Will the Biden Administration Provide Leadership to Address Long School Funding Crisis?

Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.),  but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory.  How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.

The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.

The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.

In  2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.  Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.

Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery.  I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)

How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  p. 34)

Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 35-36)

Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)

Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade.  Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues…  The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)

The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative.  His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.

Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools Tells New Congress: Fully Fund Title I and IDEA

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker carefully refutes some long-running and persistent myths about the funding of public education—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make any difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Assessing the overall impact of public investment in education, Baker concludes: “Rigorous, well-designed, and policy relevant empirical research finds that: Money matters for schools and in determining school quality and student outcomes. More specifically, substantive sustained, and targeted state school finance reforms can significantly boost short-term and long-run student outcomes and reduce gaps among low-income students and their more advantaged peers. Money matters in common sense ways. Increased funding provides for additional staff, including reduced class sizes, longer school days and years, and more competitive compensation. Cuts do cause harm. The equity of student outcomes is eroded by reducing the equity of real resources across children of varied economic backgrounds. (Educational Inequality and School Finance p. 101, emphasis in the original)

Early in the fall, in hopes that the 2018 midterm election might bring a more hopeful climate for adequately funding public education, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) published a major report, Confronting the Education Debt to define its members’ priorities for addressing decades of failure adequately to fund schools serving concentrations of poor children and children of color.  At the federal level full funding is an important goal for two long-underfunded programs:

  • AROS’s report traces the history of Title I: “The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a core component of then-President Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Title I of the ESEA targets federal dollars to schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty.  The authorization embedded in Title I—then and still today—allows Congress to provide an additional 40 percent above each state’s per pupil spending base, for each Title I-eligible child, to allow their schools to provide supplemental supports such as extra reading assistants and parent engagement specialists.  Having set that 40 percent authorization in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.”  (emphasis in the original)
  • AROS also addresses the second primary federal funding stream for public schools: “In 1975, a decade after passing the ESEA, Congress sought to address the educational needs of students with disabilities.  The individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to identify students with disabilities and to provide them the supports and services necessary to achieve academically.  In the law, Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of that additional cost, with local and state funds covering the remaining amount.  Once again, having established the formula, Congress failed to invest in it.  Federal funding of IDEA has never approached the promised 40 percent mark.”

In Confronting the Education Debt, AROS tallies the difference in the 12 year period between 2005 and 2017—the length of time it takes for a student to move through 12 grades of primary and secondary education—between what Congress established as the 40 percent funding levels for Title I and IDEA and what Congress appropriated: a gap of $347 billion for Title I and $233 billion for IDEA.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our schools is clearly adopting an aggressive strategy to press the new Congress to address its priorities. Writing last week in The Hill, AROS co-directors Keron Blair and Jay Travis challenge Congress to address its long failure fully to fund Title I and the IDEA: “As the dust settles from last month’s midterm elections, parents, students, community members and educators of America are… preparing for the long fight ahead for the public schools that our students deserve.  We are working to remedy decades of fiscal austerity in our public schools.  Between 2005 and 2017, public schools in the US. were underfunded by $580 billion in federal dollars alone—money that was specifically targeted to support some of our most vulnerable students.  Recouping all those funds won’t be easy.  However, with new voices in Congress joining forces with longtime education champions like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)—the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—and Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-Conn.)—the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the education budget—a lot can get done for America’s students and their public schools.  When it comes to public education, voters don’t want disinvestment and less regulation. They want more investment, smaller class-sizes, greater accountability for privately-operated charter schools, and school climates that are respectful and safe for students and staff.  Those demands were at the forefront when educators took to the streets… last spring.”

In addition to fully funding Title I and the IDEA, Blair and Travis name three other AROS priorities: invest in school infrastructure and technology, establish 25,000 Sustainable Community Schools by 2025 to support families coping with poverty, and end the teacher shortage by increasing wages for educators.

Clearly AROS’s priorities have already gained some traction among Democrats in Congress.  On December 4, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced a Keep Our Promise Act to “put Congress on a fiscally responsible path to fully fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on a mandatory basis.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of 10 national organizations which support urgently needed investment in the schools of our nation’s poorest communities: Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey 4 Justice Alliance, New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.