Staking a Claim

By William Montague — October 14, 1987 7 min read

Alta, Utah--Even as school-funding issues are becoming increasingly technical and complex, politicians--and politics--are playing a larger and more aggressive role in the highly sensitive job of allocating state tax dollars for education.

This seeming paradox was a topic of considerable discussion among the 30 or so legislative fiscal analysts who gathered at this mountain resort late last month for an intensive two-day seminar on school-finance policy.

Faced with a baffling array of complicat6ed decisions--the average state may have six or seven different aid formulas, each based on dozens of variable factors--state legislators are expanding their staffs, developing their own information sources, and staking out a more active part in formulating policy and putting it into practice.

To an increasing degree, seminar participants said, legislative leaders are unwilling to defer to the forces--powerful governors, influential lobbyists, and massive state education agencies--that have traditionally dominated the policymaking arena.

And in an era of tight budgets and taxpayer resentment, these experts noted, political leaders are growing louder in their demands for more accountability and better results for the money they spend--a trend reinforced by the educational excellence movement.

The reasons for this evolution in the balance of power are both institutional and political, according to John Augenblick, a noted school-finance consultant who addressed the conference. As legislatures have become more professional in recent years, he said, they have become more capable of asserting their control over the power of the purse.

And politically, he added, nearly every state senator or representative has become keenly aware that even a minor change in a school-funding formula can have a dramatic impact on his or her home district.

“They know that school finance is the most highly political aspect of a state’s operations,” Mr. Augenblick told seminar participants. “Enormous political pressures can be brought to bear whenever anyone talks about reform. It can be a terrible experience.”

Core Concerns

Such pressures can often dominate a state’s education policy, Mr. Augenblick and other experts noted. While many reform theorists now downplay the relationship between funding and school quality, financial issues remain the core concern of most legislatures, Mr. Augenblick said.

“It’s not the only game in town, as it may have been in the 1970’s,’' he said, “but it’s still crucial.”

A state’s finance system, he explained, can provide a powerful set of incentives for local districts to enact desired reforms.

It also provides the basic framework for debating nearly every policy issue that comes before a legislature.

To cope with these complex issues, seminar participants said, legislative leaders have come to4rely heavily on their personal and committee staff members. A growing number of legislatures have established centralized fiscal offices to provide nonpartisan research and advice.

The importance of such specialists was reflected in the seminar itself, which was sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The annual event is specifically designed to give staff members a chance to compare notes and identify current trends.

“Too often state policymakers are operating in a vacuum,” said John Myers, ncsl’s director of education programs and a former Kansas state representative.

“Staff people need to know what’s going on in other states, what’s working and what’s not working.”

Such information, participants noted, has become even more vital in the wake of the last two decades’ desegregation and equalization reforms, many of which were forced on unwilling politicians by the courts.

“The legislatures have learned that once the courts [intervene in education disputes], it can be a long time before they get out,” said Kent McQuire, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

Before such incursions happen, he said, political leaders need to “grab the bull by the horns and try to solve problems themselves.”

An Imperfect World

But in the imperfect world of partisan politics, crafting workable solutions requires legislators and their staff members to strike a delicate balance between reform objectives and practical realities, Mr. Augenblick said.

He cited the example of Vermont, where a recent effort to equalize school aid succeeded only after a bargain was struck with lawmakers from Burlington, which has the state’s wealthiest and most urban school district.

“In a situation like that, you can talk all you want about equity and theoretical goals, but in the end you are going to deal with [powerful] delegations. And that means making deals,” Mr. Augenblick said.

Participants from several states reported similar political maneuvers as their legislatures grapple with difficult funding questions. For example:

Suburban districts in Indiana are already lobbying to recoup some of the financial losses they suffered this year in that state’s sweeping reform bill, according to Teresa Bailey, a budget analyst with the state’s Legislative Services Agency.

In Minnesota, Republicans repealed the state’s controversial “recapture” system after they took control of the House of Representatives in 1984, noted William Marx, a House fiscal expert. The law tended to redistribute property-tax revenues from suburban Republican strongholds to poorer, more marginal districts. The Democrats, having recently regained control of the lower house, are considering whether to reinstate the provision.

In one New England state where finance changes are under consideration, a staff analyst said, the chairman of the Senate education committee, who represents a wealthy suburban district, is keeping a weather eye on his constituency.

“He has said he is willing to look at reforms, but it’s clear to everyone that he is not going to come out the loser in all this,” she said.

Home-District Worries

Ironically, the development of more modern information systems has tended to reinforce the home-district worries of legislators, a trend that Mr. Augenblick dubbed “printout-itis.”

Using sophisticated computer applications, legislative analysts can now keep close track of exactly how much money any given district stands to win or lose from a proposed reform, and how those changes will affect various programs or student populations within a district.

According to a New Jersey analyst, staff researchers in that state’s legislature even prepare printouts that compare changes in state funding levels with the results of district tax-levy elections. This, he said, allows House and Senate members to judge how voters will respond to the need to raise more revenue locally.

“You are going to find a lot of people who only look at ... how much money their district is going to get,” said Mr. Augenblick. “Once that tendency gets started in a legislature, it can be almost incurable.”

As a result, he said, legislators may adopt a policy of first determining what the best result is for their district, and then developing an argument that seeks to justify that result on the grounds of equity or efficiency.

Such strategies have their counterparts at the local level, according to one legislative analyst.

Taxpayers from wealthy districts in his state, he said, often cite the gap between what they pay out in taxes and what they get back from the state in aid.

Such “pseudo-fairness” arguments, this analyst said, have proven highly persuasive with some legislators.

“To a certain extent that is just the way the world works,” commented Mr. Augenblick. “But we would hope to see a more informed debate on these issues.”

And to a large extent, he said, the public has seen a more enlightened approach. Despite the limitations of electoral politics, he argued, the nation’s legislatures have compiled a generally good record of responding to demands for meaningful reform.

In some cases, he said, canny legislative leaders have short-circuited regional interests by putting major reforms to a statewide vote of the people, as Wyoming did in 1983 when it successfully revamped its funding system.

But more frequently, he said, change is made possible by a small group of committed legislators who are willing to put a state’s general welfare above the immediate demands of their own districts.

“There are statesmen who will do that,” said Mr. Augenblick. “Their districts may lose from [the reforms], but they have the capacity to take a longer view of the world. Combine that with expert knowledge, and you have a very potent force.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1987 edition of Education Week as Staking a Claim