Adequate and Equitable School Funding: Are These Goals Unreachable in America?

As we begin another school year, here is a review of an unexciting but essential subject: the basics of school finance. While many of our legislatures don’t seem to be dealing with this subject much these days, and in many states there just isn’t enough money because taxes have been slashed, we do need to keep some basic concepts in mind.  Two principles are key: adequacy and equity.

  • Adequate school funding involves two questions: “How much is enough?” and “Are we spending enough?”Adequacy of school funding is part of state budget debates as well as discussions of the school formula.
  • Equitable school funding involves this question: “Are we distributing state—and to a much smaller degree, federal funds—to compensate for local school districts’ very uneven capacity to generate school revenue?  Equitable school funding depends on distribution formulas—the state school finance formulas set up to meet the requirements of the 50 state constitutions, and the much smaller federal Title I formula, which distributes a relatively small amount across all the states.

In a recent report, the Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman demonstrates that, in the summer of 2018, funding of public schools remains inadequate in a number of states: “Some 47 percent of school funding comes from states.” “Nationally, combined state and local funding for K-12 schools has finally recovered from deep cuts made during the Great Recession, but some states still haven’t restored funding…. At least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student since 2008 before the recession took hold.  Seven of these states have also cut income taxes over the last decade, making it particularly hard for them to raise revenue needed for their schools. (Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.)”

Leachman continues, examining trends in local school district funding: “Some 45 percent of school funding comes from localities…. Local funding per student fell in 19 states between the 2008 and 2016 school years… after adjusting for inflation.”

Leachman adds a further statistic related to inadequate funding, a fact which ought to be alarming: “The number of school workers—including teachers, librarians, nurses, and other staff—has fallen by about 158,000 since 2008, even as the number of enrolled children has risen by about 1.4 million.”

Recently, for example, it was reported that in cash-poor Arizona’s public schools, the number of school counselors per student has fallen to an alarming level, according to new data from the American School Counselor Association. The Arizona Republic reports: “Arizona worst in nation: Arizona’s student-to-school-counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, averaging 903 students to every one counselor in public schools in the 2015-16 school year…  Arizona held a 743-1 ratio a decade ago, but climbed as high as 941-1 in the post-recession years before slowly improving… The improved ratio—still more than three times the recommended number—has been a sticking point for Arizona’s March for Our Lives student and #RedForEd teacher movements… The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1…. Only New Hampshire, Wyoming and Vermont had ratios within that range…. Michigan comes closest to Arizona with a 744-1 ratio. The national average is 464-to-1.”

In July, in a brief for the Learning Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confirms that the most important, and incidentally the most expensive, school investments are for teachers, counselors and other school staff who serve children.  Baker focuses on teachers: “Greater overall investment in education typically results in more intensive staffing per pupil and/or more investment in teacher salaries. Investments in more and higher quality teachers are, in turn, related to higher learning outcomes for all children.” “Increased funding tends to lead to reduced class sizes as districts hire more teachers, and to more competitive teacher salaries.  A significant body of research points to the effectiveness of class size reduction for improving student outcomes and reducing gaps among students, especially for younger students and those who have been previously low achieving.  Often studies find that the effects of class size reduction on achievement are greatest when certain smaller class thresholds (such as 15 or 18) are reached, and are most pronounced for students of color and those in schools serving concentrations of students in poverty.”

Federal funding, which comprises only 8 percent of all dollars spent on public education, has fallen over the past decade—a fact that signifies inattention by Congress and recent administrations not only to the need for adequate funding but also to its equitable distribution. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, because it is a huge federal mandate, affects the general fund budgets of the nation’s 13,506 public school districts. When IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the cost, but the federal government has never paid more than 19 percent.  The federal government’s other primary role in funding K-12 schools—Title I—is intended to promote equity—to compensate to some degree for the fact that when state and local funding are combined, more money continues to flow to the schools serving children in wealthy communities and not to the nation’s poorest schools.  Always underfunded, Title I has fallen even further behind over the past decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman explains: “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high-poverty schools, is 5 percent below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation.”

In  an earlier brief last February, Bruce Baker describes the plight of the local school districts serving society’s poorest children: “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.  High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands dollars short, per pupil….  In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels… Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts in each poverty quintile.”

In an extraordinary book, Final Test, California’s Peter Schrag quotes a deposition from a high school student as part California’s Williams school funding court case. The book was published in 2003, but Alondra Jones’ deposition continues to speak to a society where school funding inequity remains the norm.  A student at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, Jones had recently visited Marin Academy, a better funded school, and she describes the difference:

“You know what, in all honesty, I’m going to break something down to you. It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the building, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor, that’s because they choose to. And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. And I already feel that way because I stay in a group home because of poverty. Why do I have to feel like that when I go to school?” (Final Test, p. 21)

Has America Decided to Educate Promising Children and Leave the Rest Behind?

In what seems to me the most chilling moment in The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s new book (discussed in yesterday’s post here) about the catastrophic five-year school reform experiment imposed by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Newark, New Jersey’s schools—the moment when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a traditional public school ask Mayor Cory Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building—Booker replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

This is the same book in which a school administrator admits that charters cream the most able children of striving parents and tells Russakoff that 60 percent of Newark’s children are likely to remain in traditional public schools. What Mayor Booker, Governor Christie and philanthropist Zuckerberg are selling is school reform for the purpose of saving some children and leaving many of the most vulnerable behind. Such a school reform philosophy tacitly accepts the idea that our society is incapable of educating all of our children, and because we can’t save all children, we’ll at least try to educate those most likely to succeed.

While there is considerable research pointing to social and educational programs likely to expand opportunity for a mass of our society’s children, a lot of people can’t think beyond limited programs aimed to lift up promising children.  Others cynically doubt school leaders who outline expensive ideas that are far more ambitious.  I worry about the dearth of leaders willing to ask us to find the will to leave no child behind, and I worry more about broad skepticism when strong leaders do propose promising plans.  Have we as a society lost the belief that we can educate all children?

Skepticism persists about Mayor Bill deBlasio’s education plans, despite the successful launch of a major expansion of pre-kindergarten in New York City. Last week the New York Daily News reported, “DeBlasio boosted the Big Apple’s pre-K capacity from 19,000 seats in 2013 to more than 80,000 seats in 2015 by expanding existing programs and funding a slew of new ones.” “Kids from areas with median incomes that are below the city average of $51,865 account for 62% of registrants in the free, full-day programs that kicked off Wednesday.”  Many have urged DeBlasio and Farina to slow down on plans announced earlier this year for the NYC schools significantly to increase the number of full-service Community Schools that set out to support families with services located right at school that can include medical, dental, and mental health clinics; after-school programs; Head Start and Early Head Start; summer enrichment, and parental job training.

As reported by Chalkbeat NY, in a major address last Wednesday, DeBlasio announced more plans for broad improvements in NYC’s public schools, including expanding the number of second-grade reading specialists across the district and ensuring that children in all high schools have access to algebra by ninth grade and advanced courses in science.  Such reforms are urgently needed in New York, for while NYC’s  previous mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized small high schools with more personalized services, a July, 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs exposed shocking deficiencies in many of those small schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science…  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet the (graduation) requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.  The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system, one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.”

Chalkbeat’s article about the new initiatives DeBlasio proposed last week printed a laudatory comment on deBlasio’s announcement from Zakiyah Ansari, an influential parent advocate, but the reporter wonders about the cost—a projected $186 million, and asks: “Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding?  And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers? ‘Those are lovely goals,’ said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, ‘but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.'”

Interestingly, Mayor deBlasio and Carmen Farina’s priorities mirror the recommendations of Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, in a brief published last week by the National Education Policy Center. King Rice’s brief seeks a way to restore the mission of public education articulated by Horace Mann, “the 19th century champion of publicly funded universal education,” who “persuasively reasoned that education is the ‘balance wheel’ of the social structure.  He argued that education should be ‘universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.’ While much progress has been made in establishing a universal education system since Mann spoke those words over 150 years ago, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine his vision—and ultimately our society… Grounded in the erroneous assumption that schools alone can close the achievement gap, NCLB and the policies in its wake have emphasized high stakes test-based accountability, school choice, school reconstitution, and other largely punitive strategies to prompt school improvement.”

To restore Mann’s vision and close gaps in opportunity, King Rice cites research grounding four recommendations:

  • “Policymakers and the general public should recognize the broad goals of education including civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.  Student achievement, while important, is a single narrow indicator…
  • “Policymakers should ensure that all schools have the fundamental educational resources they need to promote student success: effective teachers and principals, appropriate class size, challenging and culturally relevant curriculum and supportive instructional resources, sufficient quality time for learning and development, and up-to-date facilities and a safe environment…
  • “Policymakers should expand the scope of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide wrap around services including nutritional supports, health clinics, parental education, extended learning time, recreational programs, and other services needed to meet the social, physical, cognitive, and economic needs of both students and families.  Expanding the services and resources offered by schools has the potential to dramatically increase their impact…
  • “Policymakers should promote a policy context that is supportive of equal opportunity: use achievement testing for formative rather than high-stakes purposes, avoid policies that allow for school resegregation, and renew the commitment to public education.”

In a piece headlined, DeBlasio’s Plan to Lift Poor Schools Comes with High Costs and Big Political Risks, Kate Taylor of the NY Times points out that Mayor deBlasio framed his education address last week as a moral imperative: “There is a tale of two cities in our schools….  Each and every child, in each and every classroom deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”  In words I will always remember, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson say the same thing several years ago: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Have we become so cynical in America that our default response is to scoff at DeBlasio’s vision as naive and too expensive?  Have we become so unwilling to tax those who can well afford to support public education that we are afraid even to aim for such a vision?