California Isn’t Alone. School Funding Will Be a Headache for Many States This Year.

By Daarel Burnette II — January 18, 2019 4 min read
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It looks like how and whether to spend more on K-12 schools this year will dominate this year’s legislative sessions.

Almost all 50 states’ legislatures will be in session this year and a large portion of them have budget surpluses as a result of recent federal tax cuts, buoyed property tax revenue, and for natural resource-dependent states, an uptick in oil prices.

Many of the governors elected last fall are looking to deliver on promises they made on the campaign trail to provide more funding to schools and boost teacher salaries. More than 29 states still have not restored school funding to pre-recession levels and many districts continue to make dramatic cuts because of other obligations such as pensions and health-care costs.

But expanding pre-K, boosting teacher pay, and assuring that new money is spent on the classroom is a complicated and politically arduous task. Most voters are still hostile toward new taxes, though they say they sympathize with protesting teachers, and many states are bracing for a potential recession.

Some states, such as Massachusetts and Colorado, are looking to scrap wholesale their decades-old funding formula in an effort to redistribute resources toward schools most in need. Others, such as Kansas and Washington state, are responding to court rulings to spend more on schools while others, such as Tennessee, will try to preempt the school funding lawsuits making their way through their states’ court systems.

Following is a list of states where fights over school funding will be especially politically contentious:

Arizona: After a five-day-long statewide teachers’ strike last year, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey promised to provide teachers with a 20 percent raise by 2020. This year, the state has a surplus of more than $1 billion, but Ducey said in his state-of-the-state address that the state should prepare for a recession and put the money in savings.

New Mexico: Democrats swept the statehouse during last year’s election and promised early on to replace the state’s school accountability system and boost school funding. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this week she wants to boost teacher pay by 6 percent and increase the state’s K-12 spending by more than $500 million.

Massachusetts: While celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Massachusetts Reform Act last year, many public school advocates in the state say the funding formula is now antiquated and must be replaced by one that is more responsive to the state’s contemporary needs. A recently proposed bill that would add more than $1 billion to the state’s school spending has support from several legislators and Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston.

Maryland: The state’s legislature determined late last month, weeks before this year’s session was set to begin, that the Kirwan Commission tasked with designing a new funding formula won’t be able to finish its recommendations in time for the legislature to take action next year. The announcement came just weeks after the commission led by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan released a preliminary estimate that it would take more than $4.4 billion over the next decade to provide Maryland’s increasingly diverse student body an adequate education. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has feuded with Democrats over how to spend new revenue generated from the state’s casinos.

Kansas: Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly shocked the nation when she upset Republican Kris Kobach in last year’s election by running almost exclusively on the issue of school funding. The state’s legislature has been caught up in a longstanding battle with the state’s supreme court over how much the state’s public schools are owed after Gov. Sam Brownback slashed state taxes, sending a wave of budget cuts to its schools. The state’s Republicans this year are looking to again overhaul the state’s funding formula while Gov. Kelly wants to use a large portion of a surplus to answer the court’s demand that the state spend an additional $364 million over the next four years on schools.

Idaho: Republican Gov. Brad Little recently said school funding will be a “top priority” this year. In a rare joint session, both chambers this week met for an informational session on how to overhaul their state’s funding formula. The new formula would allow money to follow the student in the mostly rural state, though the state’s department of education has said in the past that it struggles to track where students attend school.

Texas: After Texas’ supreme court said in 2016 that it’s not the court’s role to determine how the state legislature spends its money, politicians raced to replace the state’s infamous funding formula known for its “Robin Hood” effect of taking money from oil-rich districts and spending it on poor districts. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to cut taxes, while a blue ribbon committee set up to find a replacement for the state’s funding formula stopped short of placing a sticker price on how much the state should spend on schools in order to avoid future legal battles over funding. A bill proposed in the senate would provide the state’s teachers with a $5,000 raise. It would cost the state $3.7 billion over the next two years.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.