Proposed Ohio Senate Budget Reduces House-Approved Increase in Public School Funding, Increases Voucher Amounts and Creates New School Privatization Programs

On Tuesday, the Ohio Senate Finance Committee turned away from the new Fair School Funding Plan, which the Ohio House passed by a large margin as part of its proposed FY 2022-2023 state budget.  The Ohio Senate instead inserted its own plan into the Senate’s budget, a plan which, according to Plain Dealer reporter, Laura Hancock, reduces new public school funding over six years to about a third of the House version, increases funding for school privatization, and cuts personal income taxes by 5 percent.

The Ohio Senate Budget Cuts Taxes

The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes Ohio Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan justifying the Ohio Senate’s proposed 5 percent income tax cut: “The best investment we can make in a citizen is to return their money to themselves.”

The founders of our nation, those who framed the Ohio Constitution, and the justices who decided DeRolph v. Ohio understood the role of government very differently than Senator Dolan. Public education is enshrined in all the 50 state constitutions with the recognition that it is one of the primary responsibilities of the state. The Ohio Constitution defines public schools as an institution at the center of the social contract; public schools epitomize our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children  Under the language of our state constitution as interpreted in DeRolph, it is our state government’s responsibility to provide a system of well funded public schools to serve every child—rich or poor; Black, Hispanic, white or Native American; English language learner or disabled. Paying taxes for government services including public schools is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses, with the greatest obligation assumed by those with the greatest financial means.

The Ohio House gathered a committee of experts who drafted the Fair School Funding Plan over three and a half years for the purpose of ensuring that Ohio school finance would be adequate to cover the costs of the most basic educational services and to ensure that students in Ohio’s poorest communities would attend schools with enough guidance counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school libraries, enriched curriculum, art and music programs, and small classes.  State taxes from wealthier communities would help the state provide funding to support such necessities in poorer communities where the local property tax base is inadequate. State school funding formulas are designed for the very purpose of enabling state governments to ensure that our society provides access to quality public schools for every child as a matter of basic decency.

State tax cuts in Ohio have over time shifted the responsibility for funding public schools onto the residents of local school districts themselves, a practice DeRolph called “overreliance on local property taxes” and found unconstitutional. Overreliance on local property taxes is extremely disequalizing, because the residents of a wealthy community find it much easier to pass local property taxes on their often much higher property tax base while the residents of poor communities are simply forced to increase class size, lay off guidance counselors, and cut urgently needed programs.

Here are the ways the Ohio Senate’s school funding plan—substituted into the FY 22-23 Senate Budget for the Fair School Funding Plan in the House Budget—will undermine justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Senate Budget Will Not Provide Adequate Public School Funding

Ohio needs a new funding formula because currently none of the state’s school districts has been receiving the amount of funding the old formula should have been delivering. The majority of school districts have either been capped or on hold-harmless guarantee for several years, but in the current FY 20-21 biennium, state funding for schools has been frozen at the FY 2019 level. Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports that the Ohio House Budget’s Fair School Funding Plan, when fully phased in over six years, would provide an average of $7,020 per pupil to be adjusted by categorical funding for disabled students, English language learners, and students living in poverty. The just-proposed school funding plan in the Senate’s budget would add more money up front in the next two years (the upcoming biennium) than the House’s Fair School Funding Plan—$6,065 per pupil for next school year and $6,110 in the second year of the biennium, but the Senate’s plan does not provide for any further phased-in increase after FY 2023.

I asked Howard Fleeter, a long time expert on Ohio school funding, about the Senate’s new plan.  He told me that the Senate plan does not adequately compensate for inflation. Fleeter says the Senate is using a formula similar to what was known as the Building Blocks approach back in FY 2008 and FY 2009. He further explains: “A conservative estimate of updating the FY 09 building blocks-based base cost amount of $5,732 for inflation would get us to nearly $7,000 per pupil.  So $6,065 per pupil seems low.” Experts designed and fine-tuned the Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan to respond to what school districts actually need for providing sufficient services at today’s prices. Fleeter believes that the Senate’s proposed substitute formula would be inadequate to cover necessary costs school districts face.

The Ohio Senate Budget Expands School Privatization at Taxpayer Expense

The Ohio Constitution does not envision education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual student. There is no provision under our state’s constitution for private school tuition voucher programs or for charter schools.

  • Gongwer reports that in its new budget proposal, the Senate would increase the amount of taxpayer funded, private school EdChoice tuition vouchers and Cleveland Scholarship vouchers for students in grades K-8 from the current $4,650 to $5,500, and for students in grades 9-12 from $6,000 to $7,500. The size of each high school voucher as proposed in this plan would actually exceed the proposed public school per-pupil base cost by $1,435 in the first year of the budget biennium and $1,390 in the second year of the biennium. Why do our state senators endorse paying significantly more tax dollars to private schools to educate high school students than the Senate proposes to invest in the students enrolled in the state’s public high schools?
  • Gongwer adds that the Senate has sneaked what appears to be both a small tuition tax credit neo-voucher program and a small education savings account neo-voucher program into the fine print of its budget proposal: “Another private school-related change would create a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year for non-chartered nonpublic school tuition for families with income below 300% of federal poverty guidelines. A $250 tax credit for educational materials and supplies would be available to parents who home-school their children.” In other states, such programs have persistently grown after initially being introduced as small programs.
  • Ohio has in the past prohibited the widespread scattering of charter schools across the state. Gongwer reports that the Senate proposes to remove geographical limits on the siting of charter schools in its proposed budget: “Another charter-related change eliminates the restriction that prevents new charters from opening outside of a ‘challenged school district.’  The policy would allow such schools to be established outside of the major eight urban districts and school systems that perform poorly on state-issued report cards.”

In one positive move, Ohio’s state senators, propose to eliminate school district deduction funding for vouchers and charter schools.  According to Gongwer, “The Senate school funding model, similar to the House proposal, would also see the state providing direct funding for students who attend charter schools and use private school vouchers such as EdChoice Scholarship Program awards.”  The plan for the state to fully fund school privatization is urgently important overall, but it has become especially urgent because the state now limits eligibility for EdChoice vouchers to students who live in the attendance areas of Title I schools, which are federally designated because they serve concentrations of children in poverty. Currently the EdChoice voucher program extracts the cost of the vouchers exclusively from the local budgets of school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and very often the cost of the voucher is far greater than the amount the state awards these districts in basic aid for each of these students. School district deduction funding for EdChoice vouchers has become an increasingly significant source of school finance inequity since the program’s eligibility was limited to students in living in Title I public school attendance zones.

The Ohio Constitution provides for adequate and equitably distributed public school funding, rejects overreliance on local property taxes, and omits any provision for tax supported private school tuition vouchers or charter schools. If the Ohio Senate passes the plan being proposed this week by the Senate Finance Committee, it will be essential that the Ohio House members serving on the budget conference committee stand firm in their support for the Fair School Funding Plan.

Even New Jersey, the State with the Best Funded Schools, Needs a 2nd Federal COVID-19 Relief Bill

In the midst of the COVID-19 recession, even New Jersey, the state with the nation’s best school funding system, can’t maintain its constitutional obligation without additional federal help through the relief package which was first proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May.  U.S. Senate Republicans have refused to consider a second COVID-19 relief bill through the whole summer and into the fall, but discussions had revived in recent days.  Just yesterday, however, President Trump seemed to kill any chance that a second federal relief package will be forthcoming before the November election.

In New Jersey, the state supreme court has held New Jersey’s legislature accountable for fulfilling its constitutionally defined responsibility to fund the state’s public schools.  In his 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the long series of decisions in New Jersey’s state constitutional case of Abbott v. Burke: “Beginning in the early 1990s, additional help came from an unexpected source—the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Over the past half-century, those justices have acquired a reputation for the boldness and controversiality of their opinions… None of the court’s decrees has made a bigger splash or taken a bigger bite out of the state treasury than the epic school finance case Abbott. v. Burke. In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, and the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… 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 Education Progress, the country’s report card. 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.” (Improbable Scholars, pp. 83-85)

However, pledges to rectify inequity depend on annual appropriations that sometimes don’t keep up with the promises. Even New Jersey has fallen behind in recent years.  While New Jersey has continued to increase school funding, which averaged $21,866 per pupil last year, over the last decade, the state has fallen behind in its pledge to fully fund its school formula:  POLITICO’s Carly Sitrin reports that, “new research suggests New Jersey’s failure to fully fund its approach to education spending after achieving those goals has left a significant gap between white and Latinx students.” And the problem has worsened this year as the state has fallen into recession due to COVID-19.

Sitrin explains: “Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy made a campaign promise to fix that situation by fully funding the formula—even cut a deal with the state’s legislative leaders to do that. But the pandemic-induced economic downturn has put that effort on pause, leading Murphy on Tuesday to sign a state budget that keeps school funding flat. The move sets back the state’s seven-year commitment to achieve equity in spending for all children… Yet, Murphy and state lawmakers are celebrating the flat funding as a success. After all, they say, the state didn’t have to cut school aid during a pandemic that devastated revenues. At the same time, they’re hoping the federal government will come through with rescue aid next year.”

A long problem in school funding is that too many states have failed to get back on track after recessions. The 2018-2019, Red4Ed wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states—from West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona to Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago—were an attempt by schoolteachers across the states to draw attention to class sizes of 40 students; widespread shortages of counselors, school social workers, librarians and school nurses; and teachers’ salaries so low that many could not afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching.  These were the lingering effects—a decade later—of the 2008 recession.

The question now is how much the COVID-19 recession will further depress state spending on healthcare, colleges and universities, K-12 public education, and other state functions. Until yesterday, a second federal COVID-19 relief bill had seemed at least possible. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House negotiator Steven Mnuchin had revived discussions last week. But yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein reported that President Trump abruptly called off any negotiations for a second stimulus bill until after the election: “Economic relief talks screeched to a halt Tuesday as President Trump ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to stop negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi until after the election…  Trump’s surprising announcement stood in stark contrast with recommendations from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, who had said in a speech hours earlier that more economic stimulus was needed to sustain the recovery… Barring another unexpected development, Trump’s declaration kills any near-term chance of new aid for millions of Americans who remain out work and at risk of eviction. Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke shortly after Trump’s tweets, and Mnuchin informed Pelosi that the negotiations were indeed over…”  Assistance for the state governments that support roughly 40 percent of school funding across the states had been part of the discussions.

In, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, a new book on the importance of the nation’s founding principles—guaranteed in the federal founding documents and in the 50 state constitutions, Derek Black emphasizes that these documents have made it possible for states like New Jersey to maintain their constitutional commitment to education, at least when times were not so hard as the current recession.  And even in bad times, such documents help us remember how far we are straying from our society’s most basic commitments.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke decisions to protect equitable school funding are among the best examples across the states of Black’s argument: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224) 

Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part 2

On Monday, this blog examined Derek Black’s important new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, threads together the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history, but persistently revived: that our system of public schools, where all children are welcome and where their fundamental right to education is protected by law, is the one institution most essential for preserving our democratic society.

Monday’s post explored  Black’s history of that idea which has animated our society’s durable support for public education for more than 200 years. Today’s post will examine challenges in today’s ideological and political climate which Black believes threaten the very idea of public schooling. His book is a history of the constitutional protection of public schools—federally throughout our nation’s history and over time embedded in every one of the state constitutions. Can these laws and the principles they articulate protect public schools today?  Black explains:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can… protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

“Education reformers,” Black writes, “do not state their agenda as an attack on public education or students’ rights. Their pitch is gentler. They say public schools already have enough resources; they just need to spend what they have more wisely.  Or the problem is not low teacher salaries but tenure and ineffective teaching. They say charter schools and vouchers offer the common man the chance to escape a flawed public education system and trade it for something else… Those who would deprive individuals of that choice are the ones who are antidemocratic and elitist, they say.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 18)

Derek Black names several problems at the heart of today’s threat to public education: the expansion of school privatization via charters and vouchers, massive fortunes invested by far-right libertarians to attack so-called ‘government schools,’ attacks on school teachers and their unions, and persistent tax cutting by state legislatures and the consequent ratcheting down of state funding for public education:  “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.”  But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(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)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(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)

Black explains that over the same decade: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 34-36)

Again, equity and racial justice were compromised: “The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have suffered only modest privatization. Their public school systems, for the most part, do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: large percentages of African American students and, save one state, their public schools are facing deep privatization forces.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 239)

All during the recent decade, the federal government’s education policy has also promoted school privatization. During the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos’s efforts to promote vouchers, her lifelong cause, have been well known. But the effort has been bipartisan: “Obama… tapped Arne Duncan… someone whose track record in Chicago involved substantially expanding charters… For the next several years, the federal government promoted and sometimes forced charter school expansion… The Obama administration basically condoned everything states were doing with school funding and made it a little worse. Federal funding for public schools remained flat while the federal budget for charter schools increased by nearly 20 percent between 2008 and 2013.  President Obama called for another 50 percent increase for charters on top of that in 2016 (though he didn’t get it).  The real surprise, though, is how much Duncan managed to accomplish through administrative action… His biggest coup was the process he set up for doling out innovation funds during the recession. As part of the economic recovery legislation, Congress had set aside a substantial chunk of money for education innovation but didn’t specify exactly what schools could spend it on. Duncan, however, told states that if they wanted access to the money, charter schools had to be part of the mix. States that ‘put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools,’ he said, ‘will jeopardize their grant applications.’… The overall result of these state and federal actions was stark—nearly 40 percent growth in the number of charter schools and 200 percent growth in their enrollment.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 36-37)

Derek Black identifies the Red4Ed teacher walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 as the greatest symbol of hope that the idea of American public schooling can survive: “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public about what had happened to public education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade… And it happened in the most unlikely of places—in deep Republican country, in nonunion states, and in the South, not in bastions of liberalism or pro-labor sentiment… The first teacher strike was in West Virginia in 2018… The second teacher walkout was in Kentucky… After that, the protests and walkouts jumped westward to Oklahoma and Arizona… From there, major protests seemed to pop up every month in every place imaginable… Colorado, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington.” Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)

Derek Black concludes his new book positively by reminding readers of America’s education idea, which has survived since 1787: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself…. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part I

Derek Black’s stunning new book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, threads together a history that has rarely been collected in one volume. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, presents the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history but persistently revived and reanimated: that a system of public education is the one institution most essential for our democratic society. And, while the specific language defining a public education as each child’s fundamental right is absent from the U.S. Constitution, the guarantee of that right is embedded in the nation’s other founding documents, in the history of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, in the second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and in every one of the state constitutions.

Today’s post will skim the history as Derek Black presents it; on Wednesday, this blog will explore how Black believes both public education and democracy are threatened today.

While the U.S. Constitution never formally names public education as the nation’s fundamental and necessary institution, the provision for public education is the centerpiece of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787: “The Ordinances, and education’s role in them, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the most significant legal documents in our nation’s history and the current United States Code treats it as such… In many important ways, the history and effect of the Constitution and the Ordinances are inseparable.  First, the documents were passed by many of the same people… Second, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up the land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 64-65).  “The 1785 Ordinance specified how every square inch of the territories would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 62)  The Northwest Ordinances named the urgent purpose of public education and prescribed a means of funding the schools.

Jumping way ahead to the early 1970s, after President Richard Nixon replaced Chief Justice Earl Warren with Chief Justice Warren Burger and the U.S. Supreme Court moved away from the principles embodied in Brown v. Board of Education, Black describes the significance of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court case which declared that because the U.S. Constitution itself does not explicitly protect the right to public education, public schooling is not a fundamental right. Black believes the founding documents should be read to include the Northwest Ordinances and that the fundamental role of education is further affirmed through our nation’s troubled history: “(I)f you asked modern legal scholars whether education is a fundamental right protected by the federal Constitution, they would tell you no, and they would be correct in one sense. The United States Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in 1972, reasoning that the Constitution neither explicitly nor implicitly protects education. The Court feared that nothing distinguished education from the various other things that are important in life, like food and shelter. The foregoing history, however, reveals that education is far different than anything else government might offer its citizens (other than the right to vote). The nation’s very concept of government is premised on an educated citizenry. From its infancy, the United States has sought to distinguish itself with education. More particularly, education has been the tool though which the nation has sought to perfect its democratic ideas.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 133)

In Black’s chapter on the state constitutional conventions during Reconstruction in the Southern states after the Civil War, we read about thousands of freed slaves desperate to learn in whatever setting where they could locate a teacher. We also learn that, by the era of the Civil War, even in the North few of the states had managed to set up the kind of schooling described in the ideals of the Northwest Ordinances. The Reconstruction Acts made the provision of universal education one of the conditions for Confederate states to gain readmission to the Union, and Southern states which had been dominated by aristocratic planters and which had never established systemic public schools even for poor whites were now forced to create widespread public schooling. The meaning of Reconstruction extended beyond the Southern states: “Once the South acted—as a whole by 1868—the education revolution had the clarity and strength to solidify expectations for the rest of the nation moving forward. The history of the right to education, quite simply, divides into the world before and after 1868. Uncertainty pervaded the preceding years and nothing would ever be the same again in the subsequent years… Several Northern states revised their constitutions following the war. Congress had no leverage over them, but the recommitment to a republican form of government swept over them too.  As they revised their constitutions, they included education clauses, and by 1875, every state except one had an education clause.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 126-129)

After Reconstruction ended, after Plessy V. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” and after Jim Crow segregated schools across the South, states reneged on funding schools for black students and left poor, black communities to scrape together inadequate revenue on their own.  Derek Black reports, however, that the idea of public education as the centerpiece of democratic governance still survived: “Yet for all the terrible moments and trends, one very important silver lining runs through this dark period that almost no one has ever stopped to consider: whereas attacks on public education were a centerpiece of the assault on black citizenship, the right to education (first vested in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War) nonetheless lived on… The idea of public education had taken hold in a region where it was previously foreign…. That silver lining… became the foundation for a second reconstruction—the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century—and the rebirth of the constitutional right to education in the 1970s and 1980s.” (pp, 150-155)

Derek Black traces two decades of history from the mid 1930s until 1954 as the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys mounted a calculated series of lawsuits first to ensure that black students could be admitted to state institutions of higher education and, once admitted not be segregated in inferior programs provided only for blacks.  Finally, after inching toward justice for years, the NAACP launched lawsuits in several locations to challenge explicit de jure racial segregation of K-12 public schools. The NAACP’s long efforts culminated, after these cases had been combined together, in the principles declared in the unanimous 1954 opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, in Brown v. Board of Education—principles that embody the very idea Derek Black has traced from the days of the Northwest Ordinances:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.  Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditure for education both dominate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.  It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities even service in the armed forces.  It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrumental in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, quoting the 1954 Decision in Brown v. Board of Education, p. 174)

What followed, of course, was another backlash, the Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 U.S. Senators and 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Manifesto “charged that the court in Brown had abused its power.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 179)  Protests against the Brown decision happened in the streets and in the school boards and legislatures.  Prince Edward County, Virginia launched the first publicly funded private school tuition voucher program—for white students only—along with the shutdown, from 1959 to 1963, of the public schools which were the only local schools serving black students, who then went without education during those years.

Derek Black leads us through three crucial U.S. Supreme Court Decisions during the early 1970s which reestablished segregated schools and rejected the principles embodied in the Brown decision: Keyes v. School District No 1,  which declared that discriminatory acts must be proven to have been intentional; Milliken v. Bradley, which banned busing for school integration across school district jurisdictional lines; and San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which declared that “a right cannot be fundamental if it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 189) “Over the next twenty years, the Burger Court and then the Rehnquist Court further chipped away at desegregation, regularly issuing decisions that curtailed lower courts’ desegregation orders and powers, even it it did not entirely foreclose them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 197)

And yet, after San Antonio v. Rodriguez blocked federal school equity cases, Derek Black describes a wave of advocates pursuing the idea of each child’s right to an equal education under the provisions of the state constitutions.  While myriad cases have been filed from state to state over the decades since the early 1970s, and while most of them focused on adequate and equitable school funding. Black believes more was at stake: “State supreme courts once again were intervening to enforce the constitutional right to education…. Money is certainly relevant, but the real issues in these cases had always been students’ access to quality teachers, safe school facilities, small class sizes, modern curricula, and support services.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 211)

I hope you will read Derek Black’s new book, for these comments merely skim the surface of his fascinating history of the American idea of public education. As he concludes his history, Black summarizes the book’s thesis: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)  Black reminds us, however: “The founders articulated educational goals not with any certainty that they would spring into reality simply by writing them down, but in the hope that we might one day live into them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 71)

Derek Black’s new book also explores how the idea of public education is faring right now a decade after the collapse of public school funding during the Great Recession and after years of growing school privatization. Wednesday’s post will explore how recent events threaten not only our public schools but also our democracy.

Massachusetts Addresses School Funding Inequity by Adding $1.5 Billion Per Year for Public Schools

The eternal question in state school funding is how much is enough. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts addressed this question directly when Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed the new school funding bill sent to him by the state’s Democratic-majority legislature.

State legislatures have to balance their investment of tax dollars across K-12 education, state colleges and universities, Medicaid, transportation, incarceration, and a range of other services and functions. And legislators have to build the public’s will to pay the taxes which make government possible. In the 2008 recession, tax revenues collapsed in many places, and political leaders across many states have been preaching tax cutting as some kind of solution to a lagging economy—even though it never seems to work.  Again and again, from state to state, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has described “a punishing decade for school funding.”  Striking RedforEd teachers have been demonstrating what all this means for our children: Staffing across America’s public schools has dropped below the barest minimum in too many school districts—no nurse, no librarian, no guidance counselor, no music or art, and class size hovering around forty students per teacher.

Massachusetts’ investment in public education did not drop as low as many states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported that between 2008 and 2015, while (adjusted for inflation) Arizona’s state investment in K-12 public education fell by 36.6 percent and Florida’s state school funding dropped by 22 percent, Massachusetts managed to increase its funding for schools—barely—by .3 percent. But its citizens just demonstrated they expect far more for their children.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went to The English High School in Boston, the nation’s oldest public school, and at a pep rally featuring the school’s marching band, signed what the Boston Globe calls “a sweeping school funding bill.” “The law is in response to a legislative commission report four years ago that found the state’s school funding formula, established under the 1993 Education Reform Act, was grossly under-estimating the cost of providing a public education because it failed to keep pace with inflation.  Consequently, a spending gap was widening between poor and affluent school systems, often because affluent communities could make up the difference and then some. The commission identified four areas where the formula’s miscalculations were most egregious: the costs of providing services to students with disabilities, those learning to speak English fluently, and those living in poverty, as well as health care coverage for employees.”

Once the bill is fully phased in, Massachusetts’ new funding plan will invest $1.5 billion new state dollars annually into K-12 public education. The Springfield Republican‘s Shira Schoenberg reports: “The education funding overhaul will provide $1.5  billion more in funding annually for the state’s public education system, compared to funding today, once it is fully phased in seven years from now. The districts slated to receive the most money are those with high concentrations of poor students and those with a large number of students learning English.”

For NPR’s Morning Edition, Max Larkin reports: “The law is projected to add about $1.5 billion in annual state aid to schools by 2026, when it is fully phased in. The increase will reach most of the state, but it will be particularly targeted at urban districts with high concentrations of low-income students and English learners, and where many district funds now flow to charter schools.”

Larkin describes the reaction of Boston’s school superintendent to the new funding bill: “Brenda Cassellius, the new superintendent of Boston Public Schools… said… that she wants ‘to spend every single dollar’ of new aid that BPS receives on the district’s ‘neediest’ students.”

Schoenberg quotes Governor Baker’s remarks at the signing ceremony: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 63 years, it’s that talent is evenly distributed… What’s not evenly distributed is opportunity. There’s a reason why this is the Student Opportunity Act, because this legislation is about making sure that every kid in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, regardless of where they live, where they go to school, where they’re from, has the opportunity to get the education they need to be great.”

School funding ought not to be the kind of contentious partisan issue we see today across so many states. Kudos to Massachusetts’ legislators and Governor Charlie Baker for grappling actively with the cost of our public responsibility to provide equal opportunity in the public schools. The new Massachusetts Student Opportunity Act should be held up as a challenge to legislators in the 24 states recently identified by the Center on Budget Priorities where combined state and local school funding still lags below the 2008 level when adjusted for inflation.

In a speech on March 31, 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone challenged us all.  Today’s leaders in Massachusetts just paid attention to Wellstone’s principles: “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, including poor children, is a national disgrace. It is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination that we do not see that meeting the most basic needs of so many of our children condemns them to lives and futures of frustration, chronic underachievement, poverty, crime and violence. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose, allied with one another in a common enterprise, tied to one another by a common bond.”

It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

Kansas Children Still Hurt By Austerity Budgeting and Tax Cuts: Court Says School Funding Too Low

In the first week of June, the Republican dominated Kansas legislature repudiated Governor Sam Brownbeck’s multi-year experiment with massive tax slashing, increased taxes, and instituted a new school funding plan that legislators hoped would undo the damage of years of austerity budgeting.  But on Monday of this week, the Kansas Supreme Court found the new plan unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable and gave the legislature until June 30 to allocate more money and distribute it more fairly across the state’s school districts.

Here is the Wichita Eagle describing the new decision: “In a case with potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars at stake, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature’s latest efforts to provide adequate and fair funding still fall short. The decision that the current system is unconstitutional will send the issue back to the Legislature with orders to add more funding to school district budgets statewide next year. The ruling also ordered a fairer distribution of state funding, to ensure that students in poor districts have the same educational opportunities as their peers in wealthier communities.”  The Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature, which reconvenes in January, to produce a new plan by April 30 of next year, have it reviewed by the court, and ensure that a new funding system is in place by June 30.

One lesson in this latest decision in Gannon v. Kansas, a case originally filed in 2010, is that it isn’t so easy to fix the consequences of several years’ of undermining the financial capacity of government.  Because public education—with the schools serving masses of children in every hamlet, town, city and suburb—is always among the biggest lines in a state budget, the school budget is always among the government responsibilities most seriously undermined by a state budget crisis. In Kansas, of course, part of the tragedy is that Governor Brownback created the tax slashing experiment that led to the budget crisis on purpose, because he believed somehow that massive tax cuts would grow the economy. He was proven wrong, and the children of Kansas have been paying the price.

Associated Press reporter John Hanna explains: “The decision puts the state in a tough spot: Another big school spending increase will force it to either make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget or raise taxes less than a year after the GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The court rejected the state’s arguments that a new law phasing in a$293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for each of the state’s 458,000 students.  Four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010 had argued that the increase was at least $600 million short of what was necessary over two years.”

Of course following court decisions like the one this week in Kansas, there are people who argue that because school spending has increased over the years while school achievement has not risen, school spending makes no difference.  Bruce Baker, the school finance expert and economist at Rutgers University recently posted a brief on his School Finance 101 blog with evidence that disproves this allegation. Baker examines long term trends in the scores of black and white children on the National Assessment of Education Progress and demonstrates that since 1975 there has been a steady upward trend in both groups in reading and math.

His brief also covers school spending trends across the fifty states in a series of technical graphs. Baker demonstrates that, across the 50 states, school spending, adjusted for inflation, is not out of control: “(P)er pupil spending hasn’t risen for a decade and has barely risen over two decades…. So, no, school spending is not dramatically increasing over time and has declined in real terms from 2009 to 2015…. Over the longer term… government expenditure on elementary and secondary education as a share of gross domestic product has oscillated over decades but is presently about where it was both 15 years earlier (2000) and 40 years earlier (1975).  That is, education spending is not outstripping our economic capacity to pay for it.”

And there is evidence from another national report, this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that during the past decade Kansas has had among the most serious shortfalls in school spending.  Last October, before the Kansas Legislature did undo Governor Brownback’s income tax cuts, per-pupil school funding in Kansas had fallen 13.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) below what the state was spending in 2008.

Experts Reject Christie’s School Funding Idea: Steal from Poorest Schools to Aid Rich Suburbs

In late June, Governor Chris Christie proposed an amendment to New Jersey’s state constitution for the purpose of imposing a new flat school funding plan across his state. Christie’s new idea is to give every school district across New Jersey the same per pupil state aid of $6,599. It would be up to local school districts to make up for cuts in what they now receive from the state, even though most poor school districts do not have the fiscal capacity to raise the rest. Christie’s stated reason is to lower taxes in the wealthy suburbs that have already been able to raise most of their school funding locally by levying millage on their local property.

In late June, the NY Times editorial board summarized the plan: “(A) flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources.  The state is required by law to send more money to those communities because they simply don’t have the tax base or property values to raise additional revenues on their own.  The New Jersey Supreme Court mandated this approach in Abbott v. Burke, a case named for Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden who received no services for a learning disability and was barely literate at the age of 15.  The court ruled in 1990, and in many rulings since, that New Jersey was bound by the State Constitution to fund districts at a level that allows all children to receive an education that enables them to participate in the economy and a democratic society… The 31 New Jersey school districts…known as ‘Abbott Districts’ educate nearly a quarter of the state’s students, more than 40 percent of its poor children and 56 percent of its English language learners.”

Christie’s plan would neither account for the disparities in school districts’ capacities to raise local revenue (disparities growing from the very different valuation of taxable property from school district to school district) nor recognize a central principle of educational equity, namely that some children need more services at school and those services cost money. The political philosopher Benjamin Barber defines this principle clearly in his 1992 book on public education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… 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.” (p. 13)  While Christie’s proposal would provide extra money for children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal requirement that even Chris Christie can’t ignore, his plan would help wealthy suburban school districts by increasing their state funding and would suck state money out of the property-poor and racially segregated school districts that serve the mass of New Jersey’s poorest children, including  immigrant children who need more expensive services to help them learn English.

Christie has also alleged that the property-poor school districts that received additional state aid under the Abbott school finance case have been spending outlandishly; his new plan, he says, would bring them in line.  The Education Law Center explains that Christie has been manipulating the numbers, and if Christie’s flawed calculation of school spending is corrected to account for students’ special needs,  it is clear that New Jersey’s richest suburbs—the ones Christie would help with his new flat plan—are the districts already spending the most relative to the needs of their students: “The most accurate way to compare resources in NJ districts is using a calculation—‘funding per weighted pupil’—that acknowledges that the cost of educating students is not the same, but varies based on the characteristics of a district’s enrollment… The concept is simple and universally accepted in education finance: children at risk from family and community poverty, those who are learning English, and students with disabilities need additional supports and interventions, and districts need additional funds to pay for them.”  And in New Jersey, “When calculated by weighted per pupil funding, 44 of the top 100 districts are high wealth, and only four are low wealth… Far from having ‘extravagant’ funding as the Governor claims, 26 of the … Abbotts are in the bottom half of districts in the state when ranked by weighted per pupil funding….”  And in fact, since Christie became New Jersey’s governor, the state has quietly been increasing funding for high wealth school districts and slowly decreasing the state’s support for the districts that serve the state’s poorest children.

The Education Law Center has also calculated the financial impact of Governor Christie’s flat funding proposal, and it is devastating: “”(U)nder the Governor’s plan, 143 districts would have their budges cut, with the poorest districts bearing the overwhelming brunt of the aid cuts.  These 78 low wealth districts would lose, on average, a staggering $7,417 per pupil, representing 40% of their total operating budgets.  Fifty-six middle wealth districts would be cut an average of $1,494 per pupil, or 8% of their operating budgets. In sharp contrast, all 129 high wealth districts… would not be cut but instead would receive a huge influx as state aid is transferred from the poorer districts.” Overall it is estimated that low and middle wealth districts would be forced to lay off 29,000 staff as a result of Christie’s redistribution of state school aid.

In two research briefs published this summer, school finance experts at Rutgers University evaluate Christie’s plan. In How Fair is the ‘Fairness Formula’ for New Jersey School Children & Taxpayers?  Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth explain Christie’s justification for a new school funding plan: “Governor Christie has touted his plan on the basis of several claims: that suburban school districts are overtaxed, that urban districts collect relatively small amounts of local taxes to support their schools, and that urban districts have not shown improvement even with large infusions of state aid.”  Weber and Srikanth note that lowering taxes for the rich ought not to be the goal of a school finance formula. While tax bills for residents’ of New Jersey’s wealthy suburbs may be high, it is because their incomes are considerable:  “As a percentage of income, New Jersey’s wealthiest districts have the smallest effective school property tax rates.”

What about Christie’s claim that New Jersey’s school funding for the state’s 31 Abbott Districts has failed to improve student achievement?  Weber and Srikanth review a number of reports that  measure academic improvement by test scores.  Some districts have succeeded better than others, of course, but overall: “The National Assessment of Education Progress… scores in fourth-grade reading and mathematics in central cities rose 21 and 22 points respectively between the mid-1990s and 2007… Eighth-grade NAEP scores are available starting in 2003.  Between 2003 and 2007, scores for the urban districts rose six points in eighth-grade reading and 18 points in eighth-grade mathematics, a considerably higher rate of growth than in the suburbs and statewide.”  “It is, admittedly, difficult to separate the effects of school funding reform from other potential causes of the growth in test scores for New Jersey’s at-risk and LEP (Limited English Proficient) students. This evidence, however, clearly contradicts the claim that the period of funding reform was a time of ‘failure’ for the schools that serve New Jersey’s most disadvantaged students.”

Last week, Bruce Baker and Mark Weber followed up with a new brief  demonstrating that New Jersey’s 2008, affirmatively equitable School Funding Reform Plan has not, as Christie alleges, made school funding in New Jersey inefficient in the poorest school districts.  This paper is extremely technocratic: “Efficiency analysis can be viewed from either of two perspectives: production efficiency or cost efficiency.  Production efficiency… measures the outcomes of organizational units such as schools or districts given their inputs and given the circumstances under which production occurs. That is, which schools or districts get the most bang for the buck? Cost efficiency is essentially the flip side of production efficiency. In cost efficiency analyses, the goal is to determine the minimum ‘cost’ at which a given level of outcomes can be produced under given circumstances.  That is, what’s the minimum amount of bucks we need to spend to bet the bang we desire?”

Let’s recognize some discomfort here with considering school districts as production units, students as products, and standardized test scores as the way to measure students’ progress.

But given Bruce Baker’s standing as a national school funding expert, what does he think about Christie’s contention that New Jersey’s current equitable system is inefficient?  “Contrary to current political rhetoric, New Jersey’s least efficient producers of student achievement gains are not the state’s large… Abbott districts—largely poor urban districts that benefited most in terms of state aid increases resulting from decades of litigation over school funding equity and adequacy. While some Abbott districts such as Asbury Park and Hoboken rate poorly on estimates of relative efficiency, other relatively inefficient local public school districts include some of the state’s most affluent suburban districts and small, segregated shore towns.” “Put bluntly, the Governor’s proposal not only fails on a) tax equity and b) student funding equity, as previously explained by Weber and Srikanth, but the ‘Fairness Formula’ proposal also fails on the more conservative economic argument of ‘efficient’ allocation of taxpayer dollars.”

This blog has previously covered Christie’s flat school funding plan here.

Kansas Scrounges, Creates Short-Term Funding Fix to Keep Schools Open

What just happened in Kansas vindicates school finance advocates who argue for the role of the judiciary to protect the rights of our children. Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, and the Kansas legislature have been experimenting with radical tax cuts for several years now.  Not surprisingly, Kansas has gone broke, and not surprisingly school funding—the most expensive line in most state budgets—has suffered.  But at the end of May, the Kansas Supreme Court told the executive and legislative branches of Kansas state government that despite tinkering and despite the legislature’s pretense that it had provided enough money and distributed it more fairly  (see here and here), the system has not been protecting the rights guaranteed to children and school districts under the Kansas state constitution.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that unless, by June 30, the legislature made significantly more money available to the school districts that lack the capacity to raise enough local revenue, schools could not open across the state in the fall of 2016. Late Friday, in response to this ruling, the legislature, meeting in special session, found an extra $38 million for poor school districts.  Hunter Woodall and Miranda Davis, report for the Kansas City Star: “A sense of urgency came from the Supreme Court’s warning in its recent ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30, if lawmakers didn’t make further changes. Many have programs, serve meals to poor children and provide services to special education students during the summer.”

The Senate passed the school funding measure 38-1, the House voted 116-6, and Governor Sam Brownback has now signed it. The NY Times quotes the response of Alan Rupe, attorney for the school districts who had brought the Gannon v. Kansas school funding lawsuit: “This amended legislation represents a compromise which will satisfy the court and allow schools to open.”  The legislative compromise rejected an earlier proposal to take money from all of the state’s districts to boost funding for poor districts by $13 million.

There does remain a smaller element of Robin Hood in this plan.  Three wealthy Kansas City suburban districts will lose some of their state aid, according to the Kansas City Star: “Blue Valley would lose about $2.4 million, Shawnee Mission about $1.4 million and Olathe about $75,000.”  The superintendent of Blue Valley, Todd White responded by affirming the common good: “When it comes down to it, we have to have a ‘we before me’ attitude.”

The Kansas City Star reports that bulk of the money will come from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority for $13 million, and from the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund, motor vehicle fees, and the state’s national legal settlement with tobacco companies.  John Hanna, writing for the Associated Press emphasizes the challenge of finding money in a state where tax cuts have resulted in an overall revenue shortage: “With Kansas facing an ongoing budget crunch, lawmakers avoided increasing overall state spending by diverting money from other corners of state government to schools…. The state’s fiscal woes complicated education funding issues.  Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy.  State tax collections have fallen short of expectations 10 of the past 12 months….”

In a followup analysis, Hanna continues: “Kansas is bracing for more contentious legal and political fights over education funding even after legislators approved a narrow, short-term fix to satisfy a court mandate and avoid a threatened shutdown of the state’s public schools.  Having directed lawmakers to make education funding fairer to poor areas, the Kansas Supreme Court will next consider the larger issue of whether the state spends enough overall on its schools.  The justices could rule by early next year; a trial-court panel said the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million… Kansas is likely to remain mired in the budget problems that have plagued it since Brownback persuaded lawmakers to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.  Any large increase in school spending… would require lawmakers to reconsider his signature tax cuts.”

Hanna continues: “Education funding debates often pit poor districts and small, rural ones against affluent districts in the Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, the state’s most populous county.  Educators across the state argue that regional tensions would ease if Kansas increased its overall spending on schools.  But Brownback, who blames the state’s ongoing fiscal woes on larger regional and national economic issues, said the budget will remain ‘very tight.'”

NPR Looks at Persistent Savage Inequalities in School Funding

In 1973, in the case of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the nation’s first school finance case under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court found against the parent plaintiffs and declared that fairness of school funding is not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented.  He declared, “I cannot accept such an emasculation of the Equal Protection Clause in the context of this case.” “Is it ever really going to change?”

National Public Radio reports on Justice Marshall’s question in the first installment of a three-week series about the matter of unequal access to well funded schools. The series, including extensive maps of the states and demonstrating egregious inequity in the amount being spent from school district to school district and state to state, is a collaboration with Education Week.

Justice Marshall’s question strikes me as the heart of NPR’s investigation that includes not only analysis but also local stories from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania so far, and this is merely the second week of the three week series: “School Money is a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.”

NPR’s reporters set out to understand why some school districts (usually those that serve wealthy students) can spend so much more per pupil than the poorest districts. The lead article last week featured two suburban Chicago, Illinois school districts—Chicago Ridge that spends $9,794 per pupil and Rondout District 72 that spends $28,639 per pupil: “The simple answer is that many of Rondout’s neighbors are successful businesses. They pay local taxes, and those taxes help pay for local schools. Ridge simply has less to work with—fewer businesses, lower property values.  More broadly: ‘You’ve got highly segregated rich and poor towns,’ says Bruce Baker of Rutgers University…. ‘They raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases, and Illinois really doesn’t put much effort into counterbalancing that.’  To be fair, Illinois gives more money to Ridge than it does to Rondout.  It is just not nearly enough to level the playing field.”

After 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected school funding as a matter to be tried in federal courts, 40 years’ of lawsuits in more than 40 states have worked their way through the state courts. “Right now, 13 states are defending themselves in school funding lawsuits: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.”

This week’s second analytical piece in NPR’s series examines the long contested question: Does money really matter?   We learn about Eric Hanushek at the Hoover Institution and his libertarian collaborators at places like the Cato Institute who claim that disparities in investment are not the most significant variable, but their arguments are countered by the many regional stories that accompany this series.  There is the story from the suburban Philadelphia, William Penn School District, where the Spanish teacher has collected blankets for her students to wrap around themselves for protection during class in a metal building whose walls lack insulation. Parent plaintiffs in the William Penn School District are part of an ongoing school funding lawsuit “in an attempt to force changes at the state level and make (Pennsylvania) spending more equitable and adequate….”  Reporter Cory Turner summarizes academic research documenting that, of course, investment in quality schools, pre-Kindergarten, and wraparound supports for the poorest families does help children learn, and quotes the common sense conclusion of Rutgers’ Bruce Baker: “If you have enough money to hire enough people to have reasonable class sizes and to be able to pay them sufficient wages so that you’re getting good people coming into the profession that’s most of the battle of providing quality schooling.”

Claudio Sanchez’s local piece on Kentucky presents another reality: adequate funding and equity achieved must be actively maintained or the poorest school districts will fall behind once again.  After a state supreme court decision forced an overhaul of school finance in Kentucky in 1990, money flowed into the poorest Appalachian schools: “Among the most significant of the changes was a new funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money every district would receive from the state every year.”  “And by the mid 1990s, it was paying off.  Reading and math scores shot up.  More students were graduating and going on to college.  A lot more.”  “But a funding gap between rich and poor schools remains in Kentucky, in part because lawmakers did not deal with the fundamental imbalance that comes with a reliance on local property taxes.”  And, “The Legislature has not approved any significant increases in overall school funding since 2008.  So, with the state budget flat, the remaining disparities are now frozen in place.”

Chicago’s Catalyist Magazine has just posted a commentary on Illinois school funding, a piece that is not related to NPR’s series, but that reinforces in a timely way the implications of the stories amassed by NPR.  Catalyst‘s analysis appears this month because Illinois is in the midst of a state crisis in the funding of K-12 public schools and the state’s colleges and universities.  Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has refused to sign a budget produced by Illinois’ Democrat-dominated legislature. Illinois’ school funding has reached the point of urgency as the state has been without a budget for all of this fiscal year.  Threats of school and university closures have not yet pushed state officials to resolve the impasse around last year’s budget.  Catalyst‘s Maureen Kelleher writes: “Springfield’s latest battle over education funding has roots stretching back to 1970.  That’s when a bunch of tired delegates to Illinois’ Constitutional Convention settled compromise language proposed by the late Dawn Clark Netsch to describe the state’s responsibility for funding public schools: ‘The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public educational institutions and services.’  To most people, that certainly sounds like state government should shoulder most of the expense of public K-12 schooling.  But in reality, local districts still bear much of the load, creating disparities that disproportionately hurt children of color, but also impact non-minority rural districts downstate… (T)he language from 1970 was not language a court could enforce.  Delegates knew that at the time, but hoped the wording would inspire lawmakers to take action on the matter.” In the rest of her article Kelleher describes all the competing proposals and negotiations likely to continue in Springfield without remedying a long-standing lack of fairness.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond wonders, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)  And back in 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall wondered, “Is it ever really going to change?”

Jonathan Kozol speculates about the answer to Justice Marshall’s question in Savage Inequalities, his 1991 book about the subject of NPR’s new series—the lack of school funding fairness. Kozol speculates that our society has failed to achieve equity in our provision of education for the simple reason that we have merely aimed for, “something that resembles equity but never reaches it: something close enough to equity to silence criticism by approximating justice, but far enough from equity to guarantee the benefits enjoyed by privilege… (T)he rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense that other people’s children are of less inherent value than our own.  Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage. ‘Sure, it’s a bit unjust,’ they may concede, ‘but that’s reality and that’s the way the game is played….’  Unlike a tainted sports event, however, a childhood cannot be played again… In this respect, the consequences of unequal education have a terrible finality… The winners in this race feel meritorious.  Since they also are, in large part, those who govern the discussion of this issue, they are not disposed to cast a cloud upon the means of their assent.” (pp. 175-180)