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Funding for Public Education: It’s Worse Than I Thought

November 12, 2016

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have written countless posts on the underfunding of public education and the funding inequities that result. Today’s NYTimes editorial, “Schoolchildren Left Behind” describes the dismal state of funding— and it’s worse than I imagined.

In 23 states, so-called formula funding — the main type of state aid for kindergarten through 12th grade — is still lower this school year than in 2008, adjusted for inflation and growth in the number of students.

The chronic shortfalls often reflect deliberate policy choices, not economic pressures. For example, in seven of the 23 states — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — legislators have cut income taxes in recent years by tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, money that could have been used to strengthen schools.

And these policy choices are made knowing that it won’t be the affluent districts that suffer: it will be those in economically disadvantaged districts. In every state in the union property taxes provide a lion’s share of the revenue for schools. If state governments and the federal government choose to short change the school funding formula the affluent communities can raise local taxes and their voters will be insulated from the impact of the cuts…. and their children will be unaffected. Meanwhile, children in economically struggling communities suffer.

Inadequate school spending over prolonged periods will leave many students behind, especially low-income children. In a recent groundbreaking study of 15,000 children, poor children were much more likely to graduate from 12th grade if they were in schools that received a financial increase of 10 percent per student from the beginning of their education until the end of high school. As adults, they had higher earnings than others who had grown up in low-income families.

Another recent study analyzed math and reading tests taken over five years in 11,000 school districts. It found that average academic performance levels in the richest and poorest school districts were more than four grade levels apart.

When state governments ignore the needs of schoolchildren, Washington can and should step in to counter the harm. From Day 1, the Trump administration will have a chance to build on the work of Congress and the Obama administration on the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. The law, which revised the Bush-era No Child Left Behind effort, gives states considerable flexibility in how they spend federal money granted under the act. It is the duty of the executive branch to ensure, through regulation and supervision, that the states use that money to provide equal opportunity for poor and low-income children. In the longer term, firm presidential leadership will be needed to reverse Congress’s penchant for cutting Title 1, the major source of federal money for schools.

Based on the election results on Tuesday, the federal government is not going to help. Based on everything I’ve read and heard, Candidate Trump had no intention to increase funding for “government schools” favoring instead tax cuts and trickle down, seeking an environment where public schools compete in a marketplace with deregulated for profit schools for ever diminishing tax dollars, and no effort whatsoever to allocate funds in a fashion that provide funding equity. And, as noted from the outset in this blog, the federal government is not interested in retaining the longstanding  Title One allocation principle of supplementing and not supplanting state and local funds.

And, as the Times notes, it doesn’t look like there is grassroots support for increasing funds for public education. Only five states— Arizona, California, Maine, Oklahoma and Oregon— had ballot initiatives to increase state funding. The initiatives passed in Maine and California— but California’s funding formula is among those that had already increased modestly over the past eight years.

As the lead sentence of the editorial indicates, “Politicians and voters often say they want better schools, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to pay for them”… and as the last paragraph notes, it is the children who will ultimately pay the price: “Children who entered first grade in 2008, during the Great Recession, will graduate from high school in 2020. For many of them, these next few years are their last chance to get a good education.” 

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