When it comes to student learning, money matters. But when it comes to how that money is spent, the vast majority of states’ K-12 funding is parceled out in outdated, inefficient ways, to the great frustration of teachers, district officials, and state politicians.
Replacing a state’s school funding formula, however, is both complicated and politically contentious, and past efforts have fallen flat in many states.
This year could be different—or so advocates hope. It’s a year free of election pressure in most states. Some, including Idaho, Kansas, and Wisconsin, have huge surpluses that could offer a psychological safety net for skittish lawmakers. And teachers—with significant public support—are demanding higher pay and more school resources.
That makes for the right political climate to push through a funding formula, school finance experts say. So what are some of the hot spots this year as legislatures and governors get down to the business of deciding how best to allocate billions of dollars in K-12 funding?
Last month, legislators from both chambers heard a two-hour presentation on a proposal to replace a formula crafted more than 20 years ago and instead distribute money to districts based on how many students are enrolled in their schools. Many K-12 students in the mostly rural state today attend charter schools, take classes at local community colleges, or are home-schooled, something that the existing funding formula doesn’t account for. The proposed formula, being championed by newly elected Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, is already getting pushback from some districts that stand to lose millions of dollars under the plan.
Maryland actually has one of the nation’s newest funding formulas and features many of the elements advocates in other states want to replicate. Established in 2002, the formula provides more money to schools that serve at-risk students, such as those with special needs and who are poor.
But a task force led by former University of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan has said that the way the state funds its schools still leaves certain student groups with fewer resources than other students. Among the task force’s findings: that the more black students attending a school, the less funding the school can expect to receive, even though the current formula was devised expressly to prevent that.
Kirwan, in a bluntly worded presentation to the legislature last month, said the state needs to provide more than $3.8 billion to its schools over the next decade in order to provide students with an adequate education.
Maryland’s NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union chapters followed that presentation with a strongly worded letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, urging the state to adopt the commission’s recommendations. The two organizations successfully sued the state in 2000 over the way it finances its schools.
Massachusetts has gotten lots of praise for its efforts a quarter century ago to upend how it distributes K-12 funds and holds schools accountable. Many policymakers and researchers say it’s why the state consistently lands at the top of national academic rankings, including Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts report.
But within Massachusetts, frustration has built in recent years over that very formula, which many educators say leaves schools serving its most at-risk populations without the necessary resources to provide an adequate education. A 2015 study showed that the state is annually underfunding the state’s public schools by $1 billion.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has proposed a new formula that would provide in total over the next five years an additional $1.1 billion to schools. A separate bill working its way through the legislature would cost the state $1.5 billion over the next five years and change the way money is distributed to charter schools and Boston’s public schools.
Last year, a New Mexico district judge ruled that the state doesn’t give enough money to its schools to provide an adequate education for low-income children, English-language learners, Native American students, and students with disabilities. The state has until April 15—a month after the legislative session ends—to prove to District Judge Sarah Singleton that it has made improvements to its system. She did not specify how much the state needs to provide schools. Recently elected Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said last month that she wants to overhaul the funding formula to address those concerns and increase the state’s K-12 spending annually by more than $500 million.
School finance experts recommend state funding formulas be replaced once every decade, even though most states’ formulas are more than 20 years old. Nevada’s formula was established in 1967 and is, arguably, one of the nation’s oldest. The state evenly divvies up money among its 11 counties. But that money is too little and fails to account for the different needs of student groups such as children with special needs and English-language learners, advocates say.
“The funding formula is equitable because everyone is actually equally poor,” Michelle Alejandra Booth, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Educate Nevada Now said.
A new funding formula is being pushed by recently elected Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, that would result in, among other things, a 3 percent raise for K-12 teachers and more money for supplies, higher education, new buildings, scholarships, and increased school safety. But the proposal is already getting pushback from the rural districts that would stand to lose money.
The state has long been known for the way it takes money from its oil-rich school districts and gives it to its resource-poor districts, what’s commonly referred to as the “Robin Hood” effect. The Texas supreme court ruled in 2016 that even though the state doesn’t give enough money to its schools to provide an adequate education, it isn’t the court’s place to tell the legislature how to spend taxpayer money.
Last month, the state’s House of Representatives released a plan to scrap the Robin Hood system and replace it with one that would be heavily reliant on state funds instead of local funds. It would ultimately provide schools with $9 billion more over the next two years. The proposal would also result in decreased property taxes for many of the state’s residents, something the state’s Republican Party has promised to do for several years. The state senate is expected to release a plan of its own in the coming weeks.
Leaders of a committee tasked with coming up with a new funding formula declined late last year to provide a price tag for a new formula. Doing so, they said, would set up a court battle in which they would have to defend spending less than a recommended amount.
Newly elected Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat and former state schools superintendent, campaigned on a new funding formula that would pump more than $1.4 billion into schools over the next two years. The state’s GOP-controlled legislature has promised to propose a separate school spending plan. But Evers recently got a political boost after a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel came out with recommendations that effectively said the governor is right: The state’s schools are severely underfunded. Among the panel’s recommendations is that the state provide significantly more money to schools to serve students with special needs, English-language learners, and those from low-income families. The state has a $588 million surplus, and its residents have been historically hostile toward taxes.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Are States Poised to Tackle Outdated K-12 Funding Formulas?