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)

Pennsylvania Inches Toward Budget and Appropriations—for Last Year

At the end of March, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf allowed last year’s budget to become law without his signature.  While it would seem that the final arrival in late March of a state budget for the ongoing fiscal year that will end on June 30 would resolve a mass of problems for Pennsylvania’s schools, it isn’t going to be so easy.  In Pennsylvania a fight is brewing over what is called “the fiscal code” that will determine the distribution of the education dollars in the state budget.  The legislature had come up with a bipartisan proposal, but Wolf vetoed the legislature’s proposed fiscal code, believing that it fails to remedy some of the biggest problems—notably the funding crisis in the School District of Philadelphia.  And the amount in the budget is also far less than is needed by school districts across the state.

Here is Kevin McCorry’s explanation for Newsworks: “On Tuesday (April 5, 2016), Wolf released details of his ‘restoration’ funding formula to the protest of leading Republican state lawmakers.  Although Wolf allowed the state budget as passed by the Republican-controlled legislature to become law without his signature in late March, he vetoed the fiscal code code bill which, in part, acted as a roadmap for how new education funding should be apportioned… Wolf and other Democratic leaders argue that districts should first be made whole from cuts that occurred when the legislature agreed to Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 austerity plan that coincided with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.”  Corbett, a proponent of state tax cuts and austerity budgeting, devastated state support for school districts when he slashed $1.1 billion out of the public education budget.

Wolf says he does not oppose the legislature’s fiscal code distribution formula, but before it is implemented, some of the deepest cuts under Corbett must be restored.  On Tuesday, Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported, “Wolf said he is carrying through on his promise to restore funding that was cut during the Corbett years and to push for a fairer funding formula.  He said the bipartisan-backed formula that lawmakers wanted to see used—and he supports—‘cannot truly be fair unless the cuts are fully restored. Currently, only 4 percent of districts have seen their funding restored to 2010-2011 levels and we are currently over $370 million short from fully restoring the cuts.’ ”

There is $50 million of new money for schools in the budget passed by the legislature in late March.  On Tuesday, according to Murphy, “Wolf announced he planned to distribute the additional $50 million set aside in the March budget for basic education this way,

  • $25 million is being allocated for the restoration of the charter school reimbursement program.
  • $20 million is being allocated to continue to restore cuts made in 2011-2012.
  • $5 million is being allocated through the new basic aid education fair funding formula.”

Wolf had in December of 2015 already signed a partial budget that restored $150 million to schools.  Overall if Wolf has his way, according to McCorry of Newsworks, Philadelphia will see $76.8 million in additional state funds for the 2015-16 school year, “a 7.55 percent increase over last year.” McCorry adds, “Of the $5 million that Wolf plans to direct through the new student-weighted funding formula—which accounts for measures such as concentration of poverty, number of English language learners, and district geographic sparcity—Philadelphia looks to get 23 percent of the sum.”  He notes that Philadelphia serves 12 percent of the state’s students.

McCorry’s coverage focuses on Philadelphia, but the Corbett-created school funding debacle in Pennsylvania is far more widespread. Smaller cities like Reading and Allentown are struggling to provide adequate services for children, and the school funding crisis is also affecting poor rural school districts.

Several of these school districts filed a lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State, in November of 2014 that declares the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates filed an amicus brief last September, simply to ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case this spring.  Last September, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center noted: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation. The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

Despite the election in 2014 of a Democratic governor who ran on platform of correcting the school funding shortfalls imposed by Corbett and his all-Republican legislature, it will very likely take years to undo the devastation to Pennsylvania’s public schools, where, as reported in January by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pennsylvania’s general funding per student (in inflation-adjusted dollars) remains 13.2 percent lower than before the Great Recession in 2008.