At the beginning of this year, the National Conference of State Legislatures predicted there was a chance that more than half of states could finally overhaul the antiquated—and, advocates say, often inequitable—formulas that have been dictating their K-12 funding for years.
The political and fiscal environment was ripe: Many states were flush with cash, teachers were demanding more money for schools in general along with salary increases, and there was widespread agreement among district administrators that funding formulas were both outdated and insufficient in fairly distributing school aid.
But balancing state and local resources, deciding which districts should get what, and figuring out how to distribute money in a way that will spur academic achievement is tricky.
While there’s a strong chance that states such as Maryland and Texas are likely to see major changes to state spending patterns as a result of decisions made this legislative season, others, such as Idaho and Nevada, have had a hard time getting funding formula replacement efforts off the ground.
Virtually every legislator gets involved with school funding formula debates since they each have vocal constituents at risk of gaining or losing state aid. And anti-tax advocates, parents, and teachers—groups with get-out-the-vote prowess—are among those at the forefront. Getting hundreds of legislators on the same page with a funding formula is a political feat.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the most animated political battles this legislative season to replace, update, and legally grapple with school funding formulas. These situations remain politically fluid, and in some of these cases—and in other states— funding bills have failed even to make it out of legislative committee or withered early in the legislative session.
The prospects appeared high earlier this year for Idaho to push through a new funding formula. Its current formula is more than 25 years old. But early in the process, the effort stumbled after teacher groups, school administrators, legislators, and school funding advocacy groups couldn’t agree on teacher pay, weights for some student groups, and whether to base school funding on attendance or enrollment. Instead, lawmakers this year are expected to pass a watered-down bill that will require the state to start collecting more-accurate enrollment data. Because the state is so rural, many students take some courses online, as well as at charter schools and at traditional public schools, making money distribution especially complicated. Before the state’s legislative session ended March 28, lawmakers pledged to tackle approving a new funding formula during next year’s legislative session.
Kansas’ funding formula has been under legal scrutiny for several years, and the state’s supreme court last year demanded that the state increase the amount of money it provides to schools or risk having the entire funding formula deemed unconstitutional, forcing the state’s schools to shut down. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly April 6 signed a bill that would provide $90 million for each of the next three years to the state’s public schools. The question now is whether that amount will satisfy the state’s supreme court. Lawyers for the four school districts that sued the state in the Gannon v. Kansas funding lawsuit, have said the state will fall $270 million short of what districts need to provide an adequate education. The court will hear the latest twist in this case on May 9.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, as of now is faced with signing or vetoing a newly passed measure that would over the next two years contribute $850 million more in state revenue toward schools. It’s seen in the state as a down payment on a new funding formula being pushed by a legislature-appointed commission. The new money is to be used for increasing teacher pay, expanding prekindergarten programs, and establishing more wraparound services in high-poverty schools. All are things recommended by the commission chaired by William Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University of Maryland system. Legislators couldn’t agree on several other recommendations, including how they would be able to afford a $3.8 billion funding increase by 2030, but they have committed to attempting to replace the entire funding formula next year.
Hundreds of parents, teachers, and advocates packed a hearing in late March at the state capitol on school funding. Three bills coursing through the legislature could alter the way the state distributes its K-12 money for the first time in more than 25 years. One bill, pushed by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would provide $1.1 billion more for schools over the next seven years and give the state’s department of education more oversight of underperforming schools. Another, dubbed the Education PROMISE Act, would implement several spending provisions that a bipartisan state-appointed commission recommended last year, and add $1 billion over a yet-to-be determined number of years. And a third, much looser proposal, named “An Act Relative to Updating the Education Foundation Budget,” pledges that the state will replace its funding formula by 2024, but would commit no new state aid for schools. Several proposals were killed at the last minute during last year’s legislative session after lawmakers couldn’t agree on new spending patterns. The state’s legislative session ends May 8.
In the middle of this year’s session, a task force made up legislators, district superintendents, and school finance officers proposed what it called the “Fair School Funding Plan.” Districts had long complained that the state’s existing formula doesn’t distribute money to the districts most in need of state aid and that it unfairly punishes districts that have a significant number of students who transfer to charter schools. The proposal would, according to its architects, provide more money to districts serving more-impoverished students. But it quickly ran into trouble when lawmakers calculated that wealthier districts would stand to gain more per pupil that poorer districts. The plan would require the state to increase overall state funding for schools by 10 percent over the next two years. Legislators are still debating components of the bill. The state’s legislative session runs throughout the year.
With both the legislature and governorship now under Democratic control, lawmakers are gathering steam to replace a school funding formula that is almost 50 years old. At this point, proposals haven’t been formalized into a bill, those close to the process have told local media. The approaches being debated would not increase the amount of money the state contributes to public schools, but would change which districts get more money. Currently, every district gets the same amount of money, no matter what type of student it’s educating. Those crafting the legislation are considering giving more money to schools that teach students who require more resources to educate, such as impoverished students, English-language learners, and those with disabilities. Reports suggest the legislation will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers are barreling through the lawmaking process on House Bill 3, which would upend Texas’ decades-old “Robin Hood” funding formula, which takes money from property-rich districts and distributes it to property-poor districts. The bill would increase per-pupil spending to $6,030 from $5,140 and increase school spending by $9 billion over the next two years. The bill gained more support from districts and teachers after a provision was included to tie teacher pay and a portion of districts’ revenue to test scores. If passed, the state’s property tax would decrease and districts would rely more on sales and oil tax revenue.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as States’ Progress Uneven in K-12 Funding Battles