February 23, 2017; Examiner (Beaumont, TX)

“We spend too much!” “We need more money!” Every discussion of public education policy quickly gets to the question of money. President Trump bluntly asserted that more money wasn’t needed to improve our schools when he framed his education policies by describing our public schools as “flush with cash.” To make any discussion of funding education more than a tug-of-war requires going deeper into education economics. Beyond looking at what we spend as a nation or even as states, we need a more granular perspective, which moves our attention down to the level of funding for individual school districts and the real-world challenges they face.

The Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education has just published “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card” and a companion study, “Is School Funding Fair? America’s Most Fiscally Disadvantaged School Districts.” Together, they analyze school funding using recent U.S. Census data on school funding along with broader economic data to depict how current state funding formulae meet the needs of our children.

The value of any given level of education funding, in any given location, is relative. While all districts need a level of funding that is sufficient to meet the needs of their students, relative funding levels are also consequential. How a district’s funding compares to that of other districts operating in the same regional labor market, and, in addition, how that money relates to other conditions in the regional labor market, affects a district’s ability to compete.

Public education is supported by a mix of federal, state, and local funds that has remained relatively flat for the past decade. With federal funding making up only around 10 percent of the total, the actual funding level per pupil results from a combination of state and local funds that depends heavily on the approach taken at a state level. According to Education Dive, the data show that not all states are effective at ensuring education funds get to the children with the greatest needs. Only “Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ohio are all taking spending on low-income students seriously, while most other states are not. In those five states, which all have what the report calls ‘generally high’ funding levels, significantly more money is funneled to districts with high levels of student poverty.”

ELC’s work gives us a look at how current state funding formulae respond to the unique challenges of local schools by combining the specifics of who they teach with the cost of “doing business” in their locale. This approach gives us a real-time measure of how actual per-pupil spending compares with the funding needed for educating their student body.

Put simply, districts with higher student needs than surrounding districts in the same labor market don’t require the same total revenue per pupil to get the job done. They require more. Higher need districts require more money for higher salaries to recruit and retain similar quantities (per pupil) of similar quality teachers. In addition, higher need districts must be able to provide the additional programs, services and supports (including smaller classes and early childhood education) necessary to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, while still maintaining advanced and enriched course options.

Through this lens, ELC evaluated 55 districts in 20 states and found 1.5 million students where funding is significantly below the level needed. “Not surprisingly, many of the most disadvantaged districts are in states with highly regressive funding distribution systems, such as Arizona and Illinois, but they also are found in states with flat (e.g., California) and more progressive systems (e.g., Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah).”

ELC Executive Director David Sciarra described the challenge as the two studies were being released:

Lawmakers in states with deeply regressive and flat funding, like Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Arizona, urgently need to overhaul their finance systems to give students a meaningful opportunity to succeed in school. Even states with higher funding levels, such as Ohio and Maine, need to do more to ensure fair funding for each and every student. President Trump is flatly wrong when he says our schools are flush with cash. In fact, for students in many states and entire regions, their schools are woefully underfunded, depriving them of the qualified teachers, support staff, reasonable class sizes and other interventions they must have to succeed in school. It’s time to put fair school funding at the top of the nation’s education reform agenda.

The effectiveness of public education will be determined much less by what occurs in Washington than in the halls of 50 state governments where decisions on how to change funding structures must be made. The political barrier to be overcome may not be the usual battle over taxation but one over shifting resources from one part of a state to another, from richer, whiter school communities where the educational need is lower to poor districts with greater numbers of children of color. If the apparent consensus that all children are entitled to a quality education is real, politicians will need to be brave enough to act with bravery.—Martin Levine