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.