School Finance

New data will reveal which schools are winners — and losers — in the school funding fight

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

This story was originally published in the Educated Reporter, a blog from the Education Writers Association. It is a report from the National Seminar of the Education Writers Association.

There are few debates in education as fraught or as important as the fight over how much money to spend on schools — and where to spend it.

Whether a school has the cash to pay for such things as smaller class sizes, extra mental health staff or music instruction depends on decisions made by elected officials at every level of government, from the U.S. House and Senate to local school boards.

Most experts agree that it takes more money to educate students in poverty — including kids who may grapple with trauma in their homes or communities and need more support when they are in school. But in many places across the country, schools that primarily serve low-income families are actually getting less money than schools with more affluent populations.

‘The Promise of Equality’

“How can we fulfill the promise of equality of opportunity in an environment where we know that the students who need the most are getting the least?” said former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who spoke earlier this month at the National Seminar of the Education Writers Association. “They get less access to resources. They get less access to advanced coursework. They get less access to well-prepared, well-supported teachers.”

But is it a matter of providing resources or requiring accountability and competition? Lawyer Rocco Testani suggested that costly lawsuits don’t solve equity problems but holding school districts accountable and providing competition does.

He compared Florida, which hasn’t substantially increased its school funding, to New York, which has. Testani argues that Florida’s low-cost accountability provisions, as well as strong choice options, led to stronger improvements on the National Assessment for Educational Progress than New York’s.

Funding inequities are evident at the federal level. The largest K-12 funding stream at the U.S. Department of Education is Title I, which is designed to help schools and districts that serve high numbers of poor students. But the formula the government uses to distribute the money does not necessarily send it to the highest need districts, said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University. In fact, affluent districts can rake in federal dollars.

That’s because Title I, funded at more than $15 billion for fiscal 2017, has more than one goal, she said. In addition to redistributing money to poor schools, it is also one of the few tools the federal government has to pressure local districts to change their policies. As a result, almost every district gets some money from Title I. (In addition, the wide distribution of Title I, which reaches virtually every congressional district, has helped to ensure political support.)

Using Title I Aid as a Carrot

“If the federal government wants to get states to do stuff, it needs to have a carrot,” Gordon said. “Title I is that carrot.”

Within states, districts that serve the highest income areas have long had better financed schools because education is often paid in part through local property taxes and wealthy municipalities have higher property values. But over the last several decades, a movement to make school funding more logical and equitable has slowly swept the country.

Beginning with a 1989 Kentucky court case, many states have been changing their funding formulas to send more money to low-income districts, said Diane Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern University professor and the director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. Since then, spending across the country has increased dramatically.

That policy change has allowed researchers to study a perennial question in education: Whether increasing funding improves schools. In a recent study, Schanzenbach and her colleagues looked at how that infusion of money impacted test scores. They found that when states spent more on schools in low-income districts, the gap in test scores between high- and low-income districts closed.

While many states have changed their funding models to direct more money to poor school districts, there are still gaps in funding within districts, Schanzenbach said. “The bad news is that we found this policy also has pretty limited reach.”

She added, “Although this closes the gaps in funding and test scores between rich and poor districts, it does not do a good job of doing the same across rich and poor students.”

Schanzenbach noted that some districts that serve large numbers of low-income families still may have some schools with a lot of middle class and more affluent families. And money may not flow equally to all of those schools.

The policy of changing state funding formulas “seems to be too blunt to actually get more resources to low-income kids,” Schanzenbach said.

Local funding decisions made at the school board level can lead schools with affluent, politically savvy families to get more money than neighboring schools that serve more low-income families and students of color.

“If you are spending more on one school in a district, you are spending less on another,” said Marguerite Roza of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

The ‘Motherload’ of New Data

But in many states and communities, information on how much each school receives isn’t publicly available, said Roza. Sometimes schools serving a lot of low-income families get less money. Sometimes they get more. And sometimes there is little rhyme or reason to funding patterns that have developed over years. But Roza added, parents and community members don’t know how the pie is divided because spending decisions often are not transparent or public.

That’s about to change, said Roza. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act) requires districts to report spending by school. That data should start to become available in 2019, she said. Once each school’s budget becomes public, families might put more pressure on districts to give their school its fair share.

“This is the motherload of new financial data,” said Roza. “It will change everything.”

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

State takeover plans for Gary and Muncie could be revived as Indiana lawmakers return in May

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed reporters Monday. He's asking lawmakers to return for a special session in May.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse this May after an unusual summons Monday from Gov. Eric Holcomb, and it’s possible they could revisit a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

But Holcomb said the takeover plan should not be pushed through during a special session and should be acted upon next year. It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers held a special session in a non-budget year.

“I would prefer to wait,” Holcomb said. “I don’t believe that it rises to the level of urgency to be dealt with right now.”

The regular legislative session ended in chaos last week, with lawmakers leaving this and several other important bills unresolved when the clock ran out.

Republican lawmakers have been largely supportive of the takeover plan, and so they could revive the issue despite Holcomb’s stance. Holcomb said discussions would happen this week over what issues could be addressed during the special session.

House Bill 1315 sparked heated debate right up until the final minutes of the 2018 legislative session. The bill would have given control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and stripped power from the Gary school board. Another part of the bill would have developed an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

On Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill was one of the important issues left on the table when the legislature had to adjourn.

But Senate President David Long also noted that the bill has been massively unpopular in some circles — Democrats were strongly opposed to it, as were teachers unions and some educators and community members.

Both Republican leaders said in statements Monday that they supported the governor’s special session request. But John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, derided the move as wasteful and a reflection of lawmakers’ inability to finish their work on time.

“Republican leadership incompetently steered session into a wall on the last lap,” Zody said in a statement. “Now they’re asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another shot at passing their do-nothing agenda.”

Holcomb said his biggest priorities during the special session would be getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund to Muncie schools to deal with financial difficulties stemming from declining enrollment and mismanagement of a bond issue. That loan was originally a provision in the House bill.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday morning that she also would support action to get Muncie schools the money they were promised. McCormick also said the early warning system could be helpful to prevent these situations in the future.

“We want Muncie to be successful,” McCormick said, adding that anything the state can do to be proactive “and get people help so we’re not dealing with more Muncies and Garys” is a good thing.

The special session could come with a steep price tag for Indiana taxpayers. Micah Vincent, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said early estimates for calling lawmakers back into session could be about $30,000 per day. But that cost “is dwarfed by the cost of inaction,” Holcomb said. It’s unclear how long the special session could last.

The governor also said he wanted to prioritize school safety legislation, another measure that didn’t get final votes before time ran out. He is calling for lawmakers to direct $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

His plan comes in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed last month.

The shooting also sparked activism across the country, with thousands of students protesting against gun violence in schools and calling for stricter gun regulations. Last Wednesday, many Hoosier students joined the national movement by walking out of school.