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As Protests Over School Spending Ramp Up, Report Blasts States’ Formulas

By Daarel Burnette II — February 19, 2020 3 min read
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State legislative sessions are in full swing this year and, with governors and legislators deciding what to do with budget surpluses, large coalitions of K-12 advocates have ramped up their efforts to overhaul key components of their states’ funding formulas.

Legislative fights have broken out in New Jersey and New York over districts’ spending caps, thousands of public school advocates in Florida, Indiana, and South Carolina have protested at state capitols to push through ambitious teacher pay proposals, and in Maryland on Monday, thousands rallied to completely overhaul that state’s funding formula as part of a sweeping K-12 policy initiative.

This week, the Albert Shanker Institute that advocates for the value of teacher unions, says in its latest report that most states’ school funding formulas fail to target resources at districts that need them the most. It’s the second year that the institute has released the report, which ranks states based on how much they spend as a proportion of their total economic capacity, whether that amount is enough to meet common outcome goals, as defined by the institute, and whether states target funds at the districts that need it the most.

“The idea that ‘money doesn’t matter’ in school quality is no longer defensible,’” the report said.

While experts suggest states replace their funding formulas once every decade, the average funding formula is more than 20 years old (several states’ funding formulas are more than 40 years old). This has led to an overreliance on local property taxes to pay for schools, wide disparities between wealthy and poor districts, and teacher shortages in many states.

Despite that, legislators, district superintendents, and state courts frequently disagree about what to replace funding formulas with. Wealthy districts don’t want to lose funding, legislators don’t want to increase property, sales, or income taxes, and district superintendents don’t want to lose autonomy over how they spend their money. This has effectively led to political gridlock. While Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois were successful last year in overhauling their funding formulas, aggressive efforts in Idaho, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina have struggled politically.

Bruce Baker, a researcher with the Albert Shanker Institute and one of the report’s co-authors, has been absolute in his resolve that money can increase academic outcomes and that states spend far too little on its poorest students. (He’s previously said that most states should be spending around $20,000 on poor students, $7,000 more than states currently spend on students.)

Among the institute’s latest findings, the typical state devotes about 3.5 percent of its gross state product to K-12 education. It found that in just six states spending on the highest poverty districts is adequate to achieve national average test scores, and in 28 states high-poverty districts receive less revenue than do affluent districts.

“When you look at our results, coupled with states continuing to disproportionately label their highest-poverty districts as failures, it looks strikingly like a failure by design,” Baker said in the report. “Year after year, states are not providing their districts, particularly their high-poverty districts, with the resources they need, and that’s not some accident or confluence of random events. It’s a conscious, deliberate policy choice.”

At least four Democratic presidential candidates this year have pushed to triple Title I funding for low-income students, which would fundamentally change the role that federal lawmakers have over school spending. (Candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed to quadruple Title I school spending.)

Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a law professor at the University of Virginia along with several other scholars argues in a recently released book that, considering the political gridlock in states and the existing and longstanding inequities in school spending, there should be a federal right to education. That would give the federal government legal backing to intervene when states fail to support schools.