Senate Deletes Fair School Funding Plan. FY22-23 Ohio Budget Moves to Conference Committee

The Ohio Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the state’s FY 2022-2023 state budget late Tuesday.  On Wednesday the bill moved to the Senate floor where it passed by a vote of 25 to 8, along party lines. Debate will now move to a House-Senate conference committee.

This blog will take a one week early summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, June 21st.

Gongwer summarizes this week’s Senate’s action: “The Senate Finance Committee voted along party lines Tuesday afternoon to report the two-year spending outline (HB110) after accepting a multi-pronged omnibus amendment… The widely supported House-passed K-12 funding overhaul ditched by the Senate will be a top matter of discussion between the GOP-led chambers….  Before the vote, the committee’s Democrats offered several amendments, including proposals to…  reinstate the House’s school funding plan….”

In a powerful editorial on Wednesday (linked here to a pdf version because the editorial is paywalled), the Cleveland Plain Dealer castigated the Senate’s deletion of the House’s Fair School Funding Plan.  The House plan—now pushed aside—was designed over a period of three years by an expert Ohio House-appointed committee to restore adequate, cost-based state school funding and to remedy what has become the widespread  over-reliance by school districts on local property tax levies to fund even the most basic services.

The Plain Dealer explains: “The Senate version would fail to enact the bi-partisan, educator-backed Fair School Funding Plan first proposed by Rep. Robert Cupp, a Lima Republican, now the House’s speaker, and former Rep. John Patterson, a Jefferson Democrat. The Cupp-Patterson plan would assure school funding equity. The Senate counteroffer doesn’t.  It postpones a nearly inevitable day of reckoning when another school funding lawsuit, like the DeRolph case decided in 1997, determines legislators aren’t doing right by public school pupils. The Senate says it’s just being frugal but the numbers belie that.  Its proposal would add to inequities in school funding while perpetuating divisions over something that should unite Ohioans of all political stripes—the need to invest in our children.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors add that another problem in the Senate plan is the expansion of school vouchers: “The Ohio House version of the budget, which includes the Cupp-Patterson innovations, passed on a strikingly bipartisan 70-27 House vote. Tellingly… the Senate plan is not likely to achieve the same broad political backing, largely because it discards the balance the House achieved. The Senate plan, for instance, vastly expands eligibility for tax-funded school vouchers.  Vouchers help parents pay for private schools. But the Ohio Constitution, which legislators swear to uphold, requires the General Assembly to ‘secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.’  That is, public schools are the legislature’s first responsibility. Committee testimony by backers of the House’s approach pointed out that the Senate plan raises the ceiling on EdChoice voucher awards for pupils from kindergarten to 8th grade to $5,500 (from the current $4,650) and for pupils in grades 9-12 to $7,500 (from the $6,000 current ceiling).  Legislative analysts estimate the higher ceilings will cost the state $163.5 million over two years.”

The Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan was designed to address Ohio’s long-standing and growing school funding inequity. The Fair School Funding Plan would fulfill the very definition by Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker of what a school funding formula should be. “School funding is largely in the hands of states, and the primary job of states’ finance systems should be to account for differences between their districts in the cost of providing that minimal level of educational quality, and then to distribute funds in a manner that compensates for the fact that some districts have less ability than others to pay these costs (e.g. via property taxes).  For instance, districts serving large proportions of high-needs students will tend to have higher costs; if those districts lack the local capacity to pay those costs, state revenue needs to fill the gaps.”

In May 6, 2021 testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Ohio education funding expert, Howard Fleeter describes how the framers of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan designed the plan to address what has been alarming and  long-standing inequity in Ohio school finance:  “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in particular has lagged well behind the growth in the number of such students over the past 20 years (funding has increased 22% while the number of (these) students has increased 61% since FY01)… Studies in other states have indicated that the additional costs of educating low-income students are typically 30% or more… Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid should be retained as is the case in the HB110 funding formula (the Fair School Funding Plan).  These two formula components supplement formula funding by providing additional funds to low wealth districts that lack the tax base to pursue local educational initiatives in the same manner that wealthier districts can through local levies.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors additionally question the Senate’s inclusion of a 5% income tax cut in its new budget: “Then there are the Senate’s expanded tax cuts, which could run afoul of requirements in federal COVID-19 stimulus aid not to use the money as an offset for tax cuts. The Senate proposes to expand a 2% House-proposed income tax cut to 5% by the second year, resulting in an estimated $874 million state revenue loss over the next two years… Spending $874 million on schools would be an investment. Dribbling it away on individually puny tax cuts is a stunt. A reckless stunt, given that it could imperil needed COVID relief dollars.  And an irresponsible stunt, in light of the pressing state spending needs made apparent during the pandemic….” “(F)or an Ohioan with an annual income from $41,000 to $64,000, the Senate plan would save an average of $22 a year (43 cents a week).”

Policy Matter’s Ohio’s Wendy Patton amplifies these facts in testimony she presented to the Senate Finance Committee to document who would benefit from the Senate’s proposed 5% tax cut: “Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.”

The next Ohio budget will be negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee which must create a compromise before July 1. The Plain Dealer‘s editorial board  describes what needs to happen in the next two weeks: “Conferees’ priority should be writing a budget that shelves dubious tax cuts and fairly funds public schools—which, as it now stands, the Senate’s proposal doesn’t do.”

This blog has posted here on the Ohio House’s Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.

This blog has posted here and here on the Ohio Senate’s plan which is less adequate and less equitable.

Ohio Legislature Heats Up Controversy by Making New Public School Funding Plan and Method of Funding School Vouchers All Part of the Budget

This week in my school district in Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Ohio, parents and public school supporters are going through a quiet ritual. People have been scrambling to write and submit legislative testimony. Some people are submitting written testimony; others are driving two and a half hours to Columbus, sitting in the hearing room and driving home in the dark. The Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee is holding hearings on the state’s next biennial budget and considering a new—desperately needed—school funding plan that has now been folded into the budget bill, which must be passed by June 30.

What is happening is a big deal.  Last fall, a new $2 billion school funding plan was passed by the Ohio House by a vote of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate let the bill die at the end of the session. Now that plan has been folded into the state budget. The House has already passed the budget—including the Fair School Funding Plan—but the Senate is just now holding hearings. If you read some of the testimony being submitted, you might imagine what’s going on in Ohio would get coverage in the state’s big newspapers, but most of them have been bought out by Gannett-Gatehouse Media or Advance Media, companies that have reduced the number of reporters.  Right now not enough people are paying attention to a debate about whether the Legislature will repair the services our state is currently failing to provide for 1.6 million students in Ohio’s 610 public school districts at the same time the state continues to expand school vouchers at public schools’ expense.

I am going to share some of my own testimony and the testimony from others who are members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education. You can find copies of each of these documents in the Ohio Senate Education Committee’s document archive for May 4, 5, and 6.  I will date each reference.

My own testimony (May 6) summarizes the issues at stake in this particular Ohio budget debate, which also includes a fight about the new state school funding plan. I name three principles embodied by the new school funding plan we hope the Senate will fold into the state budget: “The Fair School Funding Plan… enhances equity, increases the state’s investment in the under-resourced public schools which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children, and ends school district deduction funding for charter schools and EdChoice vouchers for private school tuition.”

On the need for more equitable school funding, I quote Howard Fleeter, our state’s school finance expert, who documents that “poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18” while “the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.”

On the subject of adequate school funding, I quote Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton, who has demonstrated that, “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985,” and Howard Fleeter who reminds us: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.”

And on the subject of the catastrophe of Ohio’s “school district deduction” funding for EdChoice vouchers, I describe data from Scott Gainer, the Treasurer of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district. In Ohio, the state counts voucher students as though they attend the public schools and then sends the voucher amount—$4,650 for younger students and $6,000 for high school students—to the private school.  In my school district and many others, the voucher amount is far more than the district receives from the state in basic aid for that student. The result: In my school district between 2017 and today, the District’s loss to vouchers has grown from $2,256,017 to $9,017,250. The district is losing 45 percent of the district’s state basic aid school funding even though 1,699 of our district’s 1,792 voucher students—roughly 95% have never been enrolled in our public schools.

The burden of EdChoice vouchers falls unevenly from school district to school district, and to add to the inequity imposed by “school district deduction” funding for the vouchers, last November the Legislature restructured this program to prescribe that from now on, only children living in the attendance zone of a federally designated Title I school can qualify for an EdChoice voucher. This change places the financial burden of the vouchers only on the school districts serving concentrations of Ohio’s poorest children.

I conclude my testimony: While “the Ohio Constitution does not provide for the diversion of tax dollars to privately operated charter schools or to private school tuition vouchers, the framers of the Ohio Constitution understood public education as a guarantee to each of our children of the right to a school that protects their rights by law and serves their particular needs. Twenty-four years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the Constitution’s promise of adequate public school funding , equitably distributed…. By ensuring that the Fair School Funding Plan remains intact in the budget, you will… realize the twenty-four year DeRolph promise.”

As a senior citizen whose children graduated from high school twenty years ago, I can lay out the reasons the Legislature needs to repair our state’s long-broken school finance system, but others from our district who are current parents and teachers also presented testimony to the legislature this week. They describe what they have watched in recent years as our state’s school funding system has collapsed.

Krissy Dietrich, who chaired two school levy campaigns in 2020 in an effort to keep our school district afloat, told the Senate Education Committee: “I’ve been volunteering to pass CH-UH school levies and bond issues for nearly 15 years, working on my first campaign when my eldest son was still in preschool. Most recently, I chaired back-to-back levies in 2020, one in the Primary Election that lost by 700 votes and one in the General that won by less than half of one percent of the votes cast. Our committee raised nearly $120,000 to run these two campaigns. We spent countless hours working to convince voters; we engaged many hundreds of volunteers over a period of 11 months…. (W)e are forced to engage in a brutal and expensive public battle every few years just to secure the most basic funding necessary to educate our community’s children. We are forced to do this by a funding system that is inherently broken. It is unconstitutional, unsustainable, and unfair.” (May 6)

Joan Spoerl, the parent of a junior at Cleveland Heights High School, explains: “When I listened to testimony relating to state education policies last February, I was struck by the oft-repeated themes from public school supporters from every kind of community in Ohio—small, medium, large, rural and urban. Rural community members described their public schools as the heart or center of their community. Many voiced pride about how their public schools welcome and serve all who need them, turn away no one, weaving together all kinds of children and families, forming a beautiful tapestry of community. But I also learned that my community isn’t unique in finding its beautiful fabric too often weakened or rent by the state’s current funding model and other education policies. I heard about the divisions created in all kinds of communities, by the need for levy campaigns to simply keep up with inflation and the unfortunate consequences of budget cuts when those levies fail” (May 6)

Toni Thayer, parent of two current Heights High students describes her children’s losses at school due to recent budget cuts: “It is from the point of view of my children and their peers that I first want to appeal to you.  My children… love their schools and they love our community, for its rich commitment to diversity, education, and the arts. But they have watched over the course of their time in public school the effects of a broken school funding system that has only gotten worse as the charter school movement and the EdChoice voucher program have diverted public funds away from public schools. They have seen their class sizes increase and their curricular options decrease. They have said goodbye to beloved and highly qualified teachers who were downsized for budgetary reasons. Even more painful than all of that, they have watched as our community has been turned against itself over school funding. Our district relies heavily on residential property taxes for local school funding because, as a tightly packed inner-ring suburb, we have little commercial tax base. The heavy burden on homeowners and the need for frequent levies to make up for gaps in funding from the state have pushed us to the breaking point.” (May 5)

Ari Klein, a 33 year math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, has watched how legislative decisions over the decades have hurt our school district: “My two children graduated from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where my wife, my parents, and I all went to school. I am retiring next month from my entire 33 year teaching career in this same school system. Throughout my career I have witnessed desperation for funding public schools that has gotten worse and worse. We have always taxed ourselves heavily in my community, but in the last 8-10 years the state has caused an exponential drain on local dollars by allowing the deduction method of funding community schools (Ohio’s name for charter schools), as well as private and parochial schools through vouchers. My district has been hard hit with losses not because you have labelled our schools as “failing” but because we have a diverse community that has a significant private and parochial school population. 93% of the families who use EdChoice vouchers have never attended and never planned to attend our public schools. We now lose more than half of our annual state foundation funding!… (L)ocal dollars must be used to subsidize… (voucher students) since our state aid is less than the money the state requires to be deducted from our school district… The results of these state policies for our community are enormous because with district enrollment at just over 5,000 we can’t afford to pay the price for an additional 2,200 students who use community (charter) schools and vouchers. Remember, over 90% of these students using vouchers have never set foot in our buildings.” (May 6)

Finally, Susan Kaeser, long a public school advocate and leader in the Heights Coalition for Public Education, defines the value of public education in her challenge to the members of the Ohio Senate: “Your decision about whether or not you choose to fund a high-quality system of public schools is a values choice. Are you committed to the equal value of every resident of our state? Do you support the Ohio Constitution and the operating principle that education is a civic resource not a consumer choice? When you use public funds for parallel systems operated with different rules, you weaken the public system and its civic benefits… This is a critical moment in Ohio’s history. After a relentless assault on the reputation of our system of public education, years of flat funding of the public schools and extravagant funding of nonpublic and often for-profit education providers, many districts are on the verge of financial collapse.” (May 4)

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.”

President Elect Joe Biden’s Education Plan Is Designed to Expand the Opportunity to Learn

The education plan President Elect Joe Biden announced during his campaign for President reflects a public school, “opportunity to learn” agenda—a radical renunciation of the private school, radically individualistic policies of our current President, Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The plan Biden has promoted also differs significantly from the technocratic neoliberalism embodied in education policy during the Obama administration, when Biden served as Vice President.

Through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, public education policy rested on threatening public schools with sanctions if they were unable promptly to raise aggregate standardized test scores and close what were called achievement gaps. The No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy punitively demanded ever-rising outcomes.  President Elect Biden instead emphasizes investing in inputs to expand public schools’ capacity to close opportunity gaps. Biden’s plan reflects his understanding that government is responsible for investing in programs and services necessary to ensure that all students can thrive.

Biden’s pledge to expand the opportunity to learn reflects an understanding of school achievement documented last year by Sean Reardon, a Stanford University education sociologist in Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps. Here Reardon addresses specifically what has been called the black-white achievement gap: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

For fifteen years before Trump and DeVos launched a quest for radically expanding publicly funded vouchers to enable families to pay tuition at private and religious schools, Democrats joined Republicans in endorsing the rapid expansion of charter schools, which many Democrats justified by claiming that charters, are not really private. I once heard a prominent Washington, D.C. liberal Democrat say, “We can’t support vouchers because they are a form of privatization, but charter schools are OK because, you know, they aren’t really private.” Charter schools are, of course, privately operated—a form of government contracting with private operators at taxpayer expense. The Clinton and Obama administrations invested in the growth of charter schools. Biden has distanced himself from the pursuit of more charter schools. He has, at least, condemned the charter management companies that are making a profit from our tax dollars and has pledged improve oversight of a charter sector filled with fraud and corruption.  We can’t yet be sure about how he will deal with the threat of charter school privatization. It is notable, however, that his education plan emphasizes reforms to support the nation’s public schools, while there is no endorsement of standardized testing, school accountability, charter schools, vouchers, or marketplace school choice.

Biden’s education plan does, however, reflect what we all learned from events in 2018 and 2019 that challenged the nation’s understanding of what has gone missing in public schools. Over the decade from 2008—at the same time federal policy was demanding that somehow schools immediately raise aggregate standardized test scores—the Great Recession collapsed state budgets and thereby devastated state funding that makes up roughly 40 percent of public investment in K-12 education. Then across many states, Tea Party state legislators elected in 2010 further cut the taxes needed to fund the public schools and other state functions.

In massive walkouts and strikes through 2018 and 2019—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago—teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford. We watched teachers demand that their legislatures provide enough money to reduce class sizes of 40 students. Teachers protested an epidemic shortage of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians. Red4Ed strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland demonstrated how public schools had been devastated by the diversion of local school budgets to charter schools. Economist Gordon Lafer showed, for example, that the Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year as essential public school funds are diverted to charter schools. Although the press has covered pleas for the public to contribute to go-fund-me campaigns to help teachers buy classroom supplies, teachers taught us in two years of strikes what a shortage of educational investment really means: widespread disinvestment in staff. Not only were key staff being laid off, but teachers’ salaries in too many school districts were declining below the level of decency.  In some places we heard from teachers who were unable afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching. Teachers in Oklahoma were quitting and moving to Texas where salaries were higher.  Colleges and universities reported fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career.

Biden’s education plan declares that he listened to striking teachers: “We have witnessed educators around the country—in states from West Virginia to Arizona to Kentucky—heroically organize walkouts and other actions to stand up not just for their own wages and benefits, but also for the resources they need to serve their students.  Educators shouldn’t have to fight so hard for resources and respect.”  During the campaign, Biden pledged to:

  • Triple funding for Title I, the federal program funding schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families;
  • Increase funding for mandated programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to the full 40 percent of the cost—what Congress originally promised when the law was passed. Today Congress funds roughly 14 percent of the cost and leaves the rest to be absorbed by local school district budgets.
  • Use federal policy to promote equity by incentivizing states to increase investment in the local school districts with the least capacity to raise local revenue. “States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.”
  • Provide high-quality universal pre-Kindergarten for all three-and four-year-olds.
  • Ensure teachers receive competitive salaries and benefits: “Public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996.”
  • “Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools so our kids get the mental health care they need.”
  • Provide wraparound, full service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional students and their families.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to expand the opportunity to learn: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Educators and advocates will need to hold Joe Biden accountable for these promises even as we work to support his efforts to make them a reality.  A significant challenge for Biden will be passing the tax increase he has pledged to enact for corporations and the wealthiest Americans—a tax increase which would pay for his education plan and other important programs. Mitch McConnell will continue to lead a Republican majority Senate, whose members will likely not be amenable to raising these taxes.

It Looks As Though Proposed Ohio School Funding Overhaul May Have to Wait Two More Years

There was a sense of hope on March 25th, when Ohio State Representatives Bob Cupp and John Patterson proposed a new, bipartisan school funding plan for Ohio, a plan that was intended to serve as the House’s education proposal for the 2020-2021 biennial budget, which must be passed by June 30.  We owe these two legislators enormous thanks for overcoming partisan rancor and setting out to try to address school funding injustice in our state.

Under a patched together mess of additions to old formulas, Ohio’s school districts have suffered for years from state funding that hasn’t met the state’s constitutional obligation. The problem has become more serious as state revenue for schools has declined. Following the Great Recession a decade ago, Governor John Kasich and his all-Republican legislature continued the phase out of local business taxes, eliminated the state estate tax and reduced state income taxes. In a state where all tax increases are required by law to be voted, school districts have been forced to ask their residents to increase local property taxes and at the same time to cut programming.  Just as school teachers have been striking all year across other states to highlight outrageous problems with large classes and shortages of counselors, social workers, nurses and librarians, Ohio’s students and teachers have been experiencing the same funding inadequacies.

The proposed Cupp-Patterson Plan was supposed to fund schools adequately—according to a calculation of what it actually costs to provide required services.  It was supposed to be stable without the kind of quirks and changes Ohio school districts have noticed recently in their state funding.  And it was supposed to be equitable by considering not only a district’s property valuation but also the community’s aggregate income in calculating what Ohio calls the local chargeoff—the calculation of what a school district has the capacity to generate in local taxes. Currently in Ohio, 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee; they have been getting from the state just what they got last year and the year before and the year before that.  The new Cupp-Patterson plan was designed to flip that situation and restore the awarding of formula-calculated funding to at least 510 districts.

The only problem was, once the computer runs for the state’s 610 school districts were released, it became apparent that many of the state’s very poorest districts, especially poor urban districts with concentrated poverty, ended up with zero new funding—at the same level where they were last year.

This past weekend, the Speaker of the Ohio House, Larry Householder told the Columbus Dispatch that the new plan probably cannot be adjusted quickly enough to be part of Ohio’s 2020-2021 biennial budget:  “I think Cupp-Patterson needs a lot more work… I don’t think it can be done in the time frame for this budget.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel explains the problems with the plan and Householder’s concerns: “Over two years, the plan would mean a $280 increase per pupil on average for districts with student poverty rates of at least 60 percent.  Meanwhile, the increase is $392 per pupil for districts with poverty concentration of less than 15 percent.  Several urban districts get little or no additional money.  For Householder, that means more new money for districts that, thanks to local tax revenue, are already funded at an ‘excellent level,’ while less is going to schools where kids have ‘tons of disadvantages.’ That, he said, compounds a revenue imbalance that already exists between poor and wealthy districts. ‘It’s going to create a funding system that’s going to bring a greater amount of inequity between school districts… And there’s no way that it doesn’t.'”

For a fascinating analysis of the complexities that must be addressed by any Ohio school funding plan, I encourage readers of this blog to listen to Jim Siegel’s podcast from last Thursday: Why Is School Funding Still Broken? Siegel talks with two people who bring very different experiences to the conversation. Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s school funding expert has been tracking and advising the legislature about Ohio school finance since 1991.  Julie Wagner Feasel is a member of the school board in Olentangy, a suburban school district just north of Columbus and the fastest growing school district in the state in terms of families moving in.

We learn from Julie Wagner Feasel that even the state’s wealthiest school districts—as measured by property valuation and family income—have been ill-served by our current formula. Olentangy is a wealthy suburban district that for several years has been receiving less state funding than the amount the state awards to private schools for auxiliary services.  Between 2009 and 2014, Olentangy gained 6,000 students at a time when the formula was frozen and the district was on guarantee.  Between 2014 and 2019, the district has been under a “gain cap,” freezing the district’s state funding as it gained another 4,000 or 5,000 students.  Under the proposed Cupp-Patterson formula, which awards what the district needs as measured by its rapid growth, Olntangy will get a significant boost just because its state revenue has been frozen for over a decade.

In the podcast, Howard Fleeter defends the needs of the state’s poorest school districts, those which have lost population but still need additional funds to address the barriers that confront the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. Fleeter suggests that districts serving a high concentration of student poverty need a third more revenue per pupil.  Fleeter disputes Wagner Feasel’s worry that more money would just be absorbed by teachers’ salaries: “Putting resources into classrooms is important. There is important value in teaching, and with salaries, you get what you pay for. To attract good teachers and keep them, you must pay them well… Stability in staff makes a successful school.”

Fleeter also explains why it is enormously complicated to create a state school funding formula that addresses the needs of all 610 of Ohio’s school districts.  We have more big cities than any state except California or Texas—Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, and then a bit smaller—Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown, and then a couple of tiers slightly smaller but still big cities.  We have rural Appalachian poverty and then a whole different rural economy on the west side of the state. Then there are the growing outer suburbs and the inner suburbs that are more urban.  How do we calculate equity and adequacy across this array of very legitimate needs?

In his report on the plan’s likely delay, Siegel quotes Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder commenting on the complexity of the problem: “If all we had to do was worry about poor, rural school districts, we could fix that in a heartbeat… But we’ve got everything under the sun in Ohio.”

It will perhaps take another biennial budget cycle before Ohio can create the political will to pass a truly equitable new school funding plan.  In the meantime, however, the Cupp-Patterson plan addresses one concern that could and should be resolved in a stand-alone bill. Ohio has been operating for years with a punitive accountability system beginning with the state report cards that brand the poorest school district with low grades, the third-grade guarantee, the location of charter schools and the EdChoice voucher eligibility in what the state consider academically distressed (low-scoring) school zones and districts, and finally the state takeovers that are currently being seriously challenged in other stand-alone bills.

The Cupp-Patterson Plan proposes to substitute full state funding of school privatization—vouchers and charter schools—for what is now a school district deduction plan.  While today, the child who secures a voucher or leaves for a charter is counted in a school district’s Average Daily Membership, and then carries the voucher or charter amount out of the school district’s budget, in the Cupp-Patterson Plan the state would fully fund the cost of these privatization schemes. In a number of school districts today, the child carries away more in the school district charter school or voucher deduction than the state’s per-pupil funding to that district. Because standardized test scores correlate, in the aggregate, with family and neighborhood economics, the current plan punishes the state’s poorest school districts by locating voucher and charter eligibility in those districts and then extracting the funding for the vouchers and charters from their local budgets. The current plan exacerbates inequity by further reducing the school district budgets in already poor school districts.

The state should not wait two years to address this inequity in the next budget. If the legislature is going to privatize education, the full expense should fall on the state budget and not on the already meager budgets of the state’s poorest school districts.

Long Awaited Bipartisan School Funding Plan Proposed for Ohio

Yesterday  Ohio Representatives Robert Cupp (R-Lima) and John Patterson (D-Jefferson) released a much needed, bipartisan proposal for a new Ohio school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, of course, is preliminary.  It will be proposed as the substance of the Ohio House Education Budget and would have to be enacted by the Legislature. (Quotes in this post come from the preliminary PowerPoint presentation from Monday afternoon’s session.)

Conceptually the plan described yesterday afternoon would raise the level of state support for K-12 public education to a more adequate level and additionally address what is currently inequitable distribution of funding across the state’s 610 school districts.  The Cupp-Patterson Plan considers not only each school district’s capacity to raise funds from its local property tax base but also considers the amount and concentration of family poverty.

The details are not yet available, and of course, the details matter a lot in a school funding formula.  A state can make its formula more equitable, while at the same time underfunding the total allocation of state funds; such a plan merely levels down all districts.  We’ll need to look at the amount of funding the Cupp-Patterson Plan recommends.  Then, of course, because this plan is intended to serve as the basis of the Ohio House Education Budget, we’ll need to look at what the Legislature agrees to fund. A workable school funding formula would need to be fully funded.

In recent years without a fair and adequate formula, Ohio has merely imposed punitive, outcomes-based school accountability—punishing the lowest scoring schools and school districts.  Currently Ohio rates and ranks schools and districts on a state report card largely derived from aggregate standardized test scores—which have for decades been shown to correlate less with school quality and more with family and neighborhood poverty.  The state has driven state and local dollars out of the lowest-scoring school districts—through a school district deduction system—to pay for students carrying away vouchers for private school tuition and a fixed amount to charter schools. The bottom-scoring school districts  have been seized by the state, with state overseers appointed, the local school board discredited, local democracy destroyed.  But the state has at the same time provided too little funding for its poorest districts.

Yesterday’s presentation addresses the school-district-deduction penalty for school choice: “Students participating in school choice programs… will not be included in resident district student count”; the vouchers and charter allocation will be funded by the state.  This provision will ensure that no school district will lose more state charter and voucher dollars than the district would receive for those students in state aid. The current school-district-deduction for school choice has been a serious and inequitable problem for many school districts.

For the first time Representatives Cupp and Patterson have proposed to increase financial support for our state’s poorest school districts as measured not only by the size of their property tax base but also by aggregate family income.  The goal is to increase the capacity of the poorest school districts to better support families and meet the children’s needs. Yesterday’s presentation declares: “Ohio school funding is a patchwork not based on student needs.”

The new plan challenges the state to: “base state school funding on what students actually need to succeed in a rapidly changing world; assess every community’s capacity to pay its fair share—transparently; and treat all Ohio’s school districts and taxpayers as fairly as possible.”  Its proponents claim their formula considers what it really costs to operate a school district and address the needs of every child.

Representative Cupp promises that the formula  will be fair and stable—characteristics that Ohio’s funding formula has chronically lacked. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel quotes Cupp: “Our current funding formula, forged in the last recession, is seriously flawed… It’s not any longer even functioning as a formula.”

Currently, according to yesterday’s presentation, 80 percent of Ohio’s school districts are on guarantee—meaning they receive what they got last year—or that their funding from the state has been capped.  In order for a formula to work, a state must fund it, but when 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee, it means the state is not budgeting enough money to pay what the state’s own formula says the districts need.  If the new plan is enacted by the legislature and fully funded, the authors of the new plan project that 84 percent of Ohio’s school districts will be on the formula with only 16 percent—the wealthiest districts in the state—on guarantee.

In a tweet, Innovation Ohio’s @Steve Dyer who attended the presentation in Columbus, reported an additional promise made when the formula was presented: “Wow. will build in inflationary increases and re-examine the costs every four years.”

Ohio’s current funding plan is also unstable.  It calculates each district’s state funding by comparing each school district’s local funding capacity to a constantly changing state average. Hence a district’s funding can vary relative to an average that changes every year, at the same time the district’s needs remain constant.  In the new plan, “State/local shares are calculated using residents’ income and each district’s property value and won’t shift unless that district’s income or property values change.”  The new formula will be based 60 percent on property valuation and 40 percent on the income of the school district’s residents.

The new Cupp-Patterson formula is a foundation plan which provides a base cost per child. Additionally it adds categorical funding depending on the number of children who fall into particular categories designated in state law—for poverty, preschool, special education, gifted education, English language learning, career-tech, STEM, Open Enrollment, students leaving for charter schools, students carrying away a voucher, transportation needs, and the presence of an educational service center.

The new plan’s designers explain that the plan will combine state and local dollars according to a formula that will cover actual costs, provide freedom to districts to use state funds for local needs they determine, and ensure that every district has enough money for quality classroom instruction, co-curriculars, social-emotional needs, counselors, technology, safety, and professional development for teachers. The plan includes enriched pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds living in poverty, and it funds special education at 100 percent, instead of the current 90 percent level.

The new plan grew out of a two year Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty, a special task force chaired by Representative Robert Cupp.  In its final report, the Cupp Task Force emphasized the need for greater support for schools serving children in poverty. The Task Force’s recommendations include wraparound health and social services, expanded early childhood education, equitable access to career education, and enough money that all Ohio school districts can afford  challenging curriculum and well-qualified teachers.  The Governor’s budget proposal released last week addresses the need for wraparound social and medical services.

Reporting yesterday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias quoted Representatives Cupp and Patterson declaring that their plan would finally make Ohio’s school funding constitutional: “(T)hey say it will reduce Ohio’s reliance in school funding on local property values—the core of a landmark series of rulings from the Ohio Supreme Court that found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional more than 20 years ago… ‘I think this meets all the requirements of the DeRolph decision,’ Cupp said.”

Representatives Cupp and Patterson and the public school educators and school finance experts who worked with them to create the new plan conclude: “We ask our legislators and all Ohioans to consider our plan in its entirety, as a essential roadmap to guide school funding decisions.” The proposed formula is comprehensive.  If the members of the Legislature tinker with it, and unless members of the legislature fund it, it will lose its capacity to distribute school funding adequately and fairly.

Of course the biggest question is about Ohio’s capacity, after years of tax cuts, to pay for an adequate and equitable school funding plan. Patterson was asked this question yesterday afternoon and Siegel reports his response: “Asked if, based on what they know about recent two-year revenue estimates from the state budget office and the Legislative Service Commission, there is enough money to pay for the plan, Patterson said, “The question is do we have the will to fund what we really need to fund if we truly believe that every student ought to have a chance to succeed?  This is an investment in Ohio.”

This is a preliminary analysis of the principles and concepts in the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.  Details about the cost of the plan and how each school district will fare will be released on Friday.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel adds that Cupp and Patterson “hope to phase-in the proposal over four years, and during that time, no district would get less money than they currently receive.”

New School Finance Report Confirms Funding Shortages Striking Teachers Have Been Showing Us

For nearly two decades the preferred spin of policymakers at federal and state levels has been that financial investments (inputs) are far less important than evidence of academic achievement (outcomes as measured by standardized tests). And the outcomes were supposed to be achieved by pressuring teachers to work harder and smarter. Somehow teachers have been expected to deliver a miracle at the same time classes got bigger; nurses, counselors and librarians were cut; and teacher turnover increased as salaries lagged.

Statements of justice in public education have always been a little vague about the most direct path to get there.  One of my favorite definitions of public education’s purpose is from Benjamin Barber’s 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research, which math illiterates would reject. 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.”  (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 12-13)

There are many reasons to consider Barber’s principles carefully in Trump’s America. In the specific case of the provision of education, however, we ought to consider this question: Can these words—“Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer”— be achieved without our society’s investing in tangible inputs like class size and numbers of counselors and the presence of school music programs?  For a year now—in walkouts and strikes—schoolteachers have been telling us that policymakers are naive to believe inputs don’t matter.  In a new report, K-12 School Funding Up in Most 2018 Teacher-Protest States, But Still Well Below Decade Ago, the Center on Budget and Priorities (CBPP) confirms teachers’ outrage about the collapse of financial investment in their schools.

CBPP’s new report summarizes school funding in several of the states where striking teachers have called attention to their states’ long collapse of funding for K-12 public education: “Protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, four of the 12 states that had cut school ‘formula’ funding—the primary state revenue source for schools—most deeply over the last decade. Despite last year’s improvements, however, formula funding remains well below 2008 levels in these states.”

CBPP explains further that to end teachers’ strikes, legislators too frequently went for a quick fix instead of a stable solution: “Three of the four teacher-protest states that increased formula funding last year used revenue sources that may prove unsustainable…. Arizona teachers ended their strike after Governor Doug Ducey signed a budget giving them a 20 percent salary increase over three years.  But the budget doesn’t include the new revenue required to finance the planned spending…. North Carolina’s legislature increased funding for schools without raising new revenue to do so, even though the state faces a revenue shortfall next year for covering ongoing needs, primarily due to unsustainable income tax cuts that began to take effect in 2014… Oklahoma funded pay increases for teachers and other public employees that included a hike in cigarette taxes, a boost in gasoline taxes, and an increase in the tax rate on oil extraction.  While these revenue sources were adequate to cover the pay hikes, they may not be in the future.”

Even the emergency increases after teachers’ strikes are not enough: “Most of the teacher-protest states had cut their formula funding so deeply over the last decade that even last year’s sizeable funding boosts weren’t enough to restore funding to pre-recession levels.  For example, in Oklahoma, per-student formula funding remains 15 percent below 2008 levels, including inflation adjustments.  And per-student formula funding in Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well, is still well below pre-recession levels.”

In twelve states, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil formula funding remains below the 2008 level—down by 20 percent in Texas, 15 percent in Oklahoma,15 percent in Alabama, 13 percent in Kentucky, 12 percent in Kansas, 9 percent in Michigan, 8 percent in West Virginia, 8 percent in Utah, 7 percent in North Carolina, 6 percent in Arizona, 3 percent in Mississippi, and 3 percent in Idaho.

Why does per-pupil formula funding matter so much?  “K-12 schools in every state rely heavily on state aid. On average, 47 percent of school revenues in the United States come from state funds. Local governments provide another 45 percent; the remaining 8 percent comes from the federal government… Most states target at least some funds to districts with greater student need (e.g., more students from low-income families) and less ability to raise funds from property taxes and other local revenues. These features make state formula funding an especially important source of funding for schools in high-poverty areas, which disproportionately educate children of color.  That said, this targeting often doesn’t fully equalize educational spending across wealthy and poor school districts… Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding… generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.”

Statewide aggregate data shows that local school districts have to some extent been able to cushion the effect of reduced state funds: “In 2016, for the first time since the recession hit, a majority of states (26 states) provided higher levels of total state and local funding per student than they did before the recession took hold.” “While combined state and local funding in 2016 was nearly back to pre-recession levels nationally, state funding was down $167 per student while local funding was up $161.  Local funding increases help school districts absorb deep cuts in state funds, but a shift toward local funding raises equity concerns.  Because school districts in neighborhoods with high property values find it much easier to raise adequate revenue than districts where property values are low, a shift toward more local funding can exacerbate school funding inequities.”  Besides worrying about inequity, it is important to note that in 24 states—nearly half—the level of combined state and local school funding in 2016 remains below pre-recession funding when adjusted for inflation.

We have watched and listened all year to a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and falling salaries.  CBPP concludes its report with a table displaying falling pay between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 school years.  Teachers’ salaries rose in only 8 states and the District of Columbia.  In 42 states salaries, adjusted for inflation, dropped. The collapse in salaries is shocking particularly in the states where salaries have fallen farthest—by 16 percent in Mississippi, 15.6 percent in Colorado, 15.3 percent in Oklahoma, 11.4 percent in Illinois, 11.2 percent in West Virginia,  9.8 percent in Arizona, 9.7 percent in Indiana, 9 percent in Ohio, 8.8 percent in Washington, and 8.8 percent in Virginia.

Talking about education in stark terms like inputs vs. outcomes seems cold. This year striking school teachers have helped us visualize what it means. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms with solid data what the teachers have been showing us.

Stunning New Report: How Can Our Society Repay A Long Education Debt to Our Poorest Communities?

How can our society overcome nearly a quarter century of catastrophic public education policy designed by neocons, supply side economists, billionaire privatizers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council?  A new report, released yesterday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, outlines three steps by which we can recommit ourselves to a public school system prepared to serve and nurture all of America’s children.

  1. Congress must fund fully two federal programs designed to help school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty and children with special needs: Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
  2. Together the federal government, states and local school districts must, by 2025, launch 25,000 sustainable, wraparound Community Schools to ensure that children and families in our poorest communities have access to supports that will enable the children to achieve at school; and
  3. The U.S. Department of Education must recommit itself to its primary purpose: ensuring equity across America’s over 90,000 public schools.

The report challenges federal and state governments together to address today’s reality: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per-pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources. By failing to provide adequate funding, we deny these children the chance to fulfill their potential.”

School finance is a three part bargain, with each school district taxing itself (currently roughly 45 percent of school funding); states providing revenue (currently about 47 percent) and creating a state distribution formula to overcome disparities in local capacity; and the federal government providing a relatively smaller amount (currently roughly 8 percent) to support students with particular needs and to oversee civil rights. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools outlines five policy mistakes which have compounded a fiscal crisis over time for public schools in poor communities and areas without sufficient capacity to raise funding locally:

  1. Congress has failed to fund Title I and the IDEA at the levels promised when these programs were enacted.
  2. Local funding in the poorest communities is inadequate even when the citizens make a significant tax effort; and the states have failed to distribute their funds to eradicate inequity across local school districts.
  3. Current tax policies at the federal level and in many states have become regressive in the extreme, with tax policy benefiting corporations and the very wealthy, and services for the rest of us—public schools, for example—suffering.
  4. States have increased spending for incarceration and reduced education budgets at the same time school districts have increasingly replaced counselors and social workers with what are called School Resource Officers (guards).
  5. Privatization—investments in privately operated charter schools and private school tuition vouchers—at federal, state, and local levels has deliberately devastated traditional public schools when funds are extracted to pay for charters and vouchers out of fixed or declining public school budgets.

When Congress established Title I in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the intent was to provide significant extra dollars to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—an overwhelming challenge for any school district: “Not only did lawmakers recognize the need for additional resources—they attempted to quantify it.  Embedded in the law is the authorization… to provide school districts an additional 40 percent for each Title I-eligible child so that their schools could offer supplemental supports such as reading specialists and smaller class sizes. Having established that 40 percent target in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.” In graphic form, the report demonstrates that Title I funding declined between 2005 between 2017: from 18 percent of the original 40 percent Congressional commitment in 2005 to only 12 percent today.

The report concludes: “The impact of those under-funded appropriations is wrenchingly clear. If Title I was fully funded by Congress, the nation’s high-poverty schools could provide: health and mental health services for every student…; and a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and a full-time additional counselor for every Title I school; OR a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom across the country.”

The story is similar with what was promised in 1975, when Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  But there is one difference: In the IDEA, Congress mandated specific services schools must provide for disabled students. “The financial assumption underlying IDEA is that on average, the cost of educating a child with disabilities is twice the cost of educating a non-disabled student. IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.”  Again, the report graphically presents the underfunding of the 40 percent promise. In 2005, Congress funded 18 percent of he cost of IDEA’s mandated services, and the percentage has declined since then to 15 percent today.  When funding support is lacking from the federal government for mandatory IDEA services, school districts must cover the rest of the cost with general fund dollars—meaning larger classes for the general student population, fewer counselors, no librarian, no school nurse.

Please read the report (executive summary) for a more detailed picture of where our society has gone terribly wrong and what we need to do to make it right.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools represents parents, youths, teachers, and community and labor organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, NYU 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.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘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.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

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.”