Ford Phases Out School-Finance-Reform Grants

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The Ford Foundation, whose $30-million investment was the driving force behind most of the school-finance reforms of the 1970's, is easing out of the field.

The foundation's finance-reform project began in 1969 with the premise that students in poor school systems, because of schools' reliance on local property taxes, were denied equal educational opportunities. The foundation, backing lawsuits and research leading to voluntary changes in legislation, has sought to force states to narrow the spending gap between rich and poor districts.

For this fiscal year, the foundation's contribution to research and litigation will dwindle to less than $1 million, with much of that going to complete projects already under way. After those grants run out, the foundation will have no formal program in school finance.

"A little more than a year ago we determined that what we wanted to do had been accomplished," said Edward J. Meade, Jr., who took over as program officer last spring.

The Ford-sponsored network of scholars, lawyers, and state politicians has influenced changes in the school-finance methods of some 30 states, affecting more than two-thirds of American public-school students.

For example, a 1976 handbook on finance reform, prepared for the National Conference of State Legislators with grants from Ford and the National Institute of Education, became the basis of new finance formulas in several states. Grants to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law have paid for technical or trial assistance in 31 lawsuits.

The reformers' most recent victory was in Maryland, where the state Supreme Court overturned the school-finance law and ordered the state to develop a more equitable distribution; decisions are expected soon in Georgia and West Virginia, and several other cases are pending.

Such new laws rarely have eliminated the disparities between property-poor and wealthier school districts, but typically, the spending gaps have been greatly reduced.

"The states are the story," said James Kelly, who was the program officer in charge of Ford's school-finance project for 10 years before leaving the foundation last spring. "There was an extraordinary commitment of state resources to education. The bottom line is that [public-school] enrollment went down 7 percent in the 1970's, and expenditures went up 23 percent in real terms."

Finance 'Network' Will Survive

Mr. Kelly refers to the project as a "network," rather than as a movement. Economists, political scientists, and public-administration students have received their schooling with Ford grants; many now hold positions on state legislative staffs and in citizens' education organizations, where they are in a position to influence policy.

"The legacy of 10 years or more of [the Ford Foundation's] involvement in this field has been to deliberately create a cadre of specialists and activists," said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University and president of the California Board of Education. "Ford set out not only to create short-term victories, but to develop people interested in school finance. There's a whole set of younger people ready to carry on."

That network will be kept together by the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., which received one of the last Ford school-finance grants to establish a clearinghouse for scholarship and consulting on finance reform.

Many activists in the field fear the movement will lose its momentum without foundation support, particularly for litigation.

"To do this sort of thing, you're talking about $100,000 to $300,000 a year," said John McDermott, a California attorney who is to take that state's famous school-finance case, Serrano v. Priest, back to court next spring to contest the distribution of state funds after Proposition 13. "No other private funding sources would provide that kind of money."

"With Ford getting out," he added, "it means that a point of view that used to be represented quite successfully won't be represented anymore."

There are signs, however, that the movement has taken on a life of its own, as Mr. Kelly hoped it would. Reform groups are looking for other ways to pay for the expensive class-action suits.

In the Maryland case, for example, the city of Baltimore helped to pay expenses because officials expected city schools to benefit from a victory. And in New Hampshire, citizens' groups are attempting to raise money for a suit through private donations.

"It's surprising how the finance reform movement continues to hang on," said Stanford's Mr. Kirst. "I predicted a few years ago that it would die down, but it hasn't.

"Everything is moving to the state level anyway, because of the changes at the federal level and the decreased reliance on local property taxes, so that will have some effect," Mr. Kirst said.

Noting that greater state contributions typically lead to a more equitable situation, he added: "State school-finance reform will come about concomitantly with the greater assumption of state financing in general--simply because the legislature is not likely to fund, say, the Beverly Hills schools at the same level they've been funded locally."

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 4

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