Strategic Advocacy Over Decades Brought Us an Expanded Child Tax Credit: Can the Same Kind of Strategic Organizing Produce School Funding Reform?

On Saturday, after the U.S. Senate joined the U.S. House of Representatives to pass President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, I started thinking about how a huge coalition and strong advocates can sustain support for an important reform even through times that feel bleak and hopeless. Now, as a result of persistent and strategic advocacy, suddenly an election of new leaders has on some level adjusted our society’s collective notion of the role of government.

Welfare reform imposed policies that punished parents who were not working by reducing their access to public assistance. In doing so, President Bill Clinton and the Congress that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families entirely neglected the needs of America’s poorest children. But as of this weekend, by expanding the Child Tax Credit, Congress accepted the idea that as a society we bear collective responsibility for the well-being of our children. And while the expanded Child Tax Credit is part of this year’s time-limited pandemic relief, my Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet have promised to try to make the changes permanent.

Back in 2004, I read Jason DeParle’s powerful book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, about how the 1996 welfare reform harmed children. Since then I have filled my clipping file with DeParle’s articles about our collective responsibility for poor children, most recently last summer, when DeParle pushed for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the NY Times and the New York Review of Books.  At the same time, I realized that powerful research and advocacy organizations—including First Focus on Children, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Urban Institute, and the Brookings Institution—were working to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable. But for years and years the matter of overturning welfare reform has felt hopeless.

In the NY Times this week, DeParle reminds us that an election can bring a turnaround not only in one piece of public policy but also much bigger shift: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.”

DeParle continues: “While the proposal took center stage in response to the pandemic, supporters have spent decades developing the case for a children’s income guarantee. Their arguments gained traction as science established the long-term consequences of deprivation in children’s early years, and as rising inequality undercut the idea that everyone had a fair shot at a better life… Mr. Biden’s embrace of the subsidies is a leftward shift for a Democratic Party that made deep cuts in cash aid in the 1990s under the theme of ‘ending welfare.’… ‘ The moment has found us,’ said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has proposed a child allowance in 10 consecutive Congresses and describes it as a children’s version of Social Security.”

Two weeks ago, the Education Law Center—the nation’s top school finance litigation firm pursuing cases for school funding adequacy and equity under the 50 state constitutions—published From Courthouse to Statehouse—and Back Again, a major report endorsing precisely the kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that helped bring about this week’s Congressional shift to expand the Child Tax Credit. The Education Law Center, whose business is pursuing litigation-based school funding reform, warns—based on successful court victories in Massachusetts, Kansas, Washington, and New Jersey—that along with litigation, states need grassroots organizing, research-based communications, and disciplined messaging:

“Securing new resources for schools requires a majority of elected lawmakers to support finance reform and more critically, to fund it. These legislative debates trigger complicated political calculations about taxation, public and social services, the role of government, and, inevitably race, income, and wealth… The profiles in this report demonstrate that labor and grassroots organizations can play a significant part in galvanizing public opinion and breaking down resistance or deadlock inside the statehouse.”

“(E)ach state’s constitution obligates it to maintain and support a system of free public schools to educate all resident children. This means the amount and distribution of school funding—both state and local revenues—is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. Consequently, improving the way public schools are funded and boosting the investment of tax dollars in those schools can only be accomplished through the year-to-year political process of making laws, and passing budgets in state capitols.”

How to shape public opinion? First the Education Law Center advocates the wide dissemination of research: “(S)uccessful campaigns require research at all stages and for multiple audiences… It is imperative that research go beyond academic circles and be tailored and marketed to broader groups and the public at large.” But research must be part of a strategically framed campaign: “(S)takeholder coalitions helped maintain a unified message throughout both the legal proceedings and legislative deliberations. These coalitions also helped contain potential schisms among stakeholder groups, keeping them internal rather than spilling out and muddying the public debate.”

The Education Law Center urges coalitions pursuing school funding lawsuits to raise enough funds to hire a communications director to manage a well framed and extremely disciplined message. And campaigns “are much more impactful when done in close partnership with grassroots parent, community, and civil rights organizations. These partnerships ensure that the interest of the most important beneficiaries of the campaigns—the students themselves—remain front and center.”

The same kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that paved the way for last weekend’s Congressional expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit is going to be necessary, says the Education Law Center, for school funding reform even when the central strategy is through litigation: “(T)he level and distribution of school funding is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. In the end, improving the education of our nation’s children, especially the most vulnerable, depends on building strong, multi-dimensional political campaigns that can place and sustain the demand for well-funded and well-resourced schools squarely at the foot of state elected representatives and governors. Lawyers, when working in deep connection to those campaigns, can use the courts to amplify and advance that demand.”

Education Law Center Exposes Collapse of States’ Investment in Public Schools Since 2008

One of the ways we attribute meaning to what we see is through stories.  Here is the story of my school district. We are among the top districts in Ohio in the local school property taxes we have voted.  But our district was forced to cut teachers and programs this year, and the teachers almost went on strike because of threatened cuts to their health care benefits despite that, in November, we passed yet another local school property tax operating levy. When my children were in elementary school in the 1980s and early 1990s, each school had a nurse and each school had a certified librarian, but now schools share nurses and the libraries are staffed by aides. Looking at this situation from a purely local point of view, many people in my community interpret these facts in a way that blames the district for mismanagement or salaries that are too high, or both.

But a new report from The Education Law Center insists that citizens must expand their understanding of funding public schools beyond the local story: “The political dynamics in state capitols have profound implications for the level and distribution of school funding. Nationally, state sources (mainly sales and income tax) provide 47%, and local sources (overwhelmingly from property taxes) provide 45% of the revenue to support public schools. The federal government contributes the remaining 8%. When state governments allow tax revenues to decline or remain stagnant, public schools, which states are legally obligated to maintain and support, pay the price. Elementary and secondary education on average accounts for 36% of states’ general fund spending, the most of any state government services.”

The Education Law Center’s new report, $600 Billion Lost: State Disinvestment in Education Following the Great Recession, sets the financial crisis in my school district and a mass of other school districts in a much clearer context. The Education Law Center blames state policy over more than a decade as the primary cause of our dilemma. I already had some understanding of the current fiscal problems for the nation’s public schools because, for years, I have been reading reports on this topic from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (see this example).  But the new report is short, up to date, readable, and extremely important for clarifying the fiscal reality for public school districts a decade after the Great Recession and as the result of the fiscal conservatism of too many Tea Party-dominated state legislatures.

If you look merely at your own school district’s finances or even merely at where your own state stands with regard to funding public education, you are missing the larger landscape according to the Education Law Center:  “In the decade following the Great Recession, students across the U.S. lost nearly $600 billion from the states’ disinvestment in their public schools. Data from 2008-2018 show that, if states had simply maintained their fiscal effort at PK-12 education at pre-Recession levels, public schools would have had over half a trillion dollars more in state and local revenue to provide teachers, support staff and other resources essential for student achievement. Further, that lost revenue could have significantly improved opportunity and outcomes for students especially in the nation’s poorest districts.”

The report emphasizes that, even after states recovered from collapsed tax revenues caused by the Great Recession, too many state legislatures did not prioritize helping school districts recover: “Yet as economies rebounded, states failed to restore those investments. As our analysis shows, while states’ economic activity—measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—recovered, state and local revenues for public schools lagged far behind in many states. This ‘lost decade’ of state disinvestment has put public schools in an extremely vulnerable position as the nation confronts the coronavirus pandemic.”

The Education Law Center has created an index of “tax effort” that measures each state’s economic capacity to fund public schools against the educational investment the state actually makes.”  Only four states, Wyoming, Illinois, Connecticut, and Alaska have raised their commitment to public education as measured by the Education Law Center’s tax effort index.

What about the rest of the states? “In some states the disinvestment was dramatic. In 2018, the effort in Arizona, Florida, and Michigan was more than 25% below 2008 levels. Nearly half of the states had an effort index that was at least 10% lower than in 2008. High and low effort states alike reduced their effort. Michigan and Ohio were ranked highly in effort in 2008—3rd and 7th, respectively—but significant reductions dropped these states to 16th and 21st by 2018.”  Bar graphs in the report trace the trajectory of each state’s K-12 public education investment.

The Education Law Center challenges state legislatures to counter the effects of the current COVID-19 recession by increasing state taxes: “The ability of states to withstand the impact of revenue losses from the pandemic hinge on enacting and sustaining progressive tax policies… Progressive tax campaigns are building in states across the country. These campaigns typically propose raising income taxes on the wealthy… and dedicating those increased revenues for education and other social services.”

Unfortunately, in Ohio, where I live, the legislature seems committed to expanding school choice instead. The Ohio Senate killed a progressive new public school finance plan in December, and at the same time has insisted on expanding school privatization. The legislature just revised and continues to expand its EdChoice Vouchers, which suck money for private school tuition directly out of local school district budgets through something called the school district deduction.

The Ohio Legislature also supports a large and well funded charter school sector. In his new book, Schoolhouse BurningDerek Black examines the school finance implications of the expansion of school privatization at public expense during the same decade the Education Law Center describes the states’ failure to invest in public education. Black examines, for example, the growth of charter schools in Ohio:

“While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies…  Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-2014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

Federal Coronavirus Relief Act Will Provide Urgently Needed Money for Public Schools, But Not Nearly Enough

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa contrasts the public education support in the new federal coronavirus stimulus passed this week by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump to the 2009 federal stimulus passed during the Obama administration to address the Great Recession: “Remember the last time we had a big federal stimulus for education? The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended up being a lot smaller than the coronavirus aid package President Donald Trump signed last week, but it included much more money for education in coping with the impact of the Great Recession. And it also teed up President Barack Obama’s education agenda for his two terms… The majority of the 2009 stabilization cash—$48.6 billion—went out to states by formula for early learning, K-12, and postsecondary education. The remaining money? It was earmarked for Race to the Top and the Investing in What Works and Innovation programs.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Let’s pause for a moment and express gratitude that this week the Trump administration has not earmarked any of what will be desperately needed education relief funding to force states to qualify to participate in a competitive grantmaking process like Race to the Top.  Remember when, just to qualify for money from that particular federal stimulus program, states were forced to grade their teachers according to their students’ test scores and spend the money on rapid school turnaround plans like firing principals and teachers, charterizing schools, and closing schools. In this very significant way, we are all much better off.

But, according to experts, we are also worse off in 2020 than in 2009.  Why?  So far, at least, there is a whole lot less federal money available to meet the challenges public schools will need to address in the current emergency and as they try to get back up and running in the context of what is likely to be a state fiscal crisis. All the things states tax in order to generate the revenue to operate public services are now losing money. Sadly many businesses are closing and many people are losing their jobs. State budgets are likely to be much reduced in the immediate future.

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra, Jessica Levin, and Wendy Lecker provide the details about the relief package signed into law this week: “In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has provided $13.5 billion in emergency relief to help local school districts and states respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s public schools… The CARES Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to address educational needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.  About half of that sum is designated for higher education, $3 billion for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and the rest ($13.5 billion) for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.  Most of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund—over $12 billion—will be distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), that is, school districts and charter schools.  States must allocate at least 90% to LEAs as subgrants in the proportion that the LEAs receive Title I funds.  LEAs and states can use their allocations from this Emergency Relief Fund for a wide range of expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.”

This time, unlike 2009, states and school districts have considerable freedom about how they can spend the funds—any activity authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, activities to support the needs of low-income students, disabled students, English language learners, racial and ethnic minority students, homeless students and students in the foster care system.  States and school districts can use the federal funds for educational technology, mental health support for students, coordinating long-term closures, providing meals, and creating guidelines to help design online programming during the crisis.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss just published a column by Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, in which Black demonstrates all the ways the CARES Act is likely to be inadequate to the challenges public schools face in the upcoming months and even the next several years. Why is the size of the federal CARES Act so important for education?  “A century and a half ago, citizens began approving state constitutions that made public education their states’ first priority. They did it for a very good reason. They knew times like these would come. They knew the foundation of society had to be solid. Education should be the last place, not the first, that states look to make budget cuts in the troubled economic times ahead.”

Black reviews what has happened to state public education funding in the decade following the Great Recession: “During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.  States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded… Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of states’ revenues, and for good reason.  Public education, as the Supreme Court wrote, is ‘the most important function of state and local governments.’ It serves as the ‘foundation of good citizenship’ and ‘democratic society.’ Yet, when the economy faltered in 2008, states made little, if any, attempt to shield schools.  Several states even targeted education for cuts. Wisconsin waged a ‘war’ on teacher benefits. North Carolina and Florida cut education spending from about $10,000 per pupil to $7,000 in just three years… States then refused to replenish education funding even after the economy rebounded. The latest available data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as late as the 2016-17 school year, education funding remained below pre-recession levels in real dollar terms in most states—sometimes up to 30 percent lower.”

Black continues: “Students paid the price. The overwhelming social science consensus demonstrates that money matters to student achievement and current funding levels are woefully inadequate. A 2008 study revealed that the average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less than they need per student.”

Can the members of our state legislatures have failed to learn the important lesson about how funding cuts after the Great Recession damaged opportunity for so many children?  Sadly, Black believes so: “The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states—Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year—increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.”

Sciarra, Levin, and Lecker echo Derek Black’s concerns about the limitations of the CARES Act just passed by Congress and signed by the President: “The $13.5 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund can help states and districts meet the immediate challenge of providing effective and equitable opportunities for all students, though more funds may be needed even in the short-term. States must also prepare for the likelihood that thousands, if not millions, of students will return to school having experienced significant learning loss. These students will require remedial and ‘compensatory’ services, programs and interventions to make up for the loss and put them academically back on track as quickly as possible. Vulnerable student populations will be most impacted and most in need… Congress must move beyond ’emergency’ relief to ‘mitigation’ funding for K-12 education…. States must not react to the pandemic by enacting deep and harmful state aid cuts, as occurred during and after the 2008 recession.  The harmful impact of those cuts fell on the districts, schools and students with the most need and least ability to make up the funds through increases in local revenue.”

Black warns: “If the current crisis is teaching us anything, it is just how hard and important schools’ jobs are. Kids cannot stare at a screen or book for seven hours a day, nor should they. Parents, employers and hopefully lawmakers are painfully realizing just how central school services are to everyone’s lives and the basic operation of the economy.”

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.”

Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “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 country’s report card.  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)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the 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 is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Education Law Center Report Defines Fairness in School Funding

On Sunday in Doonsbury, Gary Trudeau featured a Kansas schoolgirl—her school closed several weeks early this spring when the state education budget ran out of money due to Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cuts for the rich—being lectured about the virtues of supply-side economics by Trickle-Down Dick: “If we just give the rich enough money and time, sooner or later, less tax revenue will turn into more tax revenue!”

And last week in the NY Times, we read about the unmet needs of America’s public schools and the tax cuts at the state level that are exacerbating the problem: “The needs of the nation’s schools have grown since the recession began: There are now 458,000 more students enrolled in public schools than in the fall of 2007.  But while total state revenues have mostly rebounded to pre-recession levels, state education funding per pupil is still down 3.6 percent across the country, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.  At least 30 states spent less per student this school year than in the year before the economic downturn began, and 14 states, including Arizona, have cut per-pupil funding by more than 10 percent over that period.  The drop is not simply a reflection of state economies still struggling to recover… Of the seven states with the deepest cuts in education from kindergarten to 12th grade, six—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin—also cut income tax rates….”

On Monday, without commenting on the politics, the Education Law Center published a detailed report about the implications—its fourth annual national report card on school funding, Is School Funding Fair?—with research conducted by Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University.  Baker’s graphs and tables allow you to compare your state’s school funding trajectory (up or down), your state’s commitment to equity, and your state’s tax effort (compared to your state’s capacity) to the states that surround yours, and also to scan those factors for all the states.

But the greatest benefit of the report is its lucid explanation of the principles by which a good society ought to commit to funding its public schools: “In this report, ‘fair’ school funding is defined as a state finance system that ensures equal educational opportunity by providing a sufficient level of funding distributed to districts within the state to account for additional needs generated by student poverty.”  This is the principle defined eloquently by Benjamin Barber in his 1992 reflection on public education in America, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America: “Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical.” (p. 13)

Here is how Baker and the Education Law Center define the principles of fairness in school finance:

  • “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…
  • “The level of funding should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty—that is, state finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty…
  • “Student poverty—especially concentrated student poverty—is the most critical variable affecting funding levels. Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that increase the costs of providing equal educational opportunity—most notably, gaps in educational achievement, school district racial composition, English-language proficiency, and student mobility. State finance systems should deliver greater levels of funding to higher-poverty versus lower-poverty settings, while controlling for differences in other cost factors.
  • “While the distribution of funding to account for student need is crucial, the overall funding level in states is also a significant element to fair school funding. Without a sufficient base, even a progressively funded system will be unable to provide equitable educational opportunities.
  • “The sufficiency of the overall level of funding in any state can be assessed based on comparisons to other states with similar conditions and similar characteristics…”

The Education Law Center’s report notes that across America student poverty remains at 21 percent, and that, “The uneven sorting of low-income students among districts compounds the already difficult task of providing educational opportunity amidst growing student poverty.  Low-income students are increasingly likely to be concentrated in districts with other low-income students.  In 2007, of the 8.5 million low-income students in the country, 1.7 million resided in districts with a poverty rate of over 30%.  In 2012, the number of low-income students in high-poverty districts more than doubled to 3.9 million.  The increasing isolation of low-income students in schools and districts presents challenges for teachers and administrators, especially when those students do not have access to the resources they need to be successful, both academically and socially.”  The report that follows explores the school finance climate across the states in our times when segregation by income is rapidly expanding across America’s metropolitan areas, with poor students increasingly segregated in under-resourced schools.

Interestingly in collaboration with the Education Law Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a companion report, Cheating our Future: How Decades of Disinvestment by States Jeopardizes Equal Educational Opportunity.  The Leadership Conference’s report is more narrative than statistical and includes profiles of the school funding crisis in Pennsylvania that has been undermining the School District of Philadelphia, in Mississippi, in South Carolina, and in Colorado.  The Leadership Conference has in the past fifteen years been a supporter of the test-based accountability regime imposed by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.  This new report is a significant development, as with its publication the Leadership Conference has gone on record to demand that states not only hold schools accountable for closing gaps in test score outcomes but also rectify the alarming opportunity gaps in school resources that contribute to the test-score achievement gaps.