Why Is NY Times Worrying about School Funding in Kansas?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thirteen states have cut per-student education funding by more than 10 percent since the recession began five years ago.  The top four school finance slashers are Oklahoma, which has cut funding for K-12 public education by 22.7 percent, Alabama by 20.1 percent, Arizona by 17.2 percent, and Kansas by 16.5 percent.

In a 2006 decision, Montoy v. State, the supreme court of Kansas “ordered cost-based, sufficient, and equitable funding,” “based upon actual costs to educate children,” according to the Education Law Center (here, here, and here).  However, the legislature failed to fund the remedy fully, and as the economy of Kansas began to recover from the 2008 recession, Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature passed a five-year $3.7 billion tax cut instead of increasing the amount of money for public education.

In response, in 2010 plaintiffs pushed back, filing Gannon v. State, and leading to a unanimous trial court decision early in January 2013 in support of more funding for K-12 public schools.  The trial court demanded  that the state immediately increase investment in  education by at least $440 million.  The state, of course, appealed , and last week the supreme court in Kansas heard oral arguments.

Because Kansas is so very far in every way from New York, I was stunned to see the New York Times take the unusual step of editorializing in this case: “The court should quickly put priorities in order by affirming a lower-court ruling last January that found the state ‘completely illogical’ in using the new revenues to provide tax cuts while arguing it had inadequate resources for educating schoolchildren.”

Because all the states have different education funding formulas and because it all gets to seeming like an arcane bunch of numbers, I think it is easy to gloss over the school finance inadequacy and inequity in other states where the cuts don’t affect my own children or  neighbors or community.  Problems for those other places can seem pretty far away.  But when there is school finance trouble in my own state, the issues feel more personal than almost anything else. The school funding formula determines whether we have a school nurse, a school librarian, a middle school orchestra, a class in Calculus, Advanced Placement chemistry.  Will the kindergarten class have 21 or 32 children?  Will high school English teachers teach four classes of 25 or five classes of 35, a difference that will likely determine whether the teacher can assign and read enough essays to teach adolescents how to write.  Will I as a parent have to spend months trying to pass a local school levy merely to replace programs eliminated when the state legislature cut the funding?

It should be a cause for concern everywhere in America that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year (2013-2014) with less state funding than they had last year.” I am delighted to see the New York Times speaking to disturbing threats across the nation to K-12 public education, threats that derive not only from the lingering impact of the 2008 recession, but also from tax cuts by Tea Party-dominated legislatures and governors and the implications of the federal sequester for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.


Rising Income Inequality Tightly Bound to Rising College Costs

Yesterday the New York Times published news of data about rising income inequality, updated for 2012 by respected economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.  “The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012,” the highest level of inequality since data collection began.  The top one percent collected one fifth of total income. “The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age,” according to the reporter.  The income share of the top one percent of earners recovered the level prior to the Great Recession, reaching 22.5 percent in 2012.

Catherine Hill, president of private Vassar College and a professor of economics, recently published a Washington Post opinion piece charging:  Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge Is Income Inequality.  Writes Hill: “The highest-income families are able and willing to pay the full sticker price.  Schools compete for these students, supplying the services that they desire, which pushes up costs…  But the lagging incomes of families that earn less escalate the need for financial aid.”

Hill questions President Obama’s call on colleges to slow growth in tuition, because cuts in tuition for those who can afford to pay only result in less financial aid for those who cannot afford tuition.  “Lower tuition combined with lower financial aid benefits higher-income students and hurts lower-income students.  As a result it reinforces income inequality.”  Noting that, “The federal government is in the best position to directly address the rise in income inequality,” Hill suggests that the President and Congress create incentives to assist colleges and universities to serve the low income students who require extensive financial aid.

A new study from Pro-Publica and the Chronicle of Higher Education examines the rising cost of attending public colleges and universities, cost increases deriving from tax cuts in many states on top of the lingering effects of the 2008 recession: “Public colleges and universities were generally founded and funded to give students in their states access to an affordable college education… But many public universities, faced with their own financial shortfalls, are increasingly leaving low-income students behind….”  According to ProPublica, between 1996 and 2012, public college and university grants declined for the lowest quartile of families by income: “Public universities have been shifting their aid, giving less to the poorest students and more to the wealthiest.”  Financial constraints cause colleges and universities to augment scarce budgets by giving modest scholarships to several students who can pay the rest of their own tuition instead of granting full rides to the neediest students.

In addition, according to Pro-Publica, colleges are also regularly attempting to boost their rankings in publications like U.S. News and World Report by using financial aid to attract students who score higher on the SAT, especially if these students can also bring in more tuition revenue.  According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The whole system is constantly moving up, going upstream to get better and better students, and get students who can pay.  It all looks great for the press release  But you’re systematically leaving people behind.”