Tag Archives: school finance

Wonky Texas School Finance Proposal has Merit, but is it Worth the Political Bloodletting?

The Texas legislature is wrangling with its school finance system again. For once, they are only sort of under the gun, having lost a law suit in a district court that found that the state was neither spending enough on education (to the tune of $10 billion) nor spreading funds equitably among school districts. But the appeals process has yet to play out, and it won’t finish until well after the legislature has tied the current session up with a bow. So, technically, they don’t have to do anything this session.

The fact that the legislature is considering taking up a major school finance bill in spite of the ultimate outcome of the law suit still pending is encouraging. Making school finance policy solely in lockstep with litigation is less than ideal. But in laying out the plan to colleagues, the bill’s sponsor, House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, made the disheartening statement that it isn’t intended as a “permanent fix,” rather a way simply to address “pressing concerns.”

Many of the provisions the bill aims to address are political hot buttons, and the price tag is steep- $3 billion over two years. So, if this is a “temporary” fix or a half-measure, I question whether it’s worth the fight. School finance debates are hugely expensive in both political capital and real dollars. Why not go all in? If you start off by saying you’re probably going to have to do it all over again in a couple of years, what’s the incentive to do the hard work now?

The proposal has some merit. It cleans some noise out of Texas’s formula made up of remnants of past efforts, mostly driven by attempts to change policy without any district coming out of the process with less funding per student. These “hold harmless” provisions tend to drive funding to districts inequitably and, frankly, weirdly. So if you’re a fan of fiscal equity or just a fan of having the statutory formulas “work” the way are written, this bill has some very good stuff.

But it doesn’t go far enough. It’s pretty lukewarm on overall equity (data wonks: check out the analysis by district wealth categories at the bottom of this). It drives the biggest increase in funding to the wealthiest school districts. And even at $3 billion, it falls well short of the district court’s price for adequacy. Though whether the district court’s ruling stands as written is an open question (and if history serves the Texas Supreme Court will at least reduce the cost).

Maybe the intent is to get the conversation started on some hyper-technical provisions to lay groundwork for a bigger effort in future sessions. The learning curve is steep on this for many legislators, and it takes time to build a sufficient comfort level to secure a vote. But why wait? There’s going to be blood on the carpet either way.


The Return on Investment of Rural Schools

In a recent post about the rewrite of NCLB, I noted that a growing number of voices are now calling for greater transparency about K-12 spending. One recommendation is that this federal law should require states, districts, and schools to report exactly how much they spend per student and how these investments translate into academic results.

The latest release from ROCI, our rural-education project, (‘Innovation Amid Financial Scarcity: The Opportunity in Rural Schools,” by school finance expert Marguerite Roza) sheds light on this subject.


Image from www.stltoday.com\

Though rural-schools policy and K-12 finance formulas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, Roza’s work is exactly the kind of report most consumers of edu-research want. It provides data in an important area currently dominated by conjecture; it asks and answers an intriguing new question; and it presents a completely unexpected finding that can serve as the launching point for future research.

The paper begins by discussing the funding levels received by rural districts relative to non-rural districts. Many believe that rural schools are dramatically underfunded because they lack the clout of their rural and suburban peers and the economies of scale necessary to make the most out of their resources. Those familiar with school funding formulas know, however, that at least some states “plus up” rural districts in a number of ways (e.g. special rural-schools programs, appropriations line items for rural-school staff).

Roza’s analysis shows that both are true. Most, but not all states, “have structured their state education finance systems in ways that ensure rural districts receive more funds per pupil than do their more centrally located counterparts.” However, relative funding levels vary significantly state to state.

In California and Georgia, smaller districts receive about 15 percent above the average per-pupil spending levels in their larger-district peers. In 12 states, small districts get a bit extra; in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they get amounts almost identical to larger districts. But in 12 states, small districts operate with fewer dollars than the state’s per-pupil average.

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School Funding Reform, Hard Work and Fraught with Potential

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

Why the “Landmark” Texas School Finance Ruling is Irrelevant (And Why It Shouldn’t Be)

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