Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.), but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.
The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory. How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.
The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.
The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.
In 2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students. Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.
Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery. I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)
How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)
In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 34)
Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’ Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights. But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)
Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers. Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.
Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted. In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)
Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade. Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues… The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)
The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children. He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.
Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative. His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.
Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.