Author Archives: Max Marchitello

This 40-Year-Old Supreme Court Case Allows States to Fund Schools Inequitably

People sue the government for discriminating against them all the time. The Trump Administration was recently sued by a handful of states after the attempted travel ban, claiming religious discrimination. The owners of Hobby Lobby sued the Obama Administration arguing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) violated their religious freedom by requiring the company’s insurance to pay for contraception.

Lawsuits against state governments for school funding inequities are commonplace. In February Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sued Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner claiming that the state school funding system and its teacher pension system discriminate by underfunding low-income students and students of color. They have a point: a recent study found that Illinois operates the most inequitable school funding system in the country. CPS educates around 20 percent of the children in the state, yet it receives roughly 15 percent of state funding. While the judge recognized that Illinois’s school finance system is obviously broken, he nevertheless threw out the case.

Photo by Andy Blackledge

So what can affected children and families do now?

The short answer is nothing. Although Judge Franklin Valderamma is allowing the plaintiffs to refile their case, the efficacy of school finance litigation, regardless of a court’s ruling, depends entirely on the state’s willingness to right a wrong of its own creation. In other words, those treated unjustly by a state school finance system must hope that their abusers change their ways without any way for the state to be held accountable.

This latest case in Chicago raises the specter of San Antonio v. Rodriguez from 1973, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no Constitutional right to education. The court also ruled that wealth (economic status) is not a protected class, unlike race or religion, and therefore is not subject to the strict scrutiny test, the most demanding form of judicial review. This means that the constitutional rights’ of low-income people are not afforded the highest level of protections when weighed against the government’s interest.

There are several serious consequences of Rodriguez. First, state courts are more likely to rule in the state’s favor even if the system discriminates against low-income students. Second, the hands of the federal government are basically tied when it comes to inequitable state school finance systems. Thus, if a state ignores a court order to improve its school finance system, families have no recourse. They are stuck. Third, school funding systems based on local property taxes, which comprise virtually every system in the country, are constitutional, even though they produce class-based disparities.

Due in large part to Rodriguez, there have been over 40 years of school finance litigation that struggle to produce sustained results increasing equity. Texas has been in and out of court since Rodriguez was decided. The state took action in response to a court order, and then rolled back those policies. The pattern continues to this day.

For a more recent example, consider the victory of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York. The plaintiffs won a strong pro-equity ruling, and the state of New York responded positively. Good news. The problem, however, was that shortly thereafter, the state’s commitment wavered and eventually buckled. Now students are back in the same situation they were in previously.

The problem is similar in Washington State, where the state supreme court held the legislature in contempt of court for failing to comply with their order. And when the legislature has proposed changes, the court has continuously rejected them as far too insufficient to repair their broken education finance system. The court is doing the right thing here, but the buck stops with the legislature.

And although there is no silver bullet that could suddenly end disparities in school funding, overturning Rodriguez would provide a significant boost for equity. The federal government would then be able, as it does with voting rights, to ensure that all students have equitable access to the necessary resources for a high-quality education.

Four Problems With Betsy DeVos’ Possible Vision of School Accountability

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

During her Senate hearing, now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeatedly stated that she supports school accountability. But what does accountability actually mean to her? For clues, I looked into the model school choice legislation proposed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization DeVos formerly chaired. If that bill reflects DeVos’ priorities, it suggests she supports accountability measures that are significantly weaker than the ones currently applied to public schools in all 50 states.

There are at least four key accountability problems with the AFC’s voucher program:

Continue reading

Education Funding is a Potential Rural-Urban Partnership Despite Post-Election Divisions

Donald Trump’s election made clear that the division between rural and urban communities is widening. Although social media and other technologies connect us more than ever before, rural and urban communities increasingly feel that they are misunderstood by the other. Trump further polarized this divide. Since people living in cities and those in small towns and rural areas have such starkly different experiences and views about what direction the country should take, it is hard to imagine finding common ground.

But on the issue of school funding, rural and urban communities are natural allies. In fact, students and families in cities and rural areas have far more in common than their voting patterns might suggest.

Both rural and urban communities often lack the resources necessary to provide their students with a high-quality education. Students in rural and urban communities are disproportionately low-income, and as a result, these students frequently face significant barriers to academic success. For example, students in both areas experience high rates of poverty. Like many urban schools, schools in rural communities and small towns also typically have less access to effective teachers, advanced curricula, and many of the other hallmarks of a good education.

Inequitable school funding undergirds each of these disparities. The simple fact is that compared with suburban districts, rural and urban communities just don’t get their fair share of school funding despite serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students. In most cases this is due to how states and school districts fund their schools. The majority of state funding formulas are regressive or flat. In other words, they’ve got it backward. They provide as much or more funding to schools that are already more affluent. The United States is one of the few modernized countries in the world that provides fewer educational resources to lower-income students than more affluent ones.  

At the district level the problem is compounded.

In most school districts, school funding is based largely on local property taxes. Places with low property values such as rural communities typically lack the wealth necessary to generate sufficient education funds on their own. And while some property-wealthy places such as cities have a much greater property tax base, many still cannot generate enough revenue to adequately fund their schools due to their relatively low incomes.

This is not to say that all states and districts refuse to adjust their formulas to better meet the needs of their students. On the contrary, places like New Jersey and Boston, Massachusetts restructured how they fund their schools to significantly benefit low-income and other disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, these places are the rare exception and not the rule.

Despite both suffering from school finance inequity, rural and urban districts rarely work together to address their shared problems. This is because they are often pitted against each other when states are restructuring their funding formulas. Education dollars are treated as a zero sum game: if urban districts win more funding, it must come at the expense of rural districts. And vice versa.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Continue reading

New Dept of Ed Rule Doesn’t Go Far Enough, Would Leave Large Funding Gaps Intact

The U.S. Department is in the midst of a fight to send more money to poor schools. Centered around a complicated legal provision called “supplement not supplant,” they originally proposed a strong rule that would have meant significant new resources for low-income students. But due to pushback from an odd coalition of Republican congressmen and the two national teacher unions, they’re now proposing a weaker, clunkier version that could potentially leave large funding gaps intact. With the rule now out for public comment, the Department has an opportunity to go back to its original version, better protect low-income students, and more closely reflect the actual text of the law.

Before we get into the details of this specific regulation, it’s important to acknowledge that public education in America isn’t fair. The quality of a student’s education is too often determined by his or her zip code. Growing up in a low-income community often means crumbling schools, inexperienced teachers, weak curriculum, and few extracurricular or enrichment opportunities.Uphill climb

A big part of the problem is how states and districts fund their schools. While low-income students should receive more money to help offset the harmful consequences of growing up poor, that’s not what most states and districts do. In some states, the disparities between high- and low-poverty districts amount to over $1,000 per-student. This isn’t mere “bean counting” for schools—these differences can easily reach more than $1 million each year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Continue reading

Agreeing with Trump, Sort of? Political Correctness and Segregation

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a child’s zip code shouldn’t determine the quality of her education. It seems to me this idea should go without saying. But people keep saying it.

The President has said it on numerous occasions. Hillary Clinton has made that point a central part of her K-12 education platform. Even Donald Trump agrees, writing in his most recent book, “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again”:

Photo by Gage Skidmore

I’m not concerned about the kids growing up in wealthy communities, where high property taxes have allowed them to build great schools, hire the best teachers, and provide all the supplies they need. Those schools are doing fine. In many urban areas, however, schools must fight for every tax dollar and are forced to have teachers and students bring in their own basic supplies such as pencils and paper. That’s a national tragedy.

Why, with so much bipartisan agreement, is so little being done about the fact that a family’s wealth is, in many cases, what determines whether their child gets a good education? Continue reading