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Education Opinion

Funding Schools Fairly

By Walt Gardner — January 19, 2015 3 min read
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Free or reduced-price lunches have served for years as a crude proxy for low family income in this country. Critics argue that the measure is misleading because it takes into account only cash income and omits benefits from governmental programs. Nevertheless, when the percentage of all students in public schools who qualify has increased from 38 percent in 2000 to 51 percent today, the implications for education can no longer be denied (“Percentage of Poor Students in Public Schools Rises,” The New York Times, Jan. 17).

In this regard, California can serve as a model. In January 2014, the 11-member state Board of Education unanimously passed new rules that represented the most dramatic changes in four decades in how public schools in California are funded. Under the plan, all schools are given an average base grant of $7,643 per student. An additional 20 percent is provided for each disadvantaged student, and on top of that further support is given to schools where at least 55 percent of students are low-income, learning English or in foster care.

Although the change was first proposed by Gov. Brown in 2012, the Legislature initially rejected it. However, after pressure from more than 30 civil rights and community organizations, the Legislature finally approved the plan in June 2013, and the state Board of Education passed the rules as written.

Critics have called the new simplified formula robbing Peter to pay Paul because giving more money to districts with more needy students would inevitably mean taking away funding from districts with fewer needy students. But in the final analysis, it is the fairest way of allocating funding since it is based on what students realistically need.

The major concern is that districts actually spend the weighted funds in the schools where the neediest children are enrolled. That has not always been the case in the past when districts were given too much discretion in how they spent funds.

The equity-funding issue though is not limited to California. Every state except South Carolina has an education clause in its constitution. Over the years, half the states have been embroiled in lawsuits over how much and in what manner funds are spent to comply with the commitment made to educate children.

New York State is the latest. Faced with a lawsuit by New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights that the state is still about $5.6 billion a year short of fulfilling the commitment it made in 2006 to equalize school funding, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to have painted himself into a corner (“The Central Crisis in New York Education,” The New York Times, Jan. 4).

The problem is that there are no universally accepted definitions of equity and adequacy in school funding. As a result what is adequate in one district may be inadequate in an adjoining district. That’s why looking at school funding in isolation is always misleading.

Courts have generally been receptive to weighted student-funding suits, rejecting claims by states that they don’t have the money or that money doesn’t matter. But even when plaintiffs win, their victories don’t automatically lead to a substantial increase in funding.

That’s because state legislatures have argued that it is their job, rather than the job of the courts, to determine how to spend state funds. For example, when Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature made draconian cuts in school spending, a lawsuit made its way to the state’s highest court. In March 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court declined to order lawmakers to increase statewide spending by a stipulated amount, thus avoiding a constitutional showdown.

With the percentage of low-income students in public schools at an all-time high, allocating money based on their needs is imperative. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it would also serve as a defense against lawsuits that children in some schools have been deprived of their right to a sound, basic education (“Justice wanted for public school students in New York,” New York Daily News, Jan. 14).

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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