School Spending is Broken. So Why Is it So Hard to Replace Funding Formulas?

By Daarel Burnette II — December 20, 2018 4 min read
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The way states distribute billions of dollars in school aid is counterproductive, outdated, and inefficient, according to a growing number of politicians, school finance experts, practitioners, and advocates. Almost every state now has been sued over the constitutionality of its school spending mechanisms.

And yet, even in economic good times when states’ coffers are newly flush with cash, and at a time when there’s one-party control in most states and teachers are threatening statewide strikes over stagnant pay, states are still dragging their feet on overhauling their K-12 funding formulas.

An abnormally large portion of the nation’s legislatures in the last two years, including those in Colorado, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin, have tasked blue ribbon panels with determining a new sticker price for best educating their students along with figuring out how to divvy that money up between schools.

While many governors and lawmakers have promised to tackle school funding in the 2019 legislative sessions that start next month, the prospects are already starting to unravel.

Without the courts pressuring states to fork more money over to schools like in Kansas and Washington, governors and legislatures, it turns out, don’t have the political capital or revenue to do it on their own. Politicians and district superintendents are at odds over which districts will get more or less money and whether or not politicians will have to raise taxes.

For example, Maryland’s legislative leaders said Wednesday that the state commission tasked with designing a new funding formula won’t be able to finish 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 in order to provide Maryland’s increasingly diverse student body an adequate education. Among the commission’s findings: the fewer white students at a school, the less money it has to spend.

In Texas, a statewide panel said on Wednesday that the legislature should pump plenty more money into Texas public schools and prescribed exactly how to boost teacher pay and student performance but, after much political squabbling, the panel wouldn’t cite a specific figure. The state’s supreme court two years ago said while the state’s funding mechanism was broken and led to uneven and discriminatory practices, it wasn’t the court’s responsibility to tell the legislature how to spend its money.

On Wednesday, Scott Brister, the chairman of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, said if the commission gives a dollar figure to carry out its recommendations, it could open up the state to lawsuits if lawmakers fail to find the money.

“I am willing to say we will have to add new money to do these things,” Brister said, according to local media. “What I’m not willing to say is ... every dime would have to come from new money. Why would you want to do that? That’s just going to create pushback.

Idaho’s legislature realized last week that in order to replace its funding formula, it would need to better track attendance in its schools. As it stands now, the state education department is incapable of figuring out if students are enrolled part time or full time at schools throughout the state, a crucial detail to figuring out how much money the state’s growing number of online, charter, and alternative high schools should receive. That state’s funding formula is more than 28 years old.

Battles have broken out in other states, too, including in Massachusetts, Louisiana, and New York, where governors have called for major investments in states’ K-12 systems while legislatures have pushed back.

Several Republicans in Kansas’ legislature switched parties last week in preparation for a partisan school spending battle between Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly and the state’s Republican-dominated and historically anti-tax legislature. The state’s supreme court has estimated that the state needs to annually invest more than $150 million more into its schools as part of a long-running lawsuit.

Wisconsin’s Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who was recently stripped of some powers by the Republican-dominated legislature, was told this week by the state’s Senate leader that the legislature will craft its own budget. Evers campaigned on the promise that he will replace the state’s outdated funding formula and provide more than $1 billion more for the state’s financially distressed K-12 system.

Oklahoma’s legislature has a $600 million surplus this year after oil prices increased. But the legislature wants to put that money into savings rather than spend it on the state’s school districts, several of which hold classes just four days a week to save money. The teachers earlier this year held a nine-day strike earlier this year over low pay; then more than 40 of them ran for office, though only a handful were victorious.

And teachers in Virginia and South Carolina have already threatened walkouts next year if the states don’t increase their pay.

Whether or not states increase their state spending or come up with completely new funding formulas, school funding is bound to dominate many budget debates in the coming months.

Experts suggest states replace funding formulas every 10 years. The average state funding formula is 20 years old. A recent review of research shows that, at the end of the day, money does matter when it comes to improving education outcomes.

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