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Should Congress Compel States to Make More-Equitable Budget Cuts?

By Daarel Burnette II — July 15, 2020 3 min read
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A group of civil rights leaders is urging Congress to condition new K-12 pandemic relief aid on state legislatures cutting most drastically from their wealthier school districts’ budgets first, rather than impose flat funding cuts they say have a disproportionate impact on the nation’s most-impoverished school districts.

“While looming state and local budget cuts are inevitable, policymakers at all levels have significant control over how and where those cuts are made,” wrote Emma Vadehra, the executive director of Next100, a progressive think tank, and Ary Amerikaner, the vice president of EdTrust, an advocacy group that pushes for more greater accountability and more equitable K-12 spending. “Congress, in particular, is well positioned to ensure that high-poverty schools and districts don’t again bear the brunt of belt-tightening.”

The coronavirus pandemic has caused state revenue to crater, and school districts now are bracing for an estimated $200 billion budget deficit over the next two years, according to many fiscal analysts. Congress is bracing for a debate over whether and how much additional emergency funding to provide states and districts to cope with the pandemic.

Under most states’ school funding formulas, districts serving the highest number of poor students are the most reliant on aid from the state. Wealthier districts are more reliant on property tax revenue, a much more stable source of revenue (see how reliant your school district is on state aid here).

During the last recession, states made flat cuts to their K-12 aid, which ultimately tripled the funding disparity between wealthier and poorer districts, according to a study conducted by David Knight, a school finance professor at the University of Washington.

Vadehra and Amerikaner are urging Congress not to make the same mistake. They want any new pandemic-relief aid to require states receiving the money to cut from their wealthiest districts first, ban teacher layoffs within impoverished districts, and require district administrators to cut most drastically from their wealthiest schools.

“Not all cuts are created equal,” Amerikaner said in an interview. “States shouldn’t make cuts that disproportionately fall on the backs of students with the greatest needs.”

Former Secretary of Education John King who currently serves as president and CEO of EdTrust endorsed the maintenance of equity plan in a letter sent to congressional leaders.

According to an analysis EdTrust has conducted, Amerikaner estimates that a maintenance of effort clause could spare heavily impoverished districts from collectively having to cut more than $5 billion out of their budgets.

“That could buy a Chromebook for every student,” Amerikaner said. “It could save hundreds of thousands of teacher jobs across the country.”

State lawmakers have urged Congress to not place any strings on extra federal revenue they receive and have previously protested a maintenance of effort clause that would prevent them from making any cuts to K-12 spending. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos waived the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act’s maintenance of effort clause.

New Mexico, Ohio, and Utah have all attempted in recent months to cut first from their wealthiest districts. Such moves are politically difficult to get the general public behind and can be mathematically complicated.

Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio and a former legislator who has studied Ohio’s funding formula, said while so-called progressive funding cuts are admirable, poor districts still have a difficult time recovering from any sort of budget cuts.

According to his analysis of Ohio’s most recent budget cuts, poor districts have to come up with almost 25 percent more local funding than the wealthier districts. And they have to come up with that money by asking taxpayers who barely make half as much money.

“What this demonstrably proves is that there simply isn’t enough money in wealthy districts to offset the disproportionate pain felt by our state’s poorer communities when cuts come,” Dyer wrote.