Ohio’s Top Education Priority: Fully Fund Expected Phase-In of the Fair School Funding Plan

In the two months since the Ohio Legislature began its current session, I have heard very little serious legislative discussion about the state’s most urgent pending education policy: fully funding the continued phase-in of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan. Fully funding the Fair School Funding Plan must be a top priority in the state budget, to be passed by June 30, 2023.

Right now in Ohio, however, lawmakers are considering several other bills which would significantly undermine public education. Legislators are debating two different kinds of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schooling—both of which would siphon urgently needed dollars from the public school foundation program. Our state senators and representatives are also discussing a vast reshaping of education governance by moving the primary functions of the elected state board of education under the political control of the governor. And the Ohio House has proposed a state income tax cut which would make the state’s 610 public school districts more reliant on local property taxes.

Some background — Two years ago in the state’s FY 2022-FY 2023 state budget, the Ohio Legislature launched a new Fair School Funding Plan. It was designed to be phased in over six years—three biennial budgets—to fund the state’s public schools adequately and distribute state dollars equitably to ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. The new formula was designed to identify and pay for the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and to add categorical funding to support students with special needs.

Two years ago, however, the Legislature embedded the Fair School Funding Plan into the state budget without establishing the new school funding formula in a stand-alone law. In June of 2021, the Legislature did basically fund the first two years of the Fair Funding Plan. Now as part of developing a new budget to be passed in June, 2023, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step of the phase-in. Right now, Ohio has the two year beginning of a Fair School Funding Plan, but no promise that the legislature will continue funding the full, six-year phase-in.  A worry is that powerful Senate President Matt Huffman has expressed skepticism about the need to continue phasing in the plan.

Some Expert Advice — David Sciarra, a highly respected school finance attorney, who is retiring this month after serving as the Executive Director of the Education Law Center for 26 years, just published a paper explaining in detail why a school funding formula like Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan is of urgent importance. Sciarra would be appalled that Ohio’s legislature seems instead to prioritize expansion of private school vouchers and a reduction in state income taxes—policies so expensive they would likely make the full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan impossible.

For decades before they instituted the Fair School Funding Plan, Ohio’s lawmakers had neglected their responsibility to our state’s students. In failing to provide adequate resources for public schools, Ohio was not alone. Sciarra explains: “America’s public schools are among the most inequitably funded of any nation in the industrialized world. The trail of this inequity leads directly to the doorsteps of state capitols. By far the most important—and impactful—expressions of a state’s commitment to public education are the formulas for school funding enacted by legislators and the level and allocation of revenue through those formulas in annual or biannual state budgets.” Clearly Sciarra would charge our current legislature in Ohio not to interrupt the continued full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan.

Sciarra would be impressed that, to ensure that the new formula would be cost-based, the designers of the Fair School Funding Plan conducted research on the actual expenses faced by school districts: “Most state funding formulas.. are not based on the actual cost of delivering the resources necessary to give all students the opportunity to achieve a constitutional education.” “In most states, the money available to schools to spend on teachers, support staff and other essential resources from year to year is dependent on antiquated policies that tie funding levels to local property taxes. The result is immense disparities in funding and resources that mirror vast differences in income and property wealth—and political clout—from one community to another.” “These inequitable finance regimes are enacted into law by state legislatures. And they have the power to correct them.”  That is precisely what the Ohio Legislature set out to do in 2021, when it began phasing in the Fair School Funding Plan.

Sciarra identifies a problem with many state education funding formulas—and also the one big flaw in the implementation so far of Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan. Two years ago, lawmakers neglected to conduct a promised study to evaluate the real cost of addressing the additional needs in school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. Legislators also began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than their phase-in of the rest of the plan. The Legislature needs to address both serious problems. Sciarra explains:

“To be equitable, school systems must be supported by a state funding formula explicitly designed to achieve a core objective: providing the resources required to deliver a rich and comprehensive K-12 curriculum to all students, as well as the additional resources required to address the extra-academic and academically related needs generated by student poverty, English learner status, disability, homelessness, and other factors.  A ‘weighted’ student funding formula, however, must be built upon research determinations of the actual costs of essential educational resources, not by political and budgetary considerations.” Sciarra adds: “Where legislators have responded by targeting increased funding to high need, low wealth districts, research now convincingly demonstrates that the boost in spending yields measurable improvements in achievement levels and other key outcomes for students, especially in schools isolated by race and socioeconomics.”

Sciarra concludes that every one of the states’ constitutions defines the provision of equal educational opportunity as a primary responsibility of state government:

“Whatever role Congress and local school boards may play, state legislatures and governors are legally obligated to deliver the equal educational opportunity to every child under their respective constitutions. It is state law, policy, rules, and enforcement practices that either advance—or impede—a child’s access to a constitutional education… Young people must have the opportunity to fully pursue their intellectual, academic, and vocational aspirations. This requires access to a quality, content-rich curriculum, delivered by qualified teachers in schools led by strong instructional leaders, and a safe and inclusive environment with sufficient in-school supports to address students’ academic, social and health needs. And we know that providing a constitutional education demands equitable school funding for all students and greater levels of funding to enable schools to respond to the additional needs generated by concentrated poverty, disability, lack of language proficiency, homelessness, and other challenges faced by so many of our children.” (emphasis in the original)

Ohio’s top education priority this year must be for the legislature to fully fund the second step of the six-year phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan.  Legislators also need to correct the plan to better support school districts serving many of our state’s poorest children.

Ohio’s public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—serve 1.6 million students. Unlike privatized alternatives, public schools can balance the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.


Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Begins to Take Action Against Governors Blocking School Mask Mandates

On September 20, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education published a notice in the Federal Register of a new Project SAFE Grant Program to “provide grants to eligible LEAs (Local Education Agencies, which is the Department’s name for local school districts) to improve student safety and well-being by advancing strategies consistent with CDC guidelines to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools… The priority is: Supporting LEAs’ and local education leaders’ efforts to improve student safety and well-being in LEAs that have been financially penalized by their State Education Agency or other State entity for adopting and implementing strategies consistent with CDC guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The first federal SAFE Grant to a school district harmed by a state ban on a school district’s mandatory mask mandate was awarded on September 23rd.  NPR‘s Cory Turner reports: “The U. S. Department of Education announced Thursday that it would send roughly $148,000 to one Florida school district, Alachua County Public Schools, reimbursing it for money that has been withheld by the state. The award is the first under the department’s new… Project SAFE grant program and the latest salvo in an escalating fight over masking in schools between Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and President Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel Cardona.”

CNN‘s Chandelis Duster quotes Secretary Cardona justifying the need to confront governors who are blocking school districts’ requirements that their students wear masks to prevent the spread of the Delta Variant of COVID-19: “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities… We’re making sure schools and communities across the country that are committed to safely returning to in-person learning know that we have their backs.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education seems to be moving forward to investigate Civil Rights Violations in states where governors have banned mask mandates, with the possibility of withholding of federal funding as a penalty. Last Thursday evening, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has stated he is willing, by withholding federal funding if necessary, to punish states whose governors have banned mask mandates in public schools. The federal government is investigating whether the governors’ bans on mask mandates are violating the federal rights of students with disabilities.

Meckler describes Secretary Cardona’s remarks: “Cardona’s department continues to wage a battle with a half dozen Republican governors who have barred their school districts from requiring masks. This week, the department’s Office for Civil Rights added Texas to the list of states being investigated for these policies. The department argues these states may have violated the rights of students with disabilities…. The agency typically comes to settlement agreements with states and school districts under investigation, but it has the power to withhold federal funds from them. Cardona declared in an interview that he is willing to hold back funding if necessary. ‘I am prepared to do it. I don’t want to do it, but I am prepared to do it… The last thing I want to do to the students in Texas and Florida is to withhold resources that support them. That’s not something that I would do lightly.’ He added he would prefer to work with the governors, but also acknowledged that the governors do not appear interested in working with him.”

Late last month Meckler reported that letters had been sent to warn the governors of Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah that their states were under federal investigation: “(T)he Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights ‘will focus on whether… students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law.'”

Then last Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported that the federal Department of Education has also notified Texas that it is being similarly investigated: “The letter sent to Texas, like the ones to the other states, said the bans on mask mandates ‘may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities….'”

Last week in a moving profile of several disabled Tennessee students, the NY TimesErica Green described legal challenges which have also been filed locally on behalf of disabled students whose conditions make COVID-19 especially dangerous for them:

“Tennessee is one of seven states that the federal Education Department is investigating to determine whether governors’ orders allowing families to flout school mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities by restricting their access to education. Even though many local school boards, including Williamson County’s, have voted to require universal masking, an executive order issued by Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, allows parents to send their children to school maskless, no questions asked… Parents of special education students in two Tennessee counties covering the eastern and western parents of the state have sued to block the governor’s order; one lawsuit has succeeded. A third, covering Williamson County, had a hearing before a judge this week. In the most recent complaint, three lawyers argued that the governor, the Williamson County school board and a carve-out district within the county called the Franklin Special School District, are violating the rights of special education students by allowing parents to opt their children out of the mandate.  The suit was filed on behalf of a student with Down syndrome and another with Type I diabetes, but seeks protections for all ‘similarly situated’ students. ‘Defendants’ actions have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger,” the complaint said.”

On September 15, two of the nation’s prominent experts in education law challenged Secretary Cardona to use the power of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights to withhold federal funding in states where students’ rights are clearly being violated by governors banning masks at school.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, and Derek Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina, explain several ways governors are violating federal law by banning masks at school: “No policy that ignores CDC guidance and deprives schools of the most important tool available to protect the health, safety, and lives of students under the age of twelve can be said to conform to Congress’s express direction to reopen schools safely. No policy that substantially increases the risk that schools will again be forced to go virtual can be said to carry out the Congressional mandate to ensure the continuity of in-person instruction. And no policy that denies students with health-related disabilities the reasonable accommodations necessary to receive equal educational access can be said to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sciarra and Black charge Secretary Cardona: “When states act willfully under color of law to put their children in harm’s way, the Secretary has no other choice. Federal funds should only flow to states that follow the law and actively provide students a safe place to learn.”

Legal Experts Challenge Secretary Cardona to Withhold COVID Relief Dollars from States Blocking Mask Mandates

On Wednesday I noticed a stunning new proposal for confronting the governors who are blocking uniform mask mandates in their states’ public schools. The authors of the proposal are shocked that “governors and legislators in eight states—the very states with the lowest vaccination rates and highest number of COVID infections—have taken the audacious step of blocking uniform mask mandates on schools.”

Here is the proposal: “The time for pleading with politicians to reverse course has run short. The Biden Administration has a tried and tested tool for protecting the nation’s children from politicians who persist in elevating ideology above the interests of their citizens—the power of the purse. The Administration also has a duty to use that power… When states knowingly put children in harm’s way and openly defy federal law, the federal government has no alternative but to use all available authority to protect them. This means withholding federal COVID relief money from states until they lift or rescind anti-mask policies and allow local districts to comply with the CDC’s universal mask guidance.”

The proposal’s authors are David Sciarra, a nationally known authority on school law and Executive Director of the Education Law Center, and Derek Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina. These are legal experts who know federal education law and who believe it is time for Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education to do what he must.

Here is their charge to Secretary Cardona: “No one should envy Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for the situation he faces. He can count on one hand the number of times prior administrations have held back federal funds owed to states. But when states act willfully under color of law to put their children in harm’s way, the Secretary has no other choice. Federal funds should only flow to states that follow the law and actively provide students a safe place to learn.”

How are governors violating federal law when they refuse to follow CDC guidance requiring that children wear masks at school?  Sciarra and Black explain: “These actions directly violate the letter of the law on multiple levels. No policy that ignores CDC guidance and deprives schools of the most important tool available to protect the health, safety, and lives of students under the age of twelve can be said to conform to Congress’s express direction to reopen schools safely. No policy that substantially increases the risk that schools will again be forced to go virtual can be said to carry out the Congressional mandate to ensure the continuity of in-person instruction. And no policy that denies students with health-related disabilities the reasonable accommodations necessary to receive equal educational access can be said to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sciarra and Black compare today’s federal responsibility to protect children’s health to steps the federal government took during the Civil Rights Movement to protect children from state imposed racial segregation: “These anti-mask policies parallel southern states’ response to Brown v. Board of Education…. Like politicians decades ago, today’s governors and legislators insist that individual rights somehow trump the law of the land. When the federal government hit schools where it hurts—their pocketbooks—they begrudgingly began to heed Brown‘s command to dismantle segregation.”

Sciarra and Black conclude by challenging Secretary Cardona: “Everything now rests on the Secretary. He must act to protect our school children.” Surely Secretary Cardona will feel called to fulfill what these experts define as his obligation under federal law.

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.”

After Acrimonious Standoff, One State Legislature Rejects DeVos-ALEC School Privatization Scheme

Unless you are a parent or a taxpayer in Nevada, you will probably conclude that this blog post doesn’t relate to you. But the defeat of Nevada’s ALEC-driven plan for Education Savings Account vouchers is directly relevant to you. Education Savings Accounts are among the most extreme of the school voucher schemes being promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose education priorities will, most likely, have to been enacted at the state level. On Sunday night, Nevada’s legislature defeated this plan after a two-year battle. This subject matters to you because your state could soon be considering such a program.

Here is a bit of background from the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown, writing in June of 2015: “In January (2015), Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”  “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” The only qualification was that the child must have attended a public school for 100 days.

Last September, after the Nevada Supreme Court found the funding for the Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional, the program was put on hold. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel in the case that found the funding for this program unconstitutional, provides a quick summary of what happened to this program after the ruling of Nevada’s state supreme court, as Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval tried to resurrect the ALEC-driven, Education Savings Account voucher program:

“Gov. Brian Sandoval is pressing lawmakers to revive the private school voucher program blocked last September by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program was unconstitutional because it would deplete funds earmarked by the Legislature to operate Nevada’s public schools. The governor’s bill, SB 506, carries forward most features of the prior law. Sandoval wants the per-pupil amount spent on public school students, roughly $5,700, to be deposited into education savings accounts to subsidize private and religious school tuition and pay for other private education expenses. The governor also wants vouchers for any household, even the wealthy… To get around the Supreme Court ruling, SB 506 changes the way vouchers are funded. The funding will not come directly out of public school budgets. Instead, Sandoval proposes a separate appropriation of $60 million over the biennium. At that level, approximately 2,500 vouchers can be awarded each year, not enough for everyone who signed up under the prior law. So the vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One more bit of background: what are Education Savings Account vouchers?  These programs give parents the amount of money the state would otherwise have spent to educate a child. The parents give up their right to a public education and can instead use the money for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, test prep, homeschooling curriculum, therapeutic services, transportation and other educational expenses. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has developed a model bill that can be introduced in any state legislature. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee currently have Education Savings Accounts.

One problem for Governor Sandoval and SB 506 is that last November, voters threw out Republican domination of Nevada’s legislature and elected Democratic majorities in both houses. The fight about Education Savings Accounts developed in recent weeks into a power struggle between Governor Sandoval and the legislature, a fight that threatened to derail the state budget. On Sunday, the legislature blocked Sandoval and refused to pass the SB 506 Education Savings Account program.

A deal was struck by which the Legislature made a one-time grant to a smaller voucher program but defeated the Governor’s bill for Education Savings Accounts. Arianna Prothero explains for Education Week: “An effort to fund Nevada’s ambitious program to give all public school students the option to take state money allocated to them and use it instead for private school tuition, or other approved education-related expenses, is dead for this session. It’s unclear what this means for the future of the program, as the Nevada legislature only meets once every two years.” The legislature concluded its current session on Monday with the passage of the state budget. Prothero adds: “However, the deal does contain an extra $20 million over the next two years for a separate private school choice program that has a cap on how much a family can earn in order to be eligible for the aid. That will be paid for by taxing marijuana sales and growers….”

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra celebrates the defeat of the enormous Education Savings Account program by Nevada’s legislature: “The voucher defeat in Nevada is a resounding repudiation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s privatization agenda. Parents and taxpayers want investment in their public schools, not vouchers paid for with taxpayer dollars.  Nevada also shows that when parents, civil rights groups and taxpayers come together, they can succeed in keeping public funding in public schools.”

Report Demonstrates that Greater Investment, Well Distributed, Raises School Achievement

Last week the Educational Testing Service published an important report, Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding, Staffing Resources, and Achievement Gaps, on why it is important for school districts to have sufficient funding and more specifically the ways in which funding matters most.  The report’s authors are Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and David Sciarra and Danielle Farrie of the Education Law Center.

The report is technical, but one is struck by its clarity and its plain good sense: “How much you spend in a labor intensive industry dictates how many individuals you can employ, the wage you can pay them, and in turn the quality of individuals you can recruit and retain.  But in this modern era of resource-free school reforms, the connections between revenue, spending, and real, tangible resources are often ignored, or, worse, argued to be irrelevant… The primary resources involved in the production of schooling outcomes are human resources—or quantities and qualities of teachers, administrators, support, and other staff in schools.  Quantities of school staff are reflected in pupil-to-teacher ratios and average class sizes.  Reduction of class sizes or reductions of overall pupil-to-staff ratios require additional staff, thus additional money, assuming the wages and benefits for additional staff remain constant.  Qualities of school staff depend in part on the compensation available to recruit and retain the staff—specifically salaries and benefits, in addition to working conditions.  Notably, working conditions may be reflected in part through measures of workload, such as average class sizes, as well as the composition of the student population.”

The authors investigate several revenue-related issues over time and report that school revenues from state and local taxes grew on average between 4.5 and 5.5 percent between 1992 and the high point in 2008 and then, by 2012 fell back, on average, to the level of funding in 2000.  As one might expect, “(S)tates with higher per pupil spending tend, on average, to have more teachers per 100 pupils, that is, on balance, across states, higher spending on schools is leveraged to increase staffing quantities.”  Further, “(S)tates with more progressive distribution of current spending also had more progressive distribution of staffing; that is, in states where higher poverty districts are able to spend more per pupil than lower poverty districts, those higher poverty districts are able to leverage that spending to have more teaching staff per pupil than lower poverty districts.”  “In other words, as one might expect, state aid and federal revenue can improve the progressiveness of current spending across districts within states.  These relationships hold not only across states but also over time.  When state aid and federal aid are increased, fairness generally increases… 20 years of data on all states (and all districts in them) validate that increased targeted funding to and spending in high-poverty districts within states lead to substantive increases in staffing ratios in those same districts leading to more progressive state educational systems in terms of both funding and staffing.”

The question everyone asks, of course, is whether these differences in spending and staffing affect test score outcomes and whether they close the so-called achievement gaps.  The authors offer some caveats, most notably that “achievement levels of children from low-income and non-low-income families across states depend on the income levels of these families, and so, too, do the gaps.” In their research, the authors correct as well as they can for external variables. They explain that, “The analysis presented here validate the conclusion that variations in available revenues and expenditures are associated with variations in children’s access to real resources, as measured by the competitiveness of the wages paid to their teachers and by pupil-to-teacher ratios and class sizes….

  • “States that apply more effort—spending a greater share of their fiscal capacity on schools—spend more generally on schools.
  • “These higher spending levels translate into higher statewide staffing levels—more teaching staff per pupil.
  • “These higher spending levels translate into more competitive statewide teacher wages.
  • “Increased targeted staffing to higher poverty schools within states is associated both with higher measured outcomes of children from low-income families and with smaller achievement gaps between children from low-income and children from non-low income families.”

And finally, “(A)cross states, over the past decade and a half in particular, states with lower pupil-to-teacher ratios and fairer distribution of staffing tend to have both higher outcomes among children from low-income families and smaller (economic) achievement gaps…. We also have evidence that states in which teacher wages are more competitive have smaller achievement gaps and higher scores for children from lower income families.  We can also show that the level and distribution of pupil-to-teacher ratios are highly and consistently sensitive, both across states and over time, to changes to the level and distribution of school district current spending; that is, more spending, holding other factors constant, drives lower pupil-to-teacher ratios, and fairer spending across districts within states drives fairer pupil-to-teacher ratios… States with higher spending have more competitive wages, all else being equal.”

The report basically proves that you get what you pay for, and if you want to close achievement gaps between poor children and their privileged peers, you should spend what you need to to ensure that the children living in the poorest communities get the added attention they need from highly qualified teachers.

Vergara Copycat Lawsuit in NY Attacks Teachers Instead of Injustice, Say Experts

In June of this year, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers in the case of Vergara v. California.  According to Treu’s decision, tenure protects bad teachers, bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most disadvantaged students, and the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Many speculate the case will be overturned on appeal, and Judge Treu has stayed his decision pending the appeal.

Opponents of tenure have promised to launch copycat lawsuits against school teachers’ job protections in other states. Earlier this month, such a lawsuit was filed in New York on Staten Island by a group called the New York City Parents Union. While Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, told the NY Times that her lawsuit is different because it is “not being bankrolled by outside interests,” the research blogger, Mother Crusader, has connected the group’s board members to three organizations that actively oppose teachers unions and seek to privatize public education: Democrats for Education Reform, NYCAN, and StudentsFirstNY.

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reports that Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has transformed herself into an advocate against job protections for teachers, has created her own organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, for the purpose of her crusade.  She has hired the public relations firm of former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, according to Stephanie Simon of Politico, to “lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended.”  Brown has said her organization will be involved in New York.  (This blog covered the Campbell Brown, Robert Gibbs, Ben LaBolt endeavor here.)

On Tuesday of this week, two heavyweight public school justice advocates went on the offensive against the New York attempt to claim that due process protections for teachers deny children’s civil right to an education.  Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center—both involved for years in lawsuits in New York and New Jersey to protect the rights of children to adequately funded education—published an opinion piece in the Albany Times Union.

The Staten Island lawsuit, they declare, completely misses the point: “The lawsuit gets one thing right,” they charge, “Children in high poverty, urban and rural school districts across the state are indeed being deprived of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.  What it gets completely wrong is why:  the state’s continuing failure to fairly fund high need schools so they can recruit, support and retain effective teachers and deliver rich instruction in math, science, world languages, the arts and other core subjects under optimal working conditions.”

In the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, New York’s high court defined the “sound basic education” to which all children in New York have a right. In response the New York General Assembly enacted the 2007 Foundation Aid Formula, which increased school funding across the state by more than $5 billion to be phased in over four years. However, “After two years, the state walked away from its commitment to our most disadvantaged children and schools.  The funding shortfall now totals a staggering $5.7 billion, with the greatest impact on schools with the highest need.”

According to Sciarra and Easton the shortage has “cut teachers by the thousands…. In five years, Yonkers cut 500 staff members, losing half of the reading teachers and all math coaches.  Schenectady has shed 40-50 positions annually, cutting music teachers by half, and letting go librarians, instructional coaches and writing instructors… Predictably, these staff reductions have sparked drastic increases in class size.  Teachers now routinely face classes of 30 students or more.”

Easton and Sciarra conclude: “The good news is parents and students across New York know better.  They have stepped up by the thousands to let Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators know that they will no longer tolerate an underfunded, under-resourced, third-rate education.  And they will not be distracted by frivolous, irrelevant lawsuits.”

In New Jersey, Abbott School Districts Model Unified, Enriched Pre-Kindergarten

This morning the NY Times reports new analysis from economist James Heckman showing that the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study developed in the 1970s to mitigate hardship in early childhood, had long term health benefits added to its intellectual benefits for the impoverished children who received fully enriched services.  There is much talk these days of the need for public programs to provide early childhood enrichment in communities where poverty is concentrated, including specific proposals for pre-kindergarten from President Barack Obama and from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.  But in our era of austerity budgeting at the state and federal levels, few places have found the money to launch well-coordinated, quality programming. This means that in most places the children who benefit from early education are those whose parents can afford to pay for it.

One exception is New Jersey, whose Abbott Pre-Kindergarten program was recently profiled by Sharon Lerner for The American Prospect.  Lerner writes:  “… anyone who would like to see what Obama’s vision of universal pre-K might look like would do well to come to Orange, one of 31 (school) districts in the state known as ‘Abbotts.’  Because of a historic lawsuit, for almost a decade virtually all three-and four-year olds in these low-income urban areas have been attending preschool. Already well acquainted with the benefits and unforeseen challenges of expanding pre-K, the Abbotts serve as a window into the future of early education.”

Pre-Kindergarten in New Jersey’s Abbott districts is one of the long term results of a school funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, filed in 1981 and litigated over three decades. “The court wound up devising several remedies, including what amounted to a massive redistribution of education dollars.  Children in these poor districts in New Jersey (31 school districts whose needs were deemed the greatest) would receive not only resources equal to those in richer districts but also additional support to help them contend with the consequences of poverty.  Later, after legislators repeatedly resisted the idea of sharing money across district lines, the court wound up laying out the specific tools that each Abbott district would use to combat poverty, including, in 1998, universal preschool.”

The plan for preschool, which the court demanded the right to review, was approved in 2001.  Classes are capped at 15 students with an aide. Individual programs need to follow one of several approved curricula.  Teachers must have earned a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Preschool teachers are paid at the same rate as public school teachers.

Besides establishing new sites, the Abbott preschool program was designed to incorporate all the early childhood education programs and Head Start programs that already existed in the 31 targeted school districts. David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center that litigated Abbott over the decades, concludes: “This is the Abbott lesson. You had all of these existing programs that get federal and state dollars, child-care and Head Start programs already in the community.  It made no sense to ignore that infrastructure and replace it with all new programs.  What happened in Abbott that’s so revolutionary is that it unified child care, Head Start, and public school classrooms in a coordinated system.”

Sciarra comments: “Early education is to me the most surprising and frankly the most gratifying of all the remedies that came out of Abbott.”

Experts Defend Children’s Right to Adequate and Equitable School Funding in Kansas

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have co-authored a chilling opinion piece in this morning’s NY Times.  In What’s the Matter with Kansas’ Schools?, Sciarra and Henderson describe Gannon v. State of Kansas, the school funding case awaiting a decision of the Kansas Supreme Court.

The Gannon case was brought by parents protesting a 16.5 percent cut  in Kansas’ education funding since 2008.  Sciarra and Henderson explain: “The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  “A three-judge trial court ruled in January 2013 for the parents, finding that the cuts reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level ‘suitable’ to educate all children under Kansas’ standards.”

Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature are unrepentant.  In the event that the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the lower court, law makers have threatened to amend the state constitution to remove the requirement for “suitable” funding, which would “strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether.”  If that amendment were to fail, they say they would defy any court order to increase school funding.  I have blogged previously about this case here.

Sciarra and Henderson defend the right of “children who, as a last resort, seek legal redress to vindicate their fundamental right to an education.”  The courts, intended to provide checks and balances, are particularly important to protect funding for education in these tax-cutting times when so many states, like Kansas (and Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin along with several more) have conservative Republican majorities in their statehouses along with a far-right Republican governor.

One thinks of the prophetic words of the late Senator Paul Wellstone: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

School Funding Litigation Seems Endless But Proves Essential

According to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and lead counsel in the New Jersey school funding case, Abbott v. Burke,  “There is a decades-old and stubborn unwillingness by governors and legislators in state capitols to remedy the stark disparities in educational opportunity that mark the education landscape in most of our states.”

Noticing that states do not adequately compensate for enormous disparities in local taxing capacity from school district to school district, Eduardo Porter, writing a month ago in the business section of the NY Times, wondered: “If education is a poor child’s best shot at rising up the ladder of prosperity, why do public resources devoted to education lean so decisively in favor of the better off?”  This question is related to the much discussed international PISA scores released last week, an international score ranking in which the test scores of U.S. students in schools segregated by poverty and race pulled down the average for our society.

Even before last week’s despair about PISA scores, Porter raised the central issue:  “The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).”  The OECD that conducted the research on comparative school funding equity is also the sponsor of the PISA exams.

Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the PISA assessments for OECD:  “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.”

The PISA scores and the OECD research that demonstrates our society’s commitment to educational inequality provide the context for a victory of sorts last week in Connecticut, where a trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell.   The Education Law Center reports: “The state claimed the case lacked ripeness, was moot, and the plaintiffs lacked standing,” an interesting notion, as the plaintiff coalition includes municipalities, local boards of education, professional education associations, unions, parents, public schoolchildren and concerned Connecticut taxpayers.

The state claimed its funding system had been changed after the original lawsuit was filed (making the original lawsuit moot) and more time would be needed to see if the changes that have been made will render Connecticut school funding more equal (time needed to ripen the fruits of whatever minor changes the state has made).  The Education Law Center identifies these concepts as a new trend: “States are filing ripeness and mootness claims in an apparent effort to delay trials.” “On the basis of minor or even adverse legislative changes to their state school funding systems, Connecticut and New York claimed their funding systems were so different from the systems challenged in plaintiffs’ complaints… that those cases were rendered moot.  Furthermore, these states argued that their ‘new’ funding systems would need several years to show their impact, thus making the cases unripe for trial.”

The news release from the Education Law Center describes the impact of the recent decision: “Judge Kevin Dubay’s CCJEF opinion clearly explains that a trial on the merits is necessary to develop a full factual evidentiary record, including resolution of any issues of mootness or ripeness.”

The seemingly endless pursuit of school finance equity, of course, begins to feel like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the novel in which the Court of Chancery, “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘ Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!'” (p. 2)

But in our society where we have long been conditioned to worry more about funding the schools in our own community than developing a system where we all willingly contribute to pay for the education of all of our society’s children, school funding cases have proven themselves necessary.  In one of the best education books of 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke, the case litigated by David Sciarra and the Education Law Center that has driven resources to New Jersey’s poorest school districts:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of  ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  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 Education 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.”  (pp. 84-85)