During 2022 State Legislative Sessions, Keep an Eye on Education Finance Equity

To bolster efforts to improve state education funding systems, Bellwether Education Partners compiled a series of policy briefs that gives advocates a crash course on the fundamentals of education finance equity as well as key questions to ask in their states and communities. These briefs are timely, as several states have already signaled that education finance will be a major policy issue during 2022 legislative sessions: 

In addition to the potential legislative changes, ongoing litigation in North Carolina and Pennsylvania courts could lead to substantive changes in education funding. The legislative and court considerations around education finance are not only timely, but necessary. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of state funding formulas made attempts at equity for lower-wealth communities and students with greater needs, but too many were falling short. Whether not fully accounting for differences in student learning needs or using outdated methods to account for local tax revenue, these inequities translated into real consequences for kids. Recent research shows that more funding can improve student achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment — particularly for low-income students. 

This research is particularly germane given the growing evidence of the severity of learning loss that students — especially students of color, low-income students, and students at key milestones (e.g., third-grade reading) — experienced during the pandemic. If states are serious about addressing unfinished learning and ensuring that all students leave their systems prepared for college and career, it starts with equitable funding. 

What would an equitable state education funding formula look like? It would start with a generous base amount for every student, and then additional weight would be given for students with disabilities, ELLs, students in rural communities, and low-income students. This is known as a student-weighted funding formula. The specifics should vary based on the particular equity considerations of each states’ students and communities. This type of system can ensure that students are receiving funding based on their needs, rather than on how much property wealth their community has. 

State Spotlight: Minnesota

During the 2021 Minnesota legislative session, state advocates heard some version of, “given recent federal COVID-19 relief funds based on low-income students, tackling state funding right now just isn’t a priority.” Representatives and senators from both parties used this talking point as a rationale for not taking legislative action to make the state’s education finance system more equitable. This type of thinking is not only short-sighted, but it does a disservice to Minnesota’s most underserved students. 

It’s true that the federal government passed three stimulus packages that dispersed $189 billion to state departments of education and school districts across the country. Although these temporary funds don’t address the systemic inequities that are baked into state education funding formulas, they do present a policy opportunity. With budgetary pressures somewhat relieved, states should use this moment to revamp their education finance formulas with students at the center. 

But instead of fixing the state’s funding formulas for students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students — which includes overly complicated caps and combinations of concentration and weights — the Minnesota legislature did nothing. This translates to another school year without equitable funding for Minnesota’s most marginalized students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  

It’s promising to see so many states tackle education finance during 2022 legislative sessions. As the legislative session continues, states must keep underserved students at the center and wade through the politics to pass bills that will create more equitable school funding systems. Time will tell if this comes to fruition.  

*Editor’s note: The Tennessee Department of Education is a Bellwether client.