Which States Could Soon Make Significant Changes to Their K-12 Funding Formulas?

By Daarel Burnette II — February 10, 2017 5 min read
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There are lots of governors touting education funding increases this year. And there are lots of public school officials complaining about cuts. Because education funding takes up so much of states’ budgets, the debate over how much schools get tends to dominate legislative sessions.

But there are some states this year that are in deep debates on how to reform their education formulas, which could dictate how millions of dollars are distributed to school districts for years to come.

So which states this year are looking to make fundamental changes to their funding formula? I reached out to Michael Griffith, the Education Commission of States’ funding formula guru to see where the most movement is happening. Here’s a rundown of a few states he and other school finance hawks are watching closely.

(For a great explainer on school funding formulas, click here. And last year, I wrote a story about the evolving role courts have over school funding formulas.)

  • Delaware: Delaware has one of the nation’s oldest and—and, by many measures, most complicated—funding formulas. Instead of distributing its money per pupil, it distributes the money per teacher. Similarly, the funding formula is one of the few that does not provide more money to schools for educating impoverished students and students with disabilities. The state also is one of a few that hasn’t been sued over school funding so any changes in the near future would have to be done through the legislative process. This year, the legislature is considering whether to provide districts with more funding to districts that serve students with disabilities kindergarten through 3rd grade. But the state is facing a large deficit, and many worry that the bill won’t pass.
  • Kansas: The decades-long legal fight over Kansas’ funding formula reached a crescendo last year when the state’s supreme court threatened to shut down the public schools unless the legislature more equitably distributed its state aid. The legislature conceded, but the adequacy portion of the longstanding lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, has yet to be decided. That judgement will determine whether the state contributes enough to its public school system and could come down any day. Meanwhile, legislators are considering several proposals over how to replace the state’s block grant program, which expires this year. The state has struggled with severe budget shortfalls after Republican Gov. Sam Brownback slashed away at state income taxes in 2012 and 2013.
  • Illinois: Illinois for the last two years has dealt with a budget impasse that’s left its higher education system and some civic services without state aid. Bruce Rauner, its Republican governor, and the state’s Democratically-controlled legislature are at a crossroads over how to distribute the state’s shrinking pot of money. A bipartisan task force last week issued several recommendations on ways to overhaul the state’s formula. Republicans want to lower taxes. Democrats want to raise taxes. And advocates in Chicago’s suburbs, downstate Illinois and Chicago are all fighting each other for a bigger part of the funding pie. My colleagues Denisa and Stephen wrote a great in-depth story on Chicago’s financial struggles, which drives the state’s funding formula.
  • Mississippi: Mississippi’s legislature commissioned a study on redesigning its funding formula last year. The state has one of the lowest per-pupil spending levels in the country, and superintendents for years have complained that funding has a direct correlation to student outcomes. The commissioned study, conducted by EdBuild, proposes, among other things, to increase funding for school districts with a disproportionate number of impoverished students and decrease funding for wealthy suburban districts. Lawmakers are at odds over what the local share should be, what the state share should be and what the state can afford.
  • New Jersey: Last year, embattled Republican Gov. Chris Christie proposed to blow up the state’s funding formula by more equally distributing state aid between the state’s wealthy, rural and urban school districts. His proposal would have left urban school districts losing a large share of education aid and suburban districts to almost double the amount of state aid it gets. But New Jersey’s Supreme Court rejected last week a motion to do as much. That’ll make any dramatic changes this year difficult for the governor.
  • Washington: Similar to their counterparts in Kansas, Washington’s legislators have to come up with an answer this year to a long-standing court ruling to increase the amount of state aid placed into its funding formula. For years, the state’s GOP has pushed back against raising taxes after the state’s supreme court in the 2012 McCleary v. State of Washington decision, ruled that the state should pick up a greater share of education costs. Since that ruling, the state has increased its education funding by $2 billion, but has yet to address the most expensive part of the ruling, which is to increase the state’s teacher pay. Some officials in the state estimate the teacher pay portion would cost $2.75 billion over the next three years. In the meantime, the court is fining the legislature $100,000 for every day the legislature is in session and doesn’t come up with a new funding formula. That amounts to about $36.5 million per session. The court set a deadline of September 2018.
  • Wyoming: Wyoming’s budget crisis due to the fall in coal and oil prices is so severe that the state’s legislators late last year told its school officials that it would have to consider rewriting its funding formula. Budget officials predict the school system could lose $400 million annually in the coming years. Legislators late last year met with district officials across the mostly rural state for several weeks to come up with ways to rewrite the funding formula so that cuts would not disproportionately effect some districts. The Senate this week proposed a bill that would gradually cut school funding by 5 percent by 2020. But a long-standing court ruling requires that education remain the state’s top spending priority. The Senate has proposed legislation to block the court from dictating school finance.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.