The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations provided financial incentive grants to states to encourage them to expand charter schools. (The federal Charter Schools Program still exists, and I am hoping the Biden administration gets rid of it!) And the Obama administration provided Race to the Top incentive grants to urge states to adopt common standards paired with standardized tests and to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. These were all part of a more than two decades’ scheme of standardized, test-based, corporate-style accountability that provided incentives to reward teachers who produced high test scores and punishments for teachers and schools that couldn’t produce rising scores. While the assumption was that teachers and schools could, by adopting particular practices, produce jumps in test scores, the reality has proven far more complicated and challenging, and anyway, most of us agree that test scores should not be the sole way of judging the quality of education.
Now the Biden administration is proposing something more constructive and even revolutionary: Biden is proposing to use Title I grants to encourage state legislatures to increase and equalize school funding across school districts. President Biden seeks to press states to abide by the language of their state constitutions, and thereby provide a system of well funded schools to serve every child—rich or poor; Black, Hispanic, white or Native American; English language learner or disabled child. President Biden is proposing to use federal funds to incentivize the states—which under the 50 state constitutions, have the primary responsibility for fairly funding public education—to do justice.
The president’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal, announced last Friday, now will be considered by Congress, which has to appropriate the money. Congress rarely passes the same budget presented by the President. But the budget President Biden proposed last Friday is a significant statement of his values and priorities. Many of the ideas from the American Families Plan are included. And, significantly, the new budget proposal would extend the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit until 2025.
Education Week‘s Evie Blad outlines the education section of Biden’s FY 22 budget proposal: “President Joe Biden proposed an ambitious $6 trillion national budget Friday that calls for dramatic increases in spending on K-12 education, including $20 billion in new incentives to states to raise teacher pay and address inequity in school funding. The proposal would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget for the coming fiscal year to $102.8 billion, about 41 percent above current levels.” Blad reports that Biden’s proposed budget would:
- Increase Title I to $36.5 billion from $16 billion;
- Begin the phase in of $100 billion over t0 years for school infrastructure;
- Add $3.5 billion for universal preschool in the Department of Health and Human Services and provide two years of free community college;
- Increase funding to $16 billion for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—an increase of $2.7 billion;
- Increase funding for full service, wraparound Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million;
- Invest $1 billion to double the number of guidance counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and school social workers; and
- Spend $25 million to make schools environmentally friendly.
The biggest, the most significant, and very likely the most controversial part of President Biden’s education budget is the increase in Title I, the Education Department’s oldest program—dating to 1965—and designed to provide extra federal funding for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty to help compensate for inequities within and across state school funding systems.
Blad explains: “At the core of Biden’s education budget (are) new ‘equity grants’ that would increase funding for Title I, a grant program for educating disadvantaged students, to $36.5 billion from about $16 billion, the largest increase in the history of the program. That new funding would ‘build on the existing Title I program,’ flowing through a new formula that would address state and local funding models that ‘favor wealthier districts over districts with concentrated poverty.’… Politicians concerned about equity have long pointed to challenges with the nation’s education funding systems as a concern. Predominantly white districts receive about $23 billion more funding (from state and local sources combined) than districts that predominantly serve students of color….”
Blad further explains the administration’s justification for the new Title I grants: “Some lawmakers have said the existing Title I formula does not adequately address funding gaps between schools. Rather than replace that formula entirely, the Biden plan would break out new Title I funds into a separate grant. To access that funding, states would have to submit plans about how they would track and address gaps in their funding systems, ensure teachers are compensated at levels comparable to other professionals with similar education and experience, ensure students have access to advanced coursework, and increase access to early-childhood programs.”
Living in Ohio, I am acutely aware of the need for somebody to press our state senate to make our state’s school funding formula work for children who live in economically and racially segregated school districts. This month the Ohio Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the state budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed to the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes. In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) 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.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.” Earlier this spring, the Ohio House passed the six-year phase-in of the new Fair School Funding Plan as part of its version of the proposed state budget, but, yesterday the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that the Senate Finance Committee wants to reduce new public school funding over six years to about a third of the House version, increase funding for vouchers, and cut personal income taxes by 5 percent. Senate leaders claim it is dangerous to pass a plan for the upcoming biennium that will constrain future legislatures as the Fair School Funding Plan’s six-year phase-in would need to continue. The House and Senate versions will need to be reconciled by the end of June.
Ohio is part of a much broader pattern. School finance experts Bruce Baker and Mark Weber recently tracked a trend of declining states’ fiscal efforts over the past twenty-five years to fund their public schools. These economists compared each state’s total K-12 education spending to the state’s fiscal capacity as measured by aggregate personal income. State fiscal effort for education, not surprisingly collapsed after the Great Recession: “What happened starting in 2010 was disastrous in two respects. First, average effort declined rapidly for 3-4 years, bottoming out well below its pre-recession level. Second, it did not recover in subsequent years. In other words, as of now, the decline in fiscal effort appears permanent.”
In a fine book published last autumn, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black documents the same trend, still evident a dozen years after the Great Recession: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33) “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)
Have the cuts in spending affected students’ experience at school? Last summer, C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”