A recent conference on education funding put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures proved to be the unofficial kick-off weekend for the organization’s new center on school finance, designed to become an information clearinghouse on how states pay for public education. The center will track information related to funding formulas and the status of finance litigation in all 50 states and post the information on its Web site.
In addition, it will keep tabs on funding formulas tied to school construction, special education, and transportation, while conducting research projects on one or two topics a year. Lawmakers will also be able to attend meetings on education finance hosted by the center, such as the one held here Feb. 16-18.
“I think the largest gap in the education finance community is that there is no one place to go to get all the information you need,” said Stephen M. Smith, the manager of the new center, which is based at the NCSL’s headquarters in Denver. “This will allow legislators to learn what other states are doing, and hopefully, we can all learn from each other.”
Mr. Smith, who worked in the Florida legislature’s office of program policy analysis and government accountability before going to the NCSL in November, said the center also hopes to provide states with technical assistance as they work to modify funding formulas.
John H. Augenblick, a prominent consultant on school finance who is based in Denver, will work for the center part time. The center’s Web site is accessible at www.ncsl.org/program s/educ/NCEFActivities.htm.
State legislators were briefed on the status of federal spending on school construction during a session here presented by David Shreve, a committee director for federal education policy at the NCSL’s Washington office. Mr. Shreve told the lawmakers to expect Congress to take up school facilities funding again this year.
In the budget package signed into law late last year, Congress earmarked $1.2 billion for school renovations and repairs. But that doesn’t cover much of the nation’s total need for school infrastructure, which the U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated at roughly $112 billion.
The $1.2 billion—which is designed to assist districts with emergency repairs and renovations—was included in the fiscal 2001 federal budget after a proposal to subsidize roughly $25 billion in school construction bonds through tax measures failed to gain enough support.
Congressional Democrats believed that if they worked in even a minimal appropriation for school facilities, the “new Congress would follow the same model, but increase appropriations,” Mr. Shreve said.
“We’re going to try it all again in the new Congress,” he said.
Rep. John P. Hansen, a Democratic state lawmaker from Michigan, provided one perspective on the current level of federal aid for facilities. “If the money was spread evenly across the states, it’s $22 per child,” Mr. Hansen said. “You’re not going to build a building.”
Republicans in Congress, who have been wary of a big federal commitment to help pay for school construction, have argued that such spending is most appropriately a state and local responsibility.
In handing down decisions that ordered changes in the way schools are financed, courts in 14 states have invoked the concept of “adequacy,” finding that those states were not meeting their constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for all their children.
While that’s a relatively small number of states, “adequacy” is a doctrine with a future, Jacob E. Adams Jr. said in a presentation at the three-day conference.
Mr. Adams, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., noted that every state constitution calls for the provision of public schools, and that courts in just three states—Florida, Illinois, and Rhode Island—have so far rejected cases based on the principle of adequacy.
The Kentucky Supreme Court’s break- through ruling on school finance in 1989, he said, changed the terms of debate in school finance law by emphasizing adequacy over the principle that school districts should be funded equally.
But even if adequacy arguments fizzle in court, the approach is probably here to stay as the third major phase of Americans’ historic commitment to public education, Mr. Adams said. First, he said, came the building of a system of free public schools, then the opening of their doors to all, and now a movement for ensuring that children of every background learn in them.
“Adequacy gives us a new language to focus on results, a way of linking dollars to learning,” Mr. Adams argued.
State policymakers using the adequacy approach to school improvement, with or without court mandates, face a myriad of challenges, he noted, including defining an adequate education, figuring out how to pay the bill, and creating the flexibility and performance incentives that will keep efforts on track.
What’s more, state leaders must try to improve schools at a time when minority students’ achievement overall continues to lag behind that of their white peers—even as the number of minority schoolchildren rises.
Still, the Vanderbilt scholar said, policymakers have significant resources for their task, including the complementary standards-and-accountability movement, existing finance systems, and a deep well of public support for improving schools.
—Bess Keller & Jessica L. Sandham
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook