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.”

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”