With the 2020 legislative sessions looming, states are again moving to tackle fundamental problems in the ways they distribute money for school districts, an issue that has long posed political hurdles.
Already, Massachusetts has ushered through a new funding formula that alters how much money schools serving high-need students will receive and the powers of the state to dictate how district administrators spend their money. Maryland and Ohio have legislation in the works that, if passed, would make historic changes to their K-12 spending formulas.
Funding formulas intersect with matters of race, demographics, and taxes touching virtually every legislator in a state capital.
And the aging of states’ funding formulas, which, on average are 20 years old, continues to irk district administrators who must cope with changes in costs driven by special education and other high-needs student populations, health care and pensions, and increasing demands to improve academic outcomes.
The political landscape this upcoming legislative season won’t be any easier despite a surging economy, state flexibility from federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and single-party control in many states.
On the one hand, there’s been a surge in activism from teachers and parents in recent years over state’s school spending amounts. But voters are still hostile toward any attempts to increase taxes, and many well-funded and politically powerful districts are worried that changes in how funding is allocated may cost them money.
In addition, politicians in an election year are often reluctant to stir the political waters. Despite all that, some states are expected to take the plunge.
Ohio, which spends more than $10 billion a year on its K-12 system, is one of the few states still heavily reliant on local revenue to fund its schools. Over time, disparities between wealthier and poorer school districts have widened, and the state’s academic outcomes have stagnated.
“The current system is so complicated that few people fully understand it,” Michael Hanlon, the superintendent of 2,800-student Chardon public school district told the local press. “And it has created such severe and inexplicable anomalies.”
A 1997 state supreme court case ruled the state’s funding distribution methods unconstitutional, and many fiscal experts in the state say Ohio still has not met the court’s mandate to fund the schools in a “thorough and efficient” manner.
Legislators preparing for the 2020 session are being asked to consider a bill authored by legislators Bob Cupp, a Republican, and John Patterson, a Democrat, that would add more than $2 billion in new money from the state and recalculate how much money school districts can raise from the tax base. It would also provide more money to districts serving students with extra needs.
An issue likely to emerge is how much money wealthier districts would lose under the formula. An effort to pass a similar bill last year failed after legislators learned that that many academically and financially struggling districts would lose even more money under the formula.
Cupp and Patterson said last month that if the bill doesn’t pass through the legislature this year, they’re willing to take it to the voters in the form of a ballot question.
Maryland has one of the newest funding formulas in the nation, passed in 2002, but already a growing number of lawmakers and practitioners say it’s time to overhaul it. They cite the state’s lagging academic outcomes, the growth in English-language learners, low-income students, and students with special needs, and funding disparities between wealthier and poorer districts.
A commission made up of politicians, advocates, district administrators, and teachers and led by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the former commissioner of the University of Maryland system, approved last month a comprehensive proposal that would add more than $4 billion a year in funding to the state’s school system by 2030 by raising local and statewide tax rates. The state spends around $7 billion annually on its school system.
The legislature is expected to debate and vote on the commission’s recommendations during next year’s legislative session. Some parent groups have threatened a lawsuit if the legislature doesn’t soon act.
Among other outcomes from the funding formula overhaul, the commission proposes to extend the state’s pre-K offerings to 3-year-olds, hire more school counselors and health professionals, substantially increase teacher pay, and add more career-prep programs for high school students.
But opposition has come from wealthier corners of the state—both Democratic and Republican—from those arguing increased taxes would drive businesses and residents to surrounding states with lower tax rates.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has spent some of his Super PAC money to oppose the bill, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. He has claimed that the bill is “well-meaning,” but “half-baked” and “too expensive.”
“Local leaders agree with me—they will not support the billions in crippling state and local tax increases that would be required,” Hogan said in a statement after the commission’s vote.
A “Kirwan-lite” bill, which provided a down payment, but not the full cost, of the commission’s recommendations, was passed last year.
Supporters of the proposal, including Strong Schools Maryland, a lobbying group, the state’s teachers’ union, and the ACLU have pushed for the overhaul of the funding formula and have staged rallies and sit-ins at the statehouse to push their cause.
“It is surprising and disappointing that Gov. Hogan attacked the work of his commission whose sole purpose is to create the blueprint for how to make Maryland public schools the best in the world,” Joe Francaviglia, the executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, said in a statement. “This is about the future of our state; we do not have time for political games.”
Massachusetts became the latest state to take an overhaul over the finish line when Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, last month signed the Student Opportunity Act. Over the next seven years, the state, which spends around $14 billion a year on its K-12 system, is expected to add more than $1.5 billion annually over that time.
Massachusetts, known for having one of the highest-performing school systems in the nation, had been locked in a battle between the governor, the legislature, an active and well-funded school funding advocacy group, and district administrators for the last four years over how the state funds its schools.
At issue was how the state should handle climbing health-care costs, the growing number of ELLs and special education students, the power of the state’s department of education to dictate how underperforming districts spend state money, and how much the state should spend on school facilities.
An effort last year to overhaul the state’s funding formula failed. But a revised version of the bill introduced in September gained support from the business community, teachers, administrators, and parent groups. Parents also challenged the constitutionality of the existing funding formula.
Under the new law, district superintendents and community members will be required to create three-year plans to describe how they will spend their money. The education department is given authority to set academic standards and assure that the plans are legal. And the law funds a grant for districts to find new ways to close the achievement gap, and for rural school districts to find new spending efficiencies.
“This legislation is about making sure that every kid in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, regardless of where they live, where they go to school, where they’re from, has the opportunity to get the education they need to be great,” Baker said at a bill-signing event.
A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as K-12 Aid Formulas on 2020 Legislative Agendas