 2016 under the plan.”

Ujifusa adds that the situation in Kansas is complicated by the finding of a lower court last December that the state’s K-12 school funding was already (before the new block grant reduction) “inadequate from any rational perspective.”  The 3rd Judicial District Court ordered the state to increase spending per-pupil from $3,852 to $4,654, which would add $548 million in state aid as a remedy for long-standing inadequate school funding.

Don Hineman, a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives notes in his legislative update that although the school funding formula is scheduled to be rewritten during a two year period while the block grants are in place, “During the floor debate on the bill I observed that we were being asked to tear the school funding formula out of the statute book, crumple it up, throw it away, and replace it with a blank sheet of paper which someone will fill in later. In my opinion that is a tremendous gamble.  It is a gamble for rural schools which may never again see weightings for low enrollment or transportation.  It is a gamble for schools with large numbers of students in poverty if the at-risk weighting ceases to exist.  And it is a gamble for districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students if that weighting goes away.  The bill was put on a very fast track which I frankly view as an abuse of the legislative process…  It is revealing that the only proponents of this bill in the committee hearing were the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and Kansans for Liberty.  These are the same groups who have testified this session against any proposals to raise taxes to fill the state’s fiscal deficit, claiming that any hole in the budget should be filled via budget cuts.”

It is reassuring that on March 17, Kansas’ Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed an appeal asking the Kansas Supreme Court to review December’s lower court ruling that Kansas’ level of state funding for public education was, prior to being cut again by $51 million in the new block grant law, already unconstitutionally low.

You very likely do not have children in the public schools of the state of Kansas, but Kansas is an emblem of what is being proposed in budget after budget across the states and by Republicans in budgets already proposed in both houses of Congress. Conservatives always say tax cuts will pay for themselves, but when they inevitably don’t pay for themselves, the solution is always reducing essential services rather than restoring taxes—which may have been the intention from the beginning.  As Paul Krugman asked in his recent column: “Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”

Protection for Public Education Will Remain in Ohio Constitution

Last week the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission’s Committee on Education, Public Institutions and Local Government voted unanimously to retain the language by which the courts can hold the state’s legislature responsible for funding “a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

In other words, by agreeing to leave the language protecting Ohio’s provision of adequate public education for our children in the state constitution, the committee charged by the current legislature to suggest updates to the language of the constitution agreed to continue protecting education through the old concept of checks and balances.  While you might have learned about the need for  checks and balances in your high school civics class, its importance in 2015 has been a huge battle across Ohio for over a year now.

Why was there any question? According to the Dispatch: “The 164-year-old phrase has defined Ohio’s school-funding battles, including four straight 4-3 rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court through 2002 declaring the state’s setup unconstitutional.”  Opponents of adequate funding for public education hoped to remove the language that forces our state to provide public schools that are well enough funded to serve the needs of all children.

The constitutional modernization commission’s education committee was chaired by Columbus attorney Chad Readler, an advocate for expanding charter schools.  “Readler, who successfully defended the constitutionality of Ohio’s charter schools in the state Supreme Court,” was part of the group who “pushed to trim or eliminate the language to limit the courts’ influence over education policy.”  “He touched off the vigorous discussion in April by suggesting a change that would have required the General Assembly only to ‘provide for the organization, administration and control of the public-school system of the state supported by public funds.'”  By Readler’s suggestion, any amount of money allocated would have passed constitutional muster.

It is possible that one reason Readler’s suggestions were defeated is that in Ohio the public is becoming aware that the legislature is not fulfilling its responsibility for oversight of charter schools, virtually unregulated due to lavish campaign contributions from the for-profit charter operators.

The primary reason Readler’s suggestions were blocked, however, has been a year-long campaign against Readler’s suggestions by members of the public including leading attorneys and law professors, a campaign led by Bill Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the coalition of school districts that successfully sued the state in the long running DeRolph school finance litigation. Phillis must be honored as a warrior for justice for Ohio’s children.  He never gives up.  Thank you, Bill.

Governor Cuomo Pretends to Improve Schools: New York Times Editors Condemn His Strategy

If you look carefully at the education crisis in the United States, here is what you will see.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession. Federal funding remains low for crucial programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; while it was promised that 40 percent of IDEA’s cost would be covered by the federal government, Congress now funds less than 20 percent.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization.

This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia, but nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

Believing as I do that our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the schools of our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them, I was encouraged on Monday when the New York Times editorial board took on Governor Cuomo in a serious analysis of The Central Crisis in New York Education.  The newspaper’s editors challenge Cuomo “to move beyond peripheral concerns and political score-settling,.. and go to the heart of the matter,” by “confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.”  The editors remember that in 2007, New York adopted a new school funding formula to add $7 billion per year to invest in quality programs and to equalize the state’s investment by assisting school districts with less capacity to raise local funds.  “That promise evaporated in the recession, spawning two lawsuits aimed at forcing the state to honor it.”  The Times editors also remind us that in 2011, New York enacted a statewide cap on what local school districts can raise through local property taxes.  Such caps leave school districts without anywhere to turn in hard times.

The editors of the NY Times challenge Cuomo’s strategy of blaming teachers rather than addressing the real issues: “The Cuomo administration seemed not to acknowledge these issues in a letter last month to the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and the commissioner of education in which it promised ‘an aggressive legislative package’ to improve education in the state,” including “strengthening the teacher evaluation system, improving the process for removing low-performing teachers and improving teacher training.”

Like Governor Cuomo our society has chosen policies that assume we can improve public schools without spending much money.  If only the teachers would work harder and smarter and we could break the unions so that teachers would cost less, then we could have our tax cuts and everything would still be alright.

The problem is that state budgets and school finance and local tax caps have real consequences.  When my children were young and in school and our school levies would fail, I learned in the most personal way what gets cut when school funding drops.  The school nurses started covering several buildings each day, school librarians were replaced by part time aides, gifted programs were axed, and class size went over thirty.   Two recent news articles have reminded me that this same arithmetic still operates when states invest less and local districts are bound by property tax freezes.

  • The day after Christmas, the NY Times published Little College Guidance: 500 High School Students Per Counselor.  The reporter, Elizabeth Harris, describes a shocking shortage of guidance counselors across America’s public high schools.  Writing about the counselors who write college recommendations and put together students’ college application packets, Harris explains, “While small private schools can often afford to provide their students with tremendous hand-holding, large public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors. Nationally, that ratio is nearly 500 to 1, a proportion experts say has remained virtually unchanged for more than 10 years… ‘It’s a huge problem, massive,’ said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies school counseling. ‘Counseling is seen as an extra layer, a luxury.  If I’m a school leader and I’m trying to lower class size, what’s 50 more kids on your caseload?'”  Harris reports that one in five U.S. public high schools has no guidance counselor at all.
  • Last weekend Valerie Strauss published a guest column from Ellie Herman, a teacher and writer who has spent the past year visiting and observing public schools. In this column Herman describes “the most important thing I’ve learned:  Teachers in high-poverty communities need professional working conditions.  If they do not have professional working conditions, we will never be able to narrow the achievement gap between children of color in generational poverty and their more affluent white peers, who often are showered with opportunity and enrichment from the time they are born…  Teaching in high-poverty communities is different than teaching in more affluent communities.  It should be regarded as a specialty because of its complexity and depth.” What kind of working conditions is Herman describing?  She writes: “Teachers in high-poverty communities need the time to meet the needs of students.  It is just simply unacceptable to pack 35-50 students into a classroom in a high-poverty community and then expect those teachers to teach five to six classes per day, sometimes with after-school activities tacked on as well.”  “Teachers in high-poverty communities need time to grade and read work carefully… A teacher with 150-200 students simply does not have time to do this work—or if they do the work well on top of an 8-10 hour day on their feet managing a high-needs classroom, they will burn out.”

It would be wonderful to think that Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Snyder of Michigan and Governor Brownback of Kansas were thoughtfully considering the needs of the school teachers in  New York City, Detroit, and Kansas City.  I am pleased at least to see the NY Times editorial board recommending that the Governor of New York develop a strategy based on investing in and supporting public education instead of punishing teachers. We need to consider the psychological, social, and ethical impact of school finance from the point of view of the teachers and students whose lives are shaped by governors and state legislators.

Texas School Funding Once Again Ruled Unconstitutional

For a at least a dozen years now we’ve been operating across the country as though we can simply command that public schools do better and expect them to accommodate our expectations. Nothing required of us at all as citizens. Teachers just need to work harder.

Of course this is all a matter of pretend.  It seems to be becoming clearer that we can’t demand ever-rising test scores as mandated by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind,  cut federal fundingcut state funding in 35 states lower than it was in 2008 before the recession, send a lot of money outside the public system to poorly regulated charters, and expect it all to work out.

A trial judge in Texas recently ruled that it isn’t working out at all in that state.  According to the Dallas Morning News, State District Judge John Dietz , “decided in favor of more than 600 school districts who had argued that the legislature has underfunded education while imposing new mandates.”  “The court finds that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren,” wrote Judge Dietz.  The state will appeal the case.

The judge originally found the system unconstitutional in February of 2013, though he decided to give the legislature time to allocate more money for education before reaching a final decision.  School districts had sued the state after a massive cut of $5.4 billion from the state education fund in 2011, after the 2008 recession and after the money from the 2009 federal stimulus ran out.  According to the Texas Tribune, the $3.4 billion restored to the education fund since the judge‘s initial 2013 ruling still leaves many Texas school districts with less state funding than they had prior to the 2011 cuts.

Michael Williams, the Texas Education Commissioner, is reported by the Texas Tribune to have echoed the argument made recently in Kansas and Ohio that the legislature ought to be solely responsible for school funding without the oversight of the courts. Williams said, “Any revisions to our school finance system must be made by members of the Texas Legislature.”  In Ohio the chair of a constitutional modernization commission has proposed removing from the state constitution language that protects the right of all children to schools that are “thorough and efficient.” Defending the importance of checks and balances through court oversight, Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University declared in testimony to the Ohio Commission, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”

According to a joint press release from the Education Law Center and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, school finance adequacy and equity cases are currently pending in Kansas, Washington, New York, Connecticut and Colorado.  The press release notes that the plaintiff districts in the recently decided Texas case serve 75 percent of that state’s children and that “10 percent of all public school students in the nation are enrolled in a Texas school.”

Inequality in access to well funded schools is widespread, so much so that the Rev. John Thomas, former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary calls it affirmative action for the privileged.  In his blog last week, Thomas writes:  “In fact… affirmative action is alive and well, and has been for a long time.  It’s just that it actually widens the gaps to access in this country, further enhancing historic privileges and deepening the divides between rich and poor, between persons who are white and those of color… Given the reliance of school funding on local property taxes, and the reductions in state funding for public education, this has led to a dramatic increase in disparities in the money spent on poor and wealthy (or modestly wealthy) kids… In some states the ratio is as high as three to one… School funding is only one part of the problem, but its a huge one.”

The Education Law Center and the Leadership Conference quote Judge Dietz’s decision: “Rather than attempt to solve the problem, the State has buried its head in the sand, making no effort to determine the cost of providing all students with a meaningful opportunity to acquire the essential knowledge and skills reflected in the state curriculum and to graduate at a college-and career-ready level.”

NEA Repudiates Arne Duncan, Demands America Pay Closer Attention

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the delegates at the National Education Association’s recent convention passed a resolution calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.

  • Arne Duncan, through regulations of the U.S. Department of Education, has made the granting of federal waivers from the most onerous penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act contingent on states’ evaluating school teachers based on econometric formulas derived from students’ scores on the state standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind.  This despite a warning from the American Statistical Association that such formulas are likely to be unreliable.
  • Arne Duncan called what happened in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of the city and paved the way for the firing of all of the city’s public school teachers and the subsequent charterization of the entire school district a great opportunity.  Duncan said:  “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster.”
  • Back in 2010, Arne Duncan lauded the so-called “turnaround” of the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a restructure based on firing the principal and all the teachers.
  • Arne Duncan once announced at a meeting I attended: “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.”  Yet, despite that his Race to the Top program created huge incentives for states to eliminate any caps their legislatures had imposed on the number of new charters, and despite that the Department of Education makes grants to support the expansion of charter schools, Arne Duncan has never suggested any regulations to prevent academic failure or financial fraud in the bad charter schools he has himself named as “part of the problem.”  What is almost always left unsaid in the conversation about charter schools that are so heavily supported by the Department of Education is that the vast majority of teachers in charter schools are non-unionized; their lower salaries undermine the teaching profession.

This week Jeff Bryant, in his column for the Educational Opportunity Network, points out: “For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance.  As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, ‘While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.'”

Duncan’s Department of Education has been unwilling to invest in well-researched strategies to address the deep issues of poverty and the accompanying challenges for teachers in the schools that serve children in communities where poverty is concentrated.  As an example of the policies Duncan has ignored, Bryant points to a resource from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign that names strategies to improve the recruitment and ongoing support for teachers in impoverished communities and to fund the reforms necessary to compensate for the disparities in taxing capacity across school districts.

There is also a significant body of academic literature about reforms that would support teachers in struggling schools, while Duncan has emphasized punitive policies.  A well-known book about what will be required to address the needs in schools overwhelmed by the conditions of their students’ lives, Organizing Schools for Improvement, a project of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, concludes: “Community social capital is a critical resource for advancing school improvement… We have documented that the density of children living under extraordinary circumstances within a school community can create a significant barrier for improvement…  Taken together, a weakness in community social capital combined with a high density of student needs marks the social context of truly disadvantaged schools.” Not surprisingly the Consortium describes budgetary investments that improved learning in one such school by supporting the teachers and their students: “On the academic front, (the school) sustained its focus on aligning curriculum with standards schoolwide, building common instructionally-embedded assessments… and coupling this with extensive supports for professional development and attention to recruiting and nurturing capable new staff who were committed to teaching in this school community.  Complementing this and equally important was an unrelenting focus on garnering community resources to respond to the extraordinary needs present in this school.  Establishing a sense of safety and organizational order was an essential first concern to address.  Assembling a first rate social services support team and accessing external program services that extended well beyond the meager ones offered by the school system was a key sustaining piece in the school’s reform agenda…  Reconnecting to families and supporting them in the education of their children was another interrelated element.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 194-195)

It is an important development that the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has by its recent action demanded that the public scrutinize Arne Duncan’s education policies. Conor P. Williams, of the New America Foundation, notes: “education is rarely a determinative political issue at the federal level — and it’s only marginally more so at the state level.  It’s rare that voters will allow a candidate’s education platform to sway their vote if they disagree on other, more provocative issues.  Politicians know this, which leaves them relatively free to govern education—and set its budgets—without attending too carefully to public opinion.”

Duncan’s Department of Education has sought to blame and scapegoat school teachers for test score achievement gaps at the same time the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal government, with leadership by Duncan, has cut spending since 2010 for Title I by 12 percent and for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 11 percent, at the same time 35 states are spending less on public education than they did prior to the 2008 recession.  According to Five Thirty-Eight, overall federal per-pupil spending for public education fell by more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012.  The real question is how to make the schools that serve our poorest children places where the learning climate and the salary schedule attract our very best teachers. Arne Duncan’s education policies have condoned our mass denial of what ought to be obvious: raising school achievement will require an investment of money and political capital; it cannot be accomplished by punishing teachers.

Inviting the Fox Right Into the Henhouse

Ohio sends $1 billion every year out of its public education budget to charter schools and vouchers.  According to Doug Livingston at the Akron Beacon-Journal, Ohio’s charter schools and their sponsors are so poorly regulated by the state legislature that the private companies hired by nonprofits to manage their charter schools have been known to recruit (and fire) members of the boards whose responsibility it is to oversee and regulate the management companies.  “In Ohio, charter schools are required to satisfy strict federal guidelines as nonprofit organizations under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue code, including board autonomy.  If the board is not independent of the company, the IRS is supposed to throw up a red flag.  But state law allows private companies to throw out non-profit boards that challenge them.”  White Hat Management is known for such practices.

Leaders in the state legislature that brought Ohio this lucrative arrangement for wealthy White Hat charter czar David Brennan and cyber-charter parasite William Lager, the owner of two privately-held companies that siphon $100 million annually from Ohio’s school budget for the services provided to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, now want to remove the constitutional checks and balances that protect the allocation and distribution of the state’s public school budget.

The legislature has created a Constitutional Modernization Commission that seeks to remove the state’s public education clause from the 160-year-old Ohio Constitution.  Writing for the Akron Beacon-Journal, Carol Biliczky reports that the Commission’s education committee chair, Chad Readler, a Columbus attorney who has prominently represented the interests of charter schools in recent years, “suggested removing the ‘thorough and efficient’ clause because it is hard to define and interpret and has produced a series of closely decided court decisions.”

The clause to which Readler refers is the very constitutional language that protects adequate and equitably distributed funding across the over 600 school districts in Ohio.  Biliczky quotes Nick Pittner, the attorney who argued the DeRolph school funding litigation for 500 plaintiff school districts who brought the case to demand that Ohio school funding be increased and distributed fairly.  According to Pittner, Readler’s proposal now before the Constitutional Modernization Commission would “remove the courts from any role in determining the appropriateness of public education provided by the Ohio General Assembly.  It’s not in the interest of Ohio in general or school children to remove the courts from oversight.”

The proposal now before the Commission would render school funding in Ohio not subject to judicial review by removing the language that establishes judicial oversight.  Columbus Dispatch reporter Darrel Roland reminds us that in the past those who sought to reduce the state’s investment in public education have made the case that school funding be left solely up to the legislature and be rendered non-justiciable:

“In a March 1997 ruling that later became known as DeRolph I after its lead plaintiff, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney determined that ‘the facts documented in the record lead to one inescapable conclusion—Ohio’s elementary and secondary public schools are neither thorough nor efficient.’ ‘In reaching this conclusion, we dismiss as unfounded any suggestion that the problems presented by this case should be left for the General Assembly to resolve.'”  Sweeney’s words were prophetic. In 2002, after the elected Ohio Supreme Court changed parties and subsequently released jurisdiction in the DeRolph case, the legislature of Ohio has never felt obliged to design a remedy that would address voluntarily “the problems presented by this case.”

There is no reason to imagine that the Constitutional Modernization Commission’s proposal to remove the court’s protection of school funding equity and adequacy—by removing the court’s check and balance on the legislature—would serve Ohio’s children as well as leaving the state constitution alone.  The Education Law Center points out that in a recent school funding decision in Kansas, the supreme court of Kansas described the importance of the language that is in our state constitutions.  “Matters intended for permanence are placed in constitutions for a reason—to protect them from the vagaries of politics….”

Protecting Ourselves from the Vagaries and Blindness of Our Politics

At the end of last week, the Education Law Center sent out an excellent and lucid summary of the significance of the recent state supreme court decision on Kansas school finance, Gannon v. State of Kansas.  I urge you to read it, for it explains the issues in the clearest possible way.  Make no mistake, adequate school funding (How much is enough?) and equitable distribution of school funding are very likely pertinent matters in your state, too.  After all, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 34 states are spending less on public education than they did in 2007 prior to the Great Recession.  Some of this is due to ongoing economic troubles; much of it relates to the politics of austerity budgeting.

The Kansas court spoke to another matter, however, that I had never considered worrying about: are issues of school funding justiciable—subject to judicial review?   In its description of the case, the NY Times elaborated: “The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Kansas Constitution. ‘The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore or waive this duty,’ the decision said.”

Remembering my civics class lesson about the checks and balances provided by the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—I had never considered the possibility of losing the protection provided by court oversight, but now I learn this might be in question.  The Education Law Center reports that in Kansas, defending itself against the parents who brought the case to protest deep cuts in the funding of Kansas’ public schools, “the state argued that the legislature had the sole decision making authority over school funding.” However, in its decision the state’s supreme court decided otherwise, explaining “that the Kansas Constitution assigns to the judiciary the duty and responsibility to interpret the constitution and determine whether acts of the legislature violate it.”

Because of secretive political organizations that reach out to push the same menu of far-right policies to state legislators across the 50 state governments— organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network of extremely conservative think-tanks—today we are watching as the same policy proposals pop up again and again from state to state—right to work, tax cutting and austerity budgeting, school vouchers, grading schools A-F, and so on.

One reason that the justiciability of school funding caught my eye in the Kansas case is that the same issue has suddenly emerged in my own state.  I recently received an update from Bill Phillis at the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding about my state’s “Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission” which Phillis reports is currently, “in the process of formulating recommendations for changes in the Ohio Constitution.”  One of the provisions this commission is said to be considering is “removing the courts from any decision related to school funding.”

I can certainly imagine why some of Ohio’s politicians would wish to remove the huge fiscal responsibility for funding schools from the court’s protection at this time when the legislature has perpetually cut taxes with the dream (unsuccessful so far) of luring businesses to Ohio.  Recently the Plain Dealer published a 30-year history of Ohio tax cutting:  “In 1985, legislators…  cut the income tax by 15 percent over three years.  Effective in 1987, they cut the income tax again.  In 1996, they created a mechanism to cut the income tax when Ohio runs a surplus.  In 1997, they indexed the personal exemption to inflation; and in 2005, they cut the income tax by 21 percent over five years.  What’s more, Ohio’s current budget, signed by Kasich last June, cuts the income tax by 10 percent over three years.”  Last month Governor John Kasich proposed another cut in the income tax.

Our state constitutions enshrine the lofty principles our forebears sought to protect.  The Education Law Center quotes the March 7, 2014  decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas: “Matters intended for permanence are placed in constitutions for a reason—to protect them from the vagaries of politics….”   Today we live in a time when the very idea of public education is endangered through de-funding and privatizing schools, and scapegoating school teachers.  Are we too close to our politics today to even realize these are the threats from which our founding documents were meant to protect us?

Kansas Supreme Court Rejects Education on the Cheap; Affirms Equity and Adequacy

I have been reading the introduction and many of the short essays that make up David Berliner and Gene Glass’s new book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools.  Many of the myths Berliner and Glass explore are about educating on the cheap.  The book has driven me to reflect on why we are so eager to go for the “low taxes” argument these days.

Have we lost our sense of common purpose and public obligation?  Have we retreated so far into our gated communities, become so blinded by privilege and inequality that we’ve forgotten the needs of other people’s children?  Or maybe it’s because we see the children in public schools as other people’s children.  Or we believe the myth that money really doesn’t affect school achievement. Do we think breaking the unions or going for two-year teachers trained in five-week crash courses will suffice, because schools will be less expensive if the teachers are cheaper?  Maybe we are in awe of technology and believe those who tell us we can save money by cutting the number of teachers in half if we double the number of computers or tablets.  Or maybe in a consumer society that worships celebrity and glitterati, we’d just rather spend taxes on sports stadiums.  And anyway, children are resilient.

Such thoughts were my personal context for receiving the good news about Friday’s very important Kansas Supreme Court decision on school funding.  At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas.  The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding last Friday, March 7.

The Education Law Center explains the significance of Friday’s decision by which the Kansas Supreme Court “upheld the right of Kansas students to educational opportunity and reaffirmed the court’s… pivotal role in upholding the Kansas Constitution.” The NY Times elaborates: “The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Kansas Constitution. ‘The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore or waive this duty,’ the decision said.”

The Education Law Center explains that the court upheld the principal of equity by reiterating “the Kansas requirement that all ‘school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.'”   According to the NY Times, in its decision last Friday, the Court ordered the legislature by July 1 to, “appropriate tens of millions of dollars in payments to poorer districts to make the school system more equitable.”

Also at issue in this case was the definition of adequate state school funding.  The Court reiterated the need for the state to raise the level of school funding to provide a quality education for the children of Kansas, but it sent this part of the case back to the lower court to reconsider how much is enough and to give plaintiffs the opportunity to present more evidence.  There is considerable speculation that Kansas will need to raise taxes to meet the requirement for equity and eventually to bring school funding to a level deemed adequate.

A publication called The Wire comments on how the decision conflicts with Governor Brownback’s agenda:  “The decision is probably not so great news for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s ambitions to lead an ‘American Renaissance’ by making his state a model for lowering taxes and reducing government.  Brownback outlined his vision in January during his State of the State speech, where the conservative added that he believed Kansas’s governing strategy would allow people to ‘realize their God-given potential’ and that ‘our dependence is not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us.'”

Of course Kansas’s school funding decision will affect only Kansas.  It would be nice to think that its subject—education on the cheap—is a problem only for Kansas, but that’s just not true.  Cuts to education funding in Kansas are a lot like what’s been happening in my state, Ohio, where two weeks ago the Plain Dealer published a 30-year history of Ohio tax cutting:  “In 1985, legislators…  cut the income tax by 15 percent over three years.  Effective in 1987, they cut the income tax again.  In 1996, they created a mechanism to cut the income tax when Ohio runs a surplus.  In 1997, they indexed the personal exemption to inflation; and in 2005, they cut the income tax by 21 percent over five years.  What’s more, Ohio’s current budget, signed by Kasich last June, cuts the income tax by 10 percent over three years.”  It should not be surprising that Ohio school districts are more and more dependent on their capacity to raise local revenue and that tuition has risen steadily at all of our state universities.

Paying for education is also a hot topic in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo refuses even to let New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio move forward with his plan to tax people in the city with incomes over $500,000 annually to pay for universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for students in middle school. Governor Cuomo is running for re-election, and a statewide tax cut is to be the centerpiece of his campaign.