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)


Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “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 of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “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.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “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….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

School Closure: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

In an important piece published in The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project, and Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, describe three complaints filed in 2014—on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.  The complaints protest massive school closures in New Orleans, Newark, and Chicago, where 50 schools were shuttered at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

One of the ways students in America’s cities are being deprived of basic opportunities is “through systematic and targeted school closures. We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities.  Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated.  Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.”

Here is the substance of the complaints: “The complaints challenged the disproportionate closures of traditional public schools in these cities. In New Orleans, the closures of the last five traditional public schools impacted over 1000 African-American students and only 5 White students. In Chicago, Black students were 26 times more likely to be impacted by school closures than White students.  In Newark, Black students were 51% of student enrollment, but 86% of students impacted by school closures.”

After a two year investigation, the Office of Civil Rights has reached an agreement with the Newark Public Schools that acknowledges the disproportionate impact of school closures on the city’s African American students and confirms that the school closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” The agreement requires the Newark school district to investigate whether and how students from closed schools were affected academically and how their safe passage to school, and their access to special services (for disabled students) were impacted when schools were closed. Further, the district must evaluate and report on how the location of school facilities and the pupil capacity of existing buildings were affected and how the current location and availability of facilities affects Newark students’ overall access to education.

Judith Browne Dianis and Jitu Brown remind readers of the many personal and community implications of the school closures that can be neither investigated nor explained as a response to the civil rights complaint: “However, the agreement fails to address the many intangible harms of school closures—like the loss of critical relationships with teachers, staff and counselors.”

And then there are the causes—the factors that have persistently undermined urban schools in underfunded school districts serving masses of very poor children: “Crucial analysis missing from this narrative is that for decades schools that serve predominantly Black students experienced intense and consistent discrimination through… disinvestment, over-policing, and unequal distribution of resources.”

Under federal policy for the past two decades—the sanctions of No Child Left Behind and the priorities of Race to the Top—privatization, not investment, has been promoted as a solution to the problems in urban school districts  The idea has been to turn over so-called “failing” schools to Education Management or Charter Management Organizations:  “It is clear that privatization and the courting of charter schools are the real goals—choosing these over any proven method of remedying educational racism.  Several shuttered public schools had achieved consistent, documented growth yet were still closed because they failed to achieve an ever shifting standard set by state officials. These same officials, that ‘grease the rails’ for school privatization by eliminating democracy through mayoral control, state takeover and other schemes, never address the issue of equity in public education.”

“Time and time again, experimental policies and practices are imposed on Black and Brown communities over the resounding objection by the same communities.  We pay taxes and the return on our investment is intentional inequity, enriching politically connected school profiteers. This is an ugly practice that must stop. Education inequity in the United States, amplified by school privatization, is indeed a human rights issue.”

Pennsylvania School Funding War Drags On

Pennsylvania doesn’t yet have a state budget, something the state is required to have in place on June 30. A protracted, years-long, and politically contentious fight about inadequate and grossly inequitably distributed school funding is a primary reason for the impasse.

A Republican-dominated state legislature has refused to compromise with the new Democratic governor on a plan that would fund the government and restore desperately needed money for the public schools.  Former governor, Tom Corbett, who ripped more than a billion dollars out of the state budget for public schools, was soundly defeated last November.  But Governor Tom Wolf has not been able to move Corbett’s allies in the legislature to do the right thing for Pennsylvania’s children.  Wolf defeated Corbett last November in large part due to a statewide school funding crisis created by Corbett’s tax cuts.  Corbett and the legislature had pretended to help the School District of Philadelphia—already devastated by school closures and staff layoffs—to survive by passing enabling legislation to permit Philadelphia to enact a cigarette tax on its own residents, a local sin tax dedicated for the public schools.

Last Thursday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer supported Governor Tom Wolf’s pledge to veto a stopgap, temporary budget presented to him by the legislature on September 18: “Republican legislators have put their old, irresponsible fiscal plan in a new wrapper and called it a stopgap budget.  While their plan promises to fund the state until November, it also threatens to delay sincere negotiations, allowing the state’s elected officials—already nearly three months late—to go that much longer without performing one of their most basic duties: passing a budget.  The Democratic governor has already rightly rejected the legislature’s proposal, which would perpetuate Harrisburg’s habit of leaving bills unpaid, relying on one-time gimmicks, and raiding dedicated funds.  Nor would it adequately fund schools or force the shale-gas industry to shoulder its share of the tax burden at long last.”

Then there is the lawsuit filed by plaintiffs across Pennsylvania that the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution—the same language to protect adequate and equitably distributed funding that appears in many state constitutions.  The lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State was filed in November of 2014.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates who filed an amicus brief on their behalf last week, simply ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case early in 2016.

Derek Black explains the history of the case at the Law Professors Blog Network: “Last fall, plaintiffs filed suit against Pennsylvania, arguing that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution and that the state has violated that right by repeatedly failing to ensure adequate education resources.  That claim moved through the trial court quickly and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has yet to fully entertain these issues, having dismissed school funding cases in the past as non-justiciable. Something tells me that this time might be different. As discussed several times on this blog over the past few years, the state has been so derelict in its obligations to its students that its action could be declared unconstitutional under any minimal and deferential standard one might imagine.”

The amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs was filed last week by the national Education Law Center and a number of organizations in Pennsylvania that include Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Yinzercation.

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the national Education Law Center commented: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation, shortchanging opportunity for public school children across the state.  The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

This blog has covered Pennsylvania’s school funding morass on a number of occasions.  For example, see here and here.

Lacking Fair Basic Aid Plan, Pennsylvania Continues to Starve Philly Schools

The tragedy in the School District of Philadelphia continues.  Here are some of the realities.  Last year after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut $1.1 billion out of the state school budget, the district was forced to lay off 4,000 teachers and other staff and close 24 public schools.  The district reassigned thousands of students to new schools last fall and slashed essentials like high school guidance counselors and school nurses.

The schools in Philadelphia have been operating for many years under state control.  The state appointed School Reform Commission, which has implemented a “portfolio school reform plan” designed by consultants at the Boston Consulting Group, currently functions as the closest thing to a school board.  It reports to the governor not the voters.  Portfolio plans emphasize the business strategy called “creative disruption”—closing and opening schools in a perpetual cycle—ending schools with low scores and experimenting with a variety of privatized charter schools.

This year Governor Corbett proposes to add funding in the state budget, but the extra funds are earmarked primarily for increasing the special education subsidy.  Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center charges, “There is no proposed increase to the state’s Basic Education Funding line item, an essential funding source for all K-12 public school students.  Instead the Governor has followed a familiar script—tying his funding proposal ($241 million) to special grants and as-yet-realized sources of revenue…”

Philadelphia Parents United for Public Schools calls Corbett’s budget “a paltry handout,” and “too little, too late.”  Helen Gym, the organization’s president, decries the Governor’s proposal: “The Governor’s paltry handout to Philadelphia ensures that our children will live yet another year without adequate librarians, counselors, nurses, and teaching staff.  It’s another year of parents scrambling for resources, paying for basic services in schools….”  Parents United points out that Pennsylvania provides more in grant funding for wealthy districts than basic aid for school districts like Philadelphia, where the majority of students live in poverty.  (According to the NY Times, 83 percent of Phildelphia’s current students are low income.)

Profiling Philadelphia’s current school superintendent, William Hite, Jr, earlier this week, the NY Times describes the enormous challenges he has faced in what may be “an unwinnable battle.”  The reporter quotes James H. Lytle, former deputy superintendent in Philadelphia and now a professor of educational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania, who rates “Dr. Hite’s chances of getting the money he wants at ‘close to zero’ because of a lack of support from state legislators and the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who prefer to see an increase in charter schools.”  Lytle comments: “You could make the reasonable argument that the district is being completely deconstructed outside charter schools and perhaps for-profit schools.”

This blog has covered the crisis in Philadelphia here and here.