People love to argue about how much funding schools get, whether it’s too much or too little or whether schools should be run like businesses. Most people, though, don’t focus on the details—the complicated state formulas that allocate the majority of the nearly $650 billion spent annually to fund public schools across the country. Legislators, on the other hand, must care about the details. Those formulas are the primary mechanism for enacting big changes in school funding and school policy. But conflicting values and political interests create stagnation where there should be energy. Texas, the most recent state waging a school finance battle in the courts, will likely face another protracted school finance debate in the (hopefully) not too distant future (see my related post here), provides a showcase for the challenges of school finance policy and its potential as a launch pad for other education policy reforms.
Texas is illustrative because it highlights the tension between demands of local representation and the ideological realities of statewide politics. All legislators represent school districts, and all school districts want increased funding. As a result, legislators are loath to go home with less money for local schools. However, for meaningful change to be made in a system that already garners 40 percent of state spending in Texas (and similar levels in most other states), the numbers get very large very fast.
The result is a kind of cognitive dissonance in a conservative political environment between the need to deliver the goods to constituent districts and abhorrence to big government spending. This battle between parochialism and ideology (waged within many legislators’ minds as well as among legislators) creates a nearly intractable policy environment for meaningful school finance policy. Continue reading
In August, a Texas court declared the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, and a month later Governor-elect and current Attorney General Greg Abbott filed the state’s appeal of the ruling. The words Texas, school finance, and court were enough make this national news. The ruling responded to a suit filed by a group of school districts, charter schools, parents, and others charging that Texas neither spends enough money on its public schools, nor does it spend it correctly. It’s not the first such case; the most recent was in 2005. Nor will it be the last. But while the current ruling reflects important and distressing facts about the condition of education in Texas, the reality of the legal process means that any action to address the problems will be a long time coming. In Texas, and many other states, litigation is ultimately an ineffective way to change education policy – something that should sober those hoping Vergara-style suits usher in an era of change.
The legislature will convene for its regular session in a couple of months, but if history is any guide, the district court ruling in the finance case will be ignored by those with the actual power to change the system. Instead, the legislature will wait to act for a year or more, allowing the appeals process to run its course. The wait and see approach is justified partly by the fact that the Texas Supreme Court overturned a significant portion of a 2005 school finance ruling by the same district judge. So, rather than acting immediately on a district court ruling with a $5 billion annual price tag, the legislature will pin its hopes on the markedly more conservative Texas Supreme Court for a possible reversal or at least a less costly set of marching orders.
One challenge to urgency in addressing a system that already spends the lions’ share of the state’s money is prevailing rhetoric that money is not the answer. Strong voices in Texas’ fiscally conservative policy landscape argue that increases in public education spending haven’t yielded desired results—so clearly the answer is not more money. Correcting the course of public education in Texas cannot be solely a function of funding. But, since the Texas Supreme Court asserted in 2005 that school funding was “drifting” towards inadequacy, student achievement has lagged in the face of tougher standards. And in real dollars, funding looks pretty flat.
Some highlights (lowlights) from the court’s findings on student achievement include: Continue reading