When it comes to student learning, money matters, a growing amount of research shows. But what matters even more, those same experts say, is how that money is spent—and the vast majority of K-12 dollars today are spent in very outdated, inefficient ways.
This has frustrated teachers, district officials, and state politicians who in many states have called for complete overhaul of their states’ spending methods. But replacing a state’s funding formula is both complicated and politically contentious, and past efforts, for a variety of reasons, have fallen flat in many states.
This year is different, or so advocates hope. It’s an off-election year, some states, including Kansas, Wisconsin and Idaho, have huge surpluses, and teachers across the nation are demanding state politicians provide higher pay and more school resources. That makes for the right political climate to push through a funding formula, school finance experts say.
So what could be some of the hot spots this year as legislatures and governors get down to the business of how to best allocate billions of dollars in K-12 funding? Here are a few states to watch:
• Idaho: Earlier this month, legislators from both chambers convened at the state capitol in Boise to hear a two-hour presentation from the state’s top legislators that detailed a new school funding formula. The proposed funding formula would replace a formula created more than 20 years ago and instead distribute money to districts based on how many students are enrolled in their schools. Many students in the mostly rural state today attend a charter school, a local community college or are home-schooled, something that the existing funding formula doesn’t account for. The new formula, being championed by newly elected Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, is already getting pushback from some districts that stand to lose millions of dollars under the plan.
• Kansas: For years, Kansas has been mired in a legal battle over the logistics of its funding formula. The state’s supreme court has repeatedly said the state has failed to provide an adequate amount of money for its schools and distributes that money to districts in an inequitable way. The legislature’s attempt last year to provide its schools with $548 million more over the next five years was still not enough, the supreme court said. The justices gave the state another year to come up with more money or face sanctions. The most-recent estimate is that the state needs to provide $360 million over the next four years. Newly elected Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, wants to provide $90 million more next year to schools, but plans to refinance the state’s pension system in order to do so, a strategy her opponents say is built on a “house of cards.” The state’s legislature is expected to draw up an entirely new funding formula to replace the existing one, which legislators say will save the state money and cut taxes for residents. At issue is what to do with $900 million surplus found in the state’s budget.
• Maryland: Maryland actually has one of the nation’s newest funding formulas and features many of the things advocates in other states want to replicate. Established in 2002, the formula provides more money to schools that serve at-risk students, such as those with special needs and poor students. But a task force led by former University of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan has said that the way the state funds its schools still leaves certain student groups with fewer resources than other students. Among the findings, for example, is that the more black students attending a school, the less funding the school can expect to receive. While the legislature tried to delay for another year the commission’s final report, Kirwan, in a bluntly-worded presentation to the legislature last week, said the state needs to provide more than $3.8 billion to its schools over the next decade in order to provide its students with an adequate education. “This is a really critical moment for our state,” Kirwan said. “We can continue making incremental changes on, quite frankly, our mediocre status or we can be bold and change the future of our children and our state.” The NAACP and ACLU followed that presentation with a strongly-worded letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, urging the state to adopt the commission’s recommendations. The two organizations successfully sued the state in 2000 over the way it funds its schools.
• Massachusetts: Massachusetts has gotten lots of praise for its efforts a quarter century ago to upend the way it distributes K-12 funds and holds schools accountable. It’s the reason why, many policy makers and researchers say, the state consistently lands at the top of national academic rankings, including Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts. But within Massachusetts, frustration has built in recent years over that very funding formula, which many educators say leaves schools serving its most at-risk populations without the necessary resources to provide an adequate education. A 2015 study showed that the state is underfunding the state’s public schools by $1 billion. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has proposed a new formula that would provide an additional $1.1 billion to schools over the next five years. It has backing this year from Boston’s mayor, the state’s teachers union, and several other school advocates.
• New Mexico: Last year, a New Mexico district judge ruled that the state doesn’t provide enough money to its schools to provide an adequate education for low-income children, English-language learners, Native American students, and students with disabilities. The state has until April 15, a month after the state’s legislative session ends, to prove to District Judge Sarah Singleton that it has made improvements to its system. She did not specify how much the state needs to provide schools. Recently elected Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this month she wants to overhaul the funding formula, including boosting teacher pay by 6 percent and increasing the state’s K-12 spending by more than $500 million.
• Nevada: School finance experts recommend state funding formulas to be replaced once every decade, even though most states’ funding formulas are more than 20 years old. Nevada’s funding formula was established in 1967 and is, arguably, one of the nation’s oldest. The state evenly divies up money between its 11 counties. But that money is too little, and fails to account for the different needs of student groups such as students with special needs and English-language learners, advocates say. “The funding formula is equitable because everyone is actually equally poor,” Michelle Alejandra Booth, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Educate Nevada Now said in an interview with Education Week. A new funding formula is being pushed by recently elected Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, that would result in, among other things, a 3 percent raise for the state’s K-12 teachers, and more money for supplies, higher education, new buildings, scholarships, and increased school safety. But the proposal is already getting pushback from the rural districts that would stand to lose money. “It’s not beneficial to Elko at this point from the numbers they have given us,” Elko County Superintendent Todd Pehrson told the Elko Daily Free Press last week. “However, there are a million uncertainties out there.”
• Texas: The state has long been known for the way it takes money from its oil-rich school districts and gives it to its resource-poor districts, what’s commonly referred to as the “Robin Hood” effect. The Texas supreme court ruled in 2016 that, while the state doesn’t provide enough money for its schools to provide an adequate education, it isn’t the court’s place to tell the legislature how to spend its money. Last week, the state’s House of Representatives released a plan to scrap the Robin Hood system and replace it with one that would be heavily reliant on state funds instead of local funds. It would ultimately provide schools with $9 billion more over the next two years. The proposal would also result in decreased property taxes for many of the state’s citizens, something the state’s Republican Party has promised to do for several years. The state Senate is expected to release a plan of its own in the coming weeks. A committee tasked with coming up with a new funding formula declined late last year to provide a price tag for a new funding formula in order to avoid a legal battle with the courts.
• Wisconsin: Newly elected Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won partly based on a new funding formula he floated on the campaign trail that would pump more than $1.4 billion into schools over the next two years. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature has promised to propose a separate school spending plan of its own. But Evers recently got a political boost after a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel came out with recommendations that effectively said Evers is right: the state’s schools are severely underfunded. Among its recommendations is that the state provide signficantly more money schools to serve students with special needs, English-language learners, and low-income students. The state has a $588 million surplus, but its residents have been historically hostile toward taxes.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.