States Struggle to Uphold Equitable School Funding Plans

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August 25, 2017, The Atlantic

In February 2016, NPQ reported on the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s school funding structure was unconstitutional and must be replaced by June 30, 2016. Lawmakers passed a new school finance bill in time to keep the Kansas schools open.

In 2013, California lawmakers passed a similar law to provide districts with greater control over how to spend funds with the goal of achieving greater educational equity. Districts also gained additional resources, called supplemental and concentration grants, to provide more services for English learners, foster youth, and low-income students. The California Department of Education details the promise of that legislation here.

The local control funding formula (LCFF) was enacted in 2013–14, and it replaced the previous kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) finance system which had been in existence for roughly 40 years. For school districts and charter schools, the LCFF establishes base, supplemental, and concentration grants in place of the myriad of previously existing K–12 funding streams, including revenue limits, general purpose block grants, and most of the 50-plus state categorical programs that existed at the time. For county offices of education (COEs), the LCFF establishes separate funding streams for oversight activities and instructional programs.

Today, however, parents, school administrators, advocates, and many others argue that the overly complex spending plans are not benefiting the most vulnerable children as the legislation intended. That California educates about one in eight students in the U.S. makes getting this funding distribution formula to work an important accomplishment. Apparently, not unlike how welfare funding is distributed by the states, the flexibility the LCFF affords school districts is not working, at least not for those most in need.

The Education Trust-West, “advocates for educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly those of color and living in poverty,” produced this study of 40 district spending plans. (The Los Angeles Unified School District’s budget alone is more than 400 pages.) The study concluded that, among many other findings, some districts “lump expenditures together or spend the money they didn’t use for high-needs students during a school year on other services.”

The law firm Public Advocates, with the support of a coalition of legal experts and community groups, sent this lengthy letter to the Division of Accountability, Support and Monitoring, Los Angeles County Office of Education, to make this same claim and to ask pushy questions.

Nadra Kareem Nittle makes the case for the Atlantic why this issue is so pressing for California and the nation.

High-needs students make up the fastest growing segment of U.S. children today, which means maintaining a skilled workforce and robust economy is largely dependent on their academic success. The federal No Child Left Behind Act aimed to narrow achievement disparities between these students and their peers but came up short largely because of its focus on standardized testing and the fact that public schools are just as—if not more—segregated now as they were decades ago.

Across the country, education is the promised equalizer. Yet low-income and minority children are too often denied access to quality education because they attend schools that are underfunded and under-resourced. Inequities are most often blamed on local property tax variations. State funding is supposed to correct this imbalance. In practice, however, we see that even states providing a large share of state aid to education are not always equitable in their distribution of school funding.

A fair funding system should be based on meeting student need. Student poverty can serve as a proxy for other measures of disadvantage, such as racial segregation, limited English proficiency, and student mobility. Vast disparities among states’ spending plans remain. Too many states have funding plans with “flat” or “regressive” (combined state and local revenues are systematically lower in higher-poverty districts) funding distribution patterns.

This contest of wills between the courts and the legislatures, between school boards and their communities, between superintendents of schools and governors, endures to the detriment of our country’s most vulnerable children. This is an old problem, and it will surely persist for some time to come. The nonprofit sector has a crucial role to play to defend the rights of the poor, as exemplified above by the good work of Public Advocates and Education Trust-West.

In closing, here is how NPQ’s Marty Levine, who writes often on this subject, concludes a recent newswire about Philadelphia’s school funding challenges.

Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently challenged policymakers, asking, “When is it ever okay to spend less money on the education of poor children than we spend on the education of non-poor children?” Unfortunately, in many states, the answer is “always.”

—James Schaffer