Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 19
GOVERNMENT & POLITICS
Funding Issues Grip States
Lawmakers wrangle over
K-12 aid levels, formulas
School funding-how much and how it's distributed-takes center stage
among education issues in many of this year's legislative sessions around the
country. Among the hot spots:
By Daarel Burnette II
With the state legislative season now in full
swing, K-12 funding-as well as the prospect
of changes to how that money is distributed
among schools-has emerged as a top issue
While bickering over how much money public schools should get is a perennial drama,
school finance analysts predict that real and
lasting change to states' school spending habits could be on the horizon.
The supreme courts in Kansas and Washington have threatened those states' legislatures with shutting down schools this summer
if they don't boost their spending in the coming months. Iowa, Maryland, Texas, and Wyoming are considering bills that would fully
replace their funding formulas, and dozens
of states have commissioned studies on their
school funding formulas.
In plenty of other states, governors proposed in their State of the State speeches last
month major cuts or increases to their public
Confluence of Factors
Analysts attribute the flurry of activity to a
confluence of factors:
* Health-care and pension costs continue to
squeeze K-12, which, for years, has dominated
* Rising anti-tax sentiment paired with
soaring school technology and special education costs have left legislators little choice but
to act this year.
* State courts in recent months have ruled
in several school funding lawsuits from parents and districts to either free up or force
legislators to replace their funding formulas.
* The Every Student Succeeds Act gives
states more control over their own education agendas, and many governors want their
spending habits to be in line with new statewide initiatives and school accountability
* With Republicans in complete control of
several statehouses, many are rushing to replace school funding formulas before this fall's
election, when 36 governors and two-thirds of
state legislative seats are up for grabs.
* Although the recession is in states' rearview mirror, some continue to struggle with
collecting sales-, income-, oil-, and coal-tax
revenue. That's led to cuts in some states'
* But the relative rebound of property tax
has given states breathing room to consider
more fundamental changes to their school
funding formulas, said Daniel Thatcher, a
school funding analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"States for so long have been in catch-up
mode," Thatcher said. "They finally feel like
they can put their heads up and look at changing their funding formulas now that revenue
has caught up."
Funding formulas-those complex calculations that dictate how most education funding is distributed-are both technically and
politically volatile. If legislators tinker with
one tiny rule, they can cause dramatic budget
cuts for one district and a windfall for another,
upsetting a broad bipartisan and vocal coalition of parents.
Experts suggest funding formulas should be
replaced every seven to 10 years, though the
average funding formula today is more than
20 years old. Some states, such as Delaware
and Vermont, have funding formulas that are
more than 40 years old.
Local district officials have complained that
antiquated funding formulas aren't responsive
to shifting demographics and 21st-centuryclassroom needs.
Courts Weigh In
This year in particular, state supreme courts
in some instances have instigated changes to
their states' funding formulas.
In Kansas, the supreme court said last year
that the amount of funding the legislature
sent to the state's schools was still not enough
to meet a 2016 ruling that determined the
state's school spending is constitutionally inadequate. The court said the legislature must
come up with a solution by April or risk the
shutdown of all public schools.
Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who recently replaced current U.S. Ambassador Sam Brownback, said in a speech last week that he wants
to add a $513 million increase in public
school aid over the next five years. But he's
opposed to raising the state's taxes or levying any new ones, as the state did last year,
and hopes to get the money mostly from
"We must keep our schools open," he
Similarly, in Washington, that state's legislative chambers are at odds over how to
speed up the timeline to provide teachers
with a pay raise as that state's supreme
court has demanded. In a damning ruling last year, the court said the legislature
was still in contempt of court for failing to
adequately fund its schools as the court
asked the state to do in its 2012 McCleary
v. Washington ruling. Taking a cue from Kansas, the court said it'd ramp up penalties if the
state failed to provide a solution before the
end of this year's session in March.
In some instances, court rulings against
plaintiffs and in states' favors have sparked
a rush by legislators to replace funding formulas.
Texas' supreme court in 2016 ruled that
even though the state's funding formula was
wanting, it wasn't the court's place to determine how the legislature spends its money.
Since that ruling, the state's GOP-dominated legislature has made several attempts
to dismantle the state's "Robin Hood" funding
formula, which redistributes more equitably
oil money between richer and less-wealthy
This year, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said
he wants to place a 2 percent cap on property
taxes for school funding. The state's legislature will consider the proposal in its 2019 bienniel session.
Connecticut's supreme court in January
struck down a lower-court ruling that took
issue with several portions of the state's funding formula and teaching practices.
Although the ruling freed up the legislature
to spend as it likes, Democratic Gov. Dannel
Malloy said that it's still necessary to replace
After the Kansas Supreme
Court last year rejected
the state's revised school
funding formula, the
legislature is back at the
drawing board trying to come
up with $600 million by this
fall for the state's public
schools. State revenue has
started to rebound after a
series of dramatic tax cuts
that left Kansas millions
of dollars in the hole.
Democratic Gov. Andrew
Cuomo wants the state's
largest districts to break
spending, sparking a
backlash. The same will
soon be required for schools
nationwide under the Every
Student Succeeds Act.
Amid a sharp decline in
oil revenue, Republican
Gov. Mary Fallin has been
in a pitched battle with
legislature over how to avoid
cutting money from school
districts, many of which
operate on a four-day week.
Fallin has also pushed this
year to give teachers a
spend its money on public
Greg Abbott propose a
2.5 percent cap on the
amount of money districts
can pull from property
owners. That comes a year
after the state's supreme
court said it was not
its role to dictate to the
state's legislature how to
SOURCE: Education Week
Legislators have to speed up
a timeline to boost average
teacher pay after the state's
supreme court said a new
funding formula won't kick
in soon enough. Lawmakers
are at odds with Democratic
Gov. Jay Inslee on where to
get the necessary funds.
the funding formula because of rising pension costs, aging demographics, and the large
achievement gap between the state's white,
black, and Latino students.
And in Mississippi, a court last fall struck
down a lawsuit from 15 school districts that
claimed the state failed to fully fund the
state's funding formula. The Mississippi Senate is currently debating a bill passed by the
House that would provide $107 million more
to schools over the next seven years. Mississippi has one of the lowest per-pupil spending
rates in the country.
On the Horizon
Some states are rushing to change their funding formulas before pending court rulings.
Iowa's restrictive funding formula, crafted
in 1971, has left many of its impoverished
urban districts and depopulated farming communities with little cash to spend on schools.
Parents there sued the state last year, arguing the formula is unfair and discriminatory
against poor students. A lower court struck
down the case, but the state's supreme court
could soon weigh in.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Senate last year
passed a replacement of the state's funding
formula, but the House has yet to vote on it.
Elsewhere, while major changes to states'
funding formulas aren't being debated, governors and legislative leaders are pushing major
decreases or increases in school spending.
States heavily dependent on natural resources are looking to reduce their budgets.
Alaska's legislature is attempting to stave
off cuts to its school system by pulling $1.2 billion from its reserves, a solution that's unsustainable, many school advocates say.
In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican,
is proposing that the state take $66 million
out of its $1.8 billion in school spending. A
state-hired consulting firm recently recommended to the legislature that it avoid cuts
hitting English-language learners and disadvantaged students.
And in Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin, a
Republican, used her State of the State
speech last week to roll out a proposal to
raise taxes to stave off an ongoing fiscal crisis. As part of that plan, dubbed "Step up
Oklahoma," teachers would get an ongoing
$5,000 bump in pay.
"Let us make no mistake about it," Fallin
said. "This is a historic, defining moment
before us. What we do as a unified group of
people elected by the citizens of our state
could be considered the moment in time that
EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org | 19