Education Opinion

Adequate Funding of Schools

By Walt Gardner — May 30, 2012 2 min read
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Despite the guarantee of what most state Constitutions define as a basic education (or words to that effect) for all students, the commitment has largely fallen by the wayside because of the protracted recession (“Albany’s Unkindest Cut of All,” The New York Times, May 25).

Yet the situation is not altogether new. Adequacy lawsuits began to make their presence felt some 25 years ago. Since 1989, states have been overruled by margins of more than 2-to-1 by their highest courts on the basis that poor students have been shortchanged. Leading the fight over the years has been The Campaign for Fiscal Equity. New York State serves as a case study. Five years ago, it committed to injecting $5.5 billion into public schools, with 72 percent of that amount earmarked for the neediest schools. But the recession resulted in cuts, which were two to three times greater per student in poor and middle-class schools than in wealthier ones.

It’s important to remember that a state court cannot directly order the state Legislature to appropriate funds. It can only determine if the Legislature has met its constitutional obligation. Because state legislators are immune from lawsuits, the most promising way to make them act is through the force of public opinion. Nevertheless, some states are looking to philanthropic groups for help. The Los Angeles Fund for Public Education, for example, is hoping to raise $200 million for schools in the city. It is following in the footprints of New York City’s Fund for Public Schools that has raised more than $300 million in ten years. As commendable as these efforts are, however, they are only a short-term fix. It’s far better policy to base funding on what it actually costs to educate each student. Keep in mind that what is adequate for a middle-class student is wholly inadequate for an English-language learner. Equal funding under these circumstances makes no sense at all.

That’s why I think weighted student formulas are a more viable approach. The key to their success is that funds must go to the school where the neediest students are enrolled - not to the district. That’s because districts are notoriously subject to pressure from competing groups, which works to the detriment of students. The larger criticism, of course, is that more funding does not guarantee better outcomes. That is correct. There is no guarantee, but there is fairness. I fail to understand how anyone who has taught in a public school can maintain otherwise.

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