Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Leads Ideological Fight Against School Funding Fairness

In an ugly special legislative session in early July, Illinois finally enacted a budget when the Legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It is the first budget the state has had since Rauner was elected governor over two years ago. But the wrangling between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democratically dominated Illinois Legislature continues.  On Monday, Rauner called another special session of the Illinois Legislature—beginning today—to resolve an impasse on school funding that threatens to hold up money necessary to start the upcoming school year.

Although the majority-Democratic legislature overrode Rauner’s veto to pass the budget, school districts cannot access their state funds because the formula to determine the distribution of state funds for school districts remains blocked.  The legislature has passed a new “evidence-based” school funding formula intended to equalize school funding, but, through a legal technicality, has not yet sent the budget to Rauner.  Legislative leaders fear Rauner will use what Illinois calls his power of “amendatory veto.”

Parsing out what’s going on in Illinois is confusing.  Here is a summary of what’s been happening and what it means.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ILLINOIS SCHOOL FUNDING?   The Education Law Center’s National Report Card on School Funding identifies Illinois as fourth from the bottom of all the states in school funding fairness. The only states that do a worse job of using state funds to compensate for notoriously uneven local capacity to raise school taxes are Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota.  For WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station: Amanda Vinicky explains: “An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.”

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE-BASED SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   This is the substance of a new law, Senate Bill 1, passed by both houses of the Illinois Legislature but not yet signed into law by Governor Rauner.  John O’Connor and Sophia Tareen, writing for the Associated Press explain: “The legislation would revise the way the schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year.  That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.”

THE POLITICS   Illinois is a split state with both houses of the legislature dominated by Democrats but a very conservative Republican as governor. After members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of a state budget that was years overdue, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation and distribute model bills to be introduced in legislatures across the fifty states.

WHAT IS AN “AMENDATORY VETO”?   O’Connor and Tareen explain: “Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto.  It allows a governor to return legislation with ‘specific recommendations for change.’ But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s ‘fundamental purpose’ or making ‘substantial or expansive’ changes.” Governor Rauner has threatened to use his power of amendatory veto, which is why the bill has not yet been sent to Rauner.

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL WAS PASSED ON MAY 31. HOW COME IT HASN’T REACHED THE GOVERNOR’S DESK?   Vinicky at WTTW explains the mechanics of the delay: “Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a ‘motion to reconsider’ to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last.”

SO WHY IS GOV. RAUNER THREATENING TO VETO AND CHANGE PART OF THE SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   The problem is that the Legislature has allocated money to help the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which have been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Chicago Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, and it serves an enormous number of children who need services due to concentrated poverty, special education programs, and programs for English language instruction. And there is a two-decades’ old pension crisis. The state contributes to the pension system for all of the state’s other school districts, but Chicago’s pension system is on its own.  Earlier this week, Reuters summarized: “Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system. The governor called the CPS pension funding ‘a poison pill’ in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

Heather Cherone for Chicago’s DNA Info explains further: “Rauner again said he plans to issue an amendatory veto that would remove the $300 million the legislation would send to CPS to cover current and past-due pension payments, which amounts to a ‘bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system’ that the governor’s office said would take ‘away critical resources from school districts across the state.'”

Partly due to lack of equity in the state’s funding system, the Chicago school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Maureen Kelleher, writing for the Chicago Reporter, explains that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.” And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board castigates Rauner for pitting “Chicago against the rest of Illinois”—Chicago that educates 19 percent of the states public school students while, even under the new plan, receiving “only 16 percent of the state’s funding for education.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown describes the common ground achieved between school leaders and advocates in Chicago and in smaller communities downstate as the Legislature developed the plan: “They found common ground with Chicago Public Schools in developing a formula that benefits both by recognizing their shared challenges—notably high percentages of students from poor families who are more costly to educate.” Brown profiles small-town school superintendents  “who have been holding town forums to explain the benefits of Senate Bill 1 to their residents,”  including Rolf Sivertsen, the “superintendent of Canton Union School District 66, about 30 miles west of Peoria. His district has 2,600 students in grades pre-k through 12th. Sixty percent of these students come from low-income families.  The school district would receive $760,000 more if Senate Bill 1 becomes law.”

It appears that most people in in Illinois and the legislators who represent them want to move forward with an unbiased system of funding schools, including fairness for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools. Bruce Rauner’s ideological rigidity is blocking an equitable solution.

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School Funding, Residual Budgeting, and Kansas

If you live in Ohio, and if you were paying attention during the 1990s, the decade of decisions and appeals of the DeRolph school funding case, you understand the concept of residual budgeting.  School funding in Ohio, the plaintiff’s attorneys explained again and again, is a mere budgetary residual. The legislators calculate the pot of tax money available this year; then they look at what they spent on education last year; then they divide available revenue  up across all the functions of government including education—usually making sure they don’t spend too much less on education than last year unless there is a budgetary emergency.  Any year’s state budget allocation doesn’t necessarily reflect what services are really needed, nor does it demonstrate an investigation of what different programs cost. In fact, because last year’s funding is usually the baseline, and because last year’s funding was likely way too low, the school funding formula is likely over time to become way out of kilter relative to the rising cost of services.  Although legislators may allocate something extra to support school districts serving a lot of children in poverty, nobody ever really measures what it would take to make our poorest rural and urban schools operate as schools do in wealthy communities.

At the federal level, the most visible case of residual budgeting is for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  When Congress passed the IDEA in 1975, Congress said the federal government would pay 40 percent of the costs, but in 2014, Congress paid for only 16 percent. Local school districts are simply expected to pick up the expenses of what is known to be a huge unfunded mandate.  Similarly, Title I was created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, but Title I has never been funded at a level to support the education of all the children who qualify. Neither has it sufficiently compensated for school funding inequity across the states.

In the 1990s, the problem of residual budgeting at the federal level was compounded by outcomes-based demands for accountability.  David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, in their book The Ordeal of Equality, describe how the 1994 and 2001 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act failed.  These two reauthorizations incorporated an outcomes-based strategy, “profoundly at odds with the unequal conditions of education in the United States.  Neither policy was paired with policies that supported improved employment, better health care, and early education, nor did either make a substantial effort to reduce unequal educational resources among schools within districts, among districts within states, or among states. The two bills addressed public education as though schools could dramatically change their operations quite in isolation from the political, social, and economic sources of educational problems.” (The Ordeal of Equality, p. 191)

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recent, 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, represents the same sort of denial. In the new law, Congress failed to expand Title I, despite that its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission had concluded: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

There have been efforts by school finance experts and advocates to get Congress and  legislative bodies across the states to measure equity according to the actual cost of services. The plaintiffs in Ohio’s DeRolph school funding case called expert witnesses who defined a Basket of Essential Learning Resources for the 21st Century (scroll down the left side in the link to find the document). Experts call this an “inputs” approach and urge states to conduct “costing-out studies” to identify what schools must pay for the services they are expected to provide.  Legislators, on the other hand, have preferred an “outcomes” approach that instead measures test scores “produced” by school districts; they have liked to pretend there is no real connection between inputs and outcomes.  The reality, of course, is that because neither the federal government nor most of the states are willing to generate enough tax dollars to cover what would be the real costs, everybody seems to prefer the denial afforded by residual budgeting.  If a formula sends more state dollars to very poor school districts, surely that will improve the test scores, even if that amount can be proven to be inadequate.

This year’s poster child for residual budgeting and a school funding system way out of whack is Kansas, the victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts to reduce the size of the state’s government through tax slashing. We are reminded by a 2014 piece in the NY Times that,  “Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  The newest report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “Another state that has imposed deep funding cuts—Kansas—eliminated its funding formula this year (2015), making impossible direct comparisons to earlier years.  Formula funding in Kansas was down 14.6 percent per student between 2008 and 2014, after adjusting for inflation.”

Last week the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s current funding system unconstitutional.  According to the Education Law Center: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.”  This time the Kansas Supreme Court says it will shut down the state’s schools if the legislature and governor neglect to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to address inequity.

The NY Times reports, “The decision is the latest blow to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the state Legislature, which will probably have to find tens of millions of dollars in its budget for additional education funding. Kansas is already facing deep fiscal woes in the wake of Mr. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes, which he predicted would help bolster the state economy.  Revenue has fallen short of projections and he and lawmakers are scrambling to fill a roughly $200 million gap before the close of the session.”  As Kansas has discovered, when the size of the state budget pie becomes very small, residual budgeting—making all the pieces of the pie smaller without considering the real price of the services that need to be provided—reduces the state’s allocation for education far below the actual cost of essential programs for children.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor and education researcher, “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.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities

NEA Today has just published a short, eloquent, and very profound article on an old, old subject.  In 1991, Jonathan Kozol called this problem “savage inequalities.”

The subject of Amanda Litvinof’s piece in NEA Today is Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial community an hour and a half west of Philadelphia:  “Reading is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It’s also one of the most poorly funded school districts in America.  Like students in disadvantaged communities across the nation—who are disproportionately students of color—kids in Reading suffer from a school finance policy that does not come close to providing them with education resources on par with those of their wealthier peers.  Tour Reading’s 19 schools and you’ll see mostly aging buildings with broken floor tiles, leaky ceilings, sprouting patches of mold, students crammed into too-small classrooms and feral cats squatting under classroom trailers.  One high school has a room full of broken microscopes, and no money to repair them.  One large-group instruction room is completely off limits after a broken pipe left it spattered with sewage.  The drama teacher now conducts class in the hallway.  But even more detrimental is what you don’t see.  Reading School District lost 200 educators, including 120 education support professionals in 2011-2012 when statewide education funding plummeted by $1.1 billion under then-Gov. Tom Corbett.  Incredibly, the cuts were four times greater in Pennsylvania’s 50 poorest districts ($532 per student) than in the state’s wealthiest districts ($113 per student).  In practical terms, those cuts left Riverside Elementary’s Ms. Sherman with a class of more than 30 kindergartners and no aid.”

Litvinof interviews Sherman: “One of my close friends went to a wealthier district after working in Reading for 10 years.  At the same step on the pay scale she was earning $16,000 more per year and had a kindergarten class of 18 with an aide, while I had a class of 30 kindergartners all on my own.  It’s a big difference.”  Litvinof takes the trouble to be sure there are no misconceptions here about leveling down: “Let’s be clear: The kids in Wyomissing should have smaller class sizes, challenging academics, and extra curriculars like sports, band and orchestra.  They should have access to a nurse and a counselor and all the academic supports they need.  But students in Reading should have those things, too.”

Describing an interview with Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and manager of the blog School Finance 101, Litvinof writes: “We know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: Lower class sizes. A broad curriculum. Attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But these strategies are unobtainable without stable, adequate, and equitable funding.”  According to Baker, “Reading is a classic case of savage inequality.  It’s a school district that is incredibly poor in terms of its own tax base, it has high-needs students, and it exists in a state that appears not to give a [expletive].” “The data show that we’ve never provided sustained, adequate, and equitable funding in any of our disadvantaged communities.”

There is really no disagreement among experts on the subject of the need for adequate and equitably distributed state funding of public schools.  A long shelf of books documents the problem.  What follow are just a handful of examples:

From Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities (1991): “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.  It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  ‘Americans,’ he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’ It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (p 83)

From the National Research Council in Making Money Matter, edited by Helen Ladd (1999): “That middle-and upper-income households can move out of high-taxation areas makes it possible for them to avoid sharing the burden of financing the local share of education for those left behind.  In particular, as households and firms have moved out of central cities in search of lower land prices in the suburbs or more favorable business conditions in other states or countries, they have often left behind them smaller tax bases and concentrations of economically disadvantaged and difficult-to-educate students.  The result is widening disparities among the capacities of school districts to generate local funds to meet the educational needs of their students…. While assistance from the federal and state governments helps to offset these disparities, large differences remain, both within and across states.” (p 20)

From Peter Schrag in Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools (2003): Schrag quotes Alondra Jones, a student from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in her deposition filed in California’s Williams case: “It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the buildings, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor that’s because they choose to.  And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. It really makes me feel bad about myself.” (p 21)

From James E. Ryan in Five Miles Away, A World Apart (2010): “(I)t is worth noticing that those who embrace adequacy as a goal have essentially abandoned any attempt to link the financial fates of poor and rich districts.  Adequacy presupposes that some districts will be able to provide an education that is more than adequate.  Thus, instead of seeking to ensure that all districts have access to the same pool of resources, which was the goal of fiscal neutrality, those in favor of adequacy accept the inevitable inequalities that will follow.  Indeed, some seek to make a virtue of necessity by arguing that adequacy is superior to equity precisely because it is less threatening to property-rich districts.  In the words of one commentator, adequacy is less costly ‘for the elites who derive the greatest benefits from the existing inequalities, because adequacy does not threaten their ability to retain a superior position.'” (p. 176)

From Linda Darling-Hammond in The Flat World and Education (2010) : “The onus of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is on individual schools to raise test scores.  However, the law does not address the profound educational inequalities that plague our nation.  Despite a 3 to 1 ratio between high-and low-spending schools in most states, multiplied further by inequalities across states, neither NCLB nor other federal education policies require that states demonstrate progress toward adequate funding or equitable opportunities to learn… To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all of our children.” (p. 309)

Earlier this summer, as the Education Law Center released its fourth annual report on the challenges to school funding equity across the states, its press release declared: “The picture is bleak: the vast majority of states are not funding public schools adequately or equitably; the fiscal retrenching connected with the Great Recession has not been reversed; and at-risk students are not being provided with the resources they need to succeed.”

Amanda Litvinov succinctly summarizes our long, long problem in her piece on Reading, Pennsylvania: “Most lawmakers agree that low-income students, like all children, deserve a great public school—until its time to pay for it.”

We like to think of this as a thorny fiscal problem, but in reality it is a much deeper matter of public morality.  Here are the words—timely today but written over a quarter of a century ago—by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the prophetic pastor of New York’s Riverside Church: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’), we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are even eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. And there’s the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for the injustice.  And that is why President Reagan and so many business leaders today are promoting charity: it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.” (Credo, p. 64)

Teachers College Sociologist Attacks Cuomo’s Strategy of Blaming School Teachers

Aaron Pallas, a sociologist and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, responds to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attack on school teachers in the recent State of the State address and Cuomo’s plan to make the state’s teacher evaluations tougher.

Pallas quotes Cuomo: “Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts.  We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?”

Pallas, an academic, provides a scatterplot demonstrating the correlation of student poverty with tested academic proficiency: “In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient.  Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient.  This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.”  Pallas suggests that, failing to understand the concept of risk adjustment, Cuomo neglects to consider “factors outside of the teacher’s (or school’s) control such as a student’s prior academic achievement or socioeconomic background.”

Pallas also reminds us that students’ test scores were higher across New York before the state instituted new standardized tests based on the Common Core standards.  Scores dropped immediately.  “Setting standards is a political process infused with values. Teachers across the state of New York haven’t suddenly gotten worse,” writes Pallas. “Their students are being asked to do more.”

Pallas suggests that a different diagnosis of the problem would result in a different treatment.  “The governor’s diagnosis… is that the problem lies in our state’s teachers.  The treatment?  Increasing the role of standardized tests in annual evaluations of teacher performance, and requiring that teachers have five consecutive ratings of ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ to be eligible for tenure.”  What treatment would be a better choice for the problem of low test scores? “We could start by honoring the state’s obligation to fund school districts at a level adequate for a sound basic education.  Since 2007, the state legislature and a series of governors have ignored the New York State Court of Appeals’ ruling to direct several billions of dollars of funding annually to the state’s neediest school districts.”

Cuomo’s chosen strategy of making teacher evaluation more dependent on students’ standardized test scores and making it harder to achieve tenure are likely, in Pallas’ opinion, to cause another very serious problem.  “If the governor’s proposal were enacted… I estimate the odds of a teacher earning the due process protections of tenure within six years at just under 50 percent.  In the meantime, the governor’s proposal would allow the firing of any probationary teacher at any time without cause.  This would make entering teaching in the state of New York a very high-risk career choice.”

In the context of the Alliance for Quality Education’s new report, Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, last week this blog critiqued Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education policies here.

Education Funding Equity: A Technocratic Justification vs. Jonathan Kozol’s Rationale

In a memorable keynote address fifteen years ago I heard Jonathan Kozol declare, “People say that spending money on education is just throwing money at the problem. We ought to try that. It might work.”

Certainly investing in public school equity and improvement has not been the trend in recent years.  About ten years ago, New York set up a new school funding formula to send more money to poorer school districts to remedy the lawsuit in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, but when the Great Recession hit, New York’s general assembly stopped funding the plan it had created.  At about the same time the legislature of Pennsylvania created a formula for the purpose of equalizing school funding, but in came Governor Tom Corbett who cut a billion dollars out of the state’s education budget, and the new formula died.  Kansas has radically cut taxes and slashed education funding accordingly; it is mired in a lawsuit to try to force the state to fund education.  And last Friday the state supreme court in Texas agreed to hear an appeal of what the Associated Press calls “the gargantuan school finance ruling” that found “the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional, saying funding levels are inadequate and are unfairly distributed around the state.”

For extremely sensible advice on public policy around budgets and expenditures, I recommend the reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which last October released a paper on climbing investment in prisons across the states and an accompanying drop in state allocations for public education.  “Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods.  At least 30 states are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states the reduction exceeds 10 percent.  Higher education cuts have been even deeper: the average state has cut higher education funding per student by 23 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.  Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than higher education in 2013.  And some of the states with the biggest education cuts in recent years also have among the nation’s highest incarceration rates. This is not sound policy.”

Noting that while crime has dropped overall, the share of offenders arrested who are subsequently sent to prison has dramatically risen at the same time the length of stay in prison for each offender has also risen, the report suggests, “If states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

As for spending priorities for education, “Unfortunately, a number of states provide less funding for high-poverty schools than for low-poverty schools, while some others provide about the same funding to high-and low-poverty districts.  As of 2011, only 14 states provided at least 5 percent more funding per student for high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts. Further, many states provide inadequate funding for schools overall… None of the states with the ten highest incarceration rates ranked in the top half of states for school funding per student in 2011.”

Surely it would seem that in a compassionate and just society—a society whose citizens believe in equality, fairness, and the American Dream—these numbers would be an adequate motivator for reform.  But in case a commitment to the common good isn’t enough to motivate us these days, there is a new opinion piece by Noah Smith for Bloomberg View—a sort of plutocrats’ justification for public school spending, Throw More Money at Education.

Smith references a longitudinal economic paper, just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that justifies school funding by demonstrating a correlation with children’s future earnings.  The paper comes from economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Ricker Johnson and Claudia Persico. “The economists find that spending works.  Specifically, they find that a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher, and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.  These are long-term, durable results.  Conclusion: throwing money at the problem works.  Here’s the hitch: The authors find that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: ‘Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?’ After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?”

To convince such a skeptic, Smith counts the ways increasing spending might be worth the investment: “When poor Americans become better workers, it doesn’t just boost their wages.  It also boosts the profitability of the companies where they work.”  “The more industries can use U.S. workers instead of Chinese workers, the more industries will base their production in the U.S.”  “If you own a business, you might need to hire some low-income people.”

Later in his piece, Smith adds some non-business benefits to his list.  “Having more educated poor people makes for a better civil society… It might also be nice not to have to live behind the isolating walls of a gated community. One way to reduce crime, of course, is to pay for more police and increase incarceration rates.  But another way is to improve education.” “At the risk of sounding grandiose, let me go even further: Education is really the difference between a cohesive society and a collection of people who happen to live next to each other.”

Ah… we learn that Noah Smith and Jonathan Kozol really agree, but Smith imagines that Kozol’s old-fashioned approach—preaching ethical public policy—is too dated for a technocratic, efficient America.

In case you are moved by the old fashioned way of presenting the case, here is what Jonathan Kozol writes: “In paying taxes for the sustenance of public schools, we’re not just buying something for ourselves. We’re buying something for the benefit of the community in which we live, and for the state and, ultimately, for the nation. In other words… with all the serious challenges they face and all of the inequities they bear… (public schools are) instruments of an intended decency—a decency that is, admittedly, not realized now in many sectors of the public system as it stands, but one that generations of Americans have ardently believed, and most believe today, to be worth striving for.” (2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 147)

Report: State School Spending Less Than 2008; Yellen: School Spending Disparities Increase Inequality

At a Federal Reserve Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, delivered a speech on inequality in which, according to Bloomberg Business Week, she said,  “public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households,” and described inequality in public education funding as a primary factor that blocks opportunity.  Comparing the United States to other nations, she continued, “A major reason the United States is different is that we are one of the few advanced nations that funds primary and secondary public education mainly through subnational taxation.”

The Business Week reporter sought comments on Yellen’s address from school finance experts including Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, who declared that in recent years, even in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts whose formulas have historically done a pretty good job of allocating additional state assistance for poorer school districts, “There’s been a substantial decline in state aid to schools for funding equity.”

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its research on the decline in overall spending for public education since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.  The new study, Most States Still Funding Schools Less than Before the Recession, is the latest in what is becoming a discouragingly long series of reports on what CBPP describes as the propensity of more than half the states to deal with ongoing fiscal crises by reducing public school services rather than raising taxes.  Earlier reports are here, here, and here.

The new report examines state funding-per-pupil during the 2014-2015 school year, when 30 states provided less per student than prior to the 2008 recession, with 14—Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina, Utah, Maine, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina— reducing funding by more than 10 percent.  According to CBPP, while many states have in fact increased state funding for education during the past year, even with the added money, more than half have not yet reached the amount they were spending back in 2007-2008 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

States have reduced spending on K-12 public education and also reduced funding for state universities and colleges despite that “there are about 725,000 more K-12 students and 3.2 million more public college and university students than there were in 2007-2008.”  At the height of the recession, public school districts were forced to cut 330,000 teachers and other staff.  While by 2012, districts had been able to restore some of those positions, a total of 260,000 school staff positions had been lost due to budget cuts.

Spending for K-12 public education is made up, on average of 46 percent state funding and 10 percent federal funding with the rest raised through local taxation.  Despite that federal funding is only a tiny slice of the funding pie, that small piece has been reduced at the same time states have cut back.  The federal reductions have further cut programs that poor school districts count on: “For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.  These cuts include the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration and the additional cuts also resulting from the budget Control Act of 2011.”

CBPP reports that, “Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, states closed 45 percent of their budget gaps through spending cuts and only 16 percent of their budget gaps through taxes and fees (they closed the remainder of their shortfalls with federal aid, reserves, and various other measures). Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but recently some have enacted large tax cuts, further reducing state revenues.”

For a number of reasons, explains CBPP, local school districts have been unable to raise enough in local taxes to make up for reduced state funding: “Property values fell sharply after the recession hit, making it difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through the property tax…. Property values have improved since then but remain below pre-recession levels nationally.  Further, property tax revenue in most states has not yet fully captured the property value increases that have occurred. (There’s generally a significant time lag between when home prices rise and when property tax assessments register the increase.) Local school districts can pursue property tax rate increases, but those increases usually are politically difficult and sometimes legally restricted.  For all these reasons, property tax revenue growth nationwide has been modest….”

In her speech at the Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen named public spending on education as a primary “building block for expanding opportunity.”   A pattern of continued tax cutting and austerity budgeting across state governments is instead deepening inequality.

PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Schools Drags On

After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools.  The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years.  Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.

In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year….  Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years…  A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction….  Something is seriously wrong with this picture.  Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world.  But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”

The reasons are complex.  Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone.  The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.”  Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”

Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper.  His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.

Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools.  After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district.  The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia.  They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”

Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.”  Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.”   The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007.  Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.”  Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.”  Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.

Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent.  The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.  The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…”    In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis.  In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions.  The prize in return?  Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”

We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”