Tag Archives: school finance

5 Things the Pence Pick Could Mean for the Future of Federal Education Policy

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Donald Trump and Mike Pence talk to “60 Minutes.” Photo: CBS News

The Veep-stakes are over! The pick is in. Mike Pence, the sitting Governor of Indiana, will run as Trump’s Vice President. Although he has only been Governor for a few years, Pence also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Putting those records together, we can get a sense of what the Pence pick could mean for public education.

  • Tough sledding for civil rights. Pence’s stance on equal rights is pretty clear. Everyone remembers the law he signed permitting individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. So, many federal student protections could be in jeopardy, including President Obama’s executive action on bathroom use for transgender students. In a similar vein, Pence strongly supports states’ rights and local control. He likely would advocate for reducing (perhaps even further) the federal footprint in education. This is bad news for low-income students and students of color who frequently receive low-quality educations and depend on federal support.
  • Funding redistribution (but not to support low-income students). If his most recent budget in Indiana is any indication, Pence certainly feels that something needs to be done to improve school funding in this country. Unfortunately, however, he seems to think wealthier districts need an even bigger slice of the school funding pie.
  • Charter expansion. In addition to increasing funding for charters broadly, Pence also supported the so-called “Freedom to Teach” bill. The idea is to help provide teachers with the flexibility they need to innovate in their classrooms. Some teachers and union representatives argue that they already have that freedom. Instead, they believe that the bill is designed to limit union power and invite private entities to run public schools.
  • Vouchers Vouchers Vouchers. For years Pence has been a vocal proponent of school vouchers and expanding the use of public funds to pay for private education. Last year he helped to shepherd a bill to raise the voucher limit on funds available for elementary school students. A Trump/Pence White House may provide the strongest support for expanding voucher programs in decades.
  • Preschool a priority (kind of). It’s a far cry from universal pre-K, but Pence was able to expand Indiana’s pre-school program. He also recently committed to expanding the program further with or without federal support. It is important to note, however, that Pence previously refused millions of dollars of federal support, and only seemed interested in them now that he is up for reelection. 

In education policy, Pence sticks to the party-line. For that reason, his selection should make many conservatives happy. But students and teachers should be on high alert. In a Trump/Pence White House, it would take a watchful eye and strong advocacy to preserve critical federal protections for vulnerable students, ensure low-income students get their fair share of funding, and prioritize students’ needs over states’ rights.

Why the Entirely Expected Death of Texas’s School Finance Overhaul Isn’t Entirely Bad News

If you felt a disruption in the force at 11:59 pm on May 14th, it was the sound of a million bills suddenly crying out in terror and then being suddenly silenced in Texas.  The Texas legislative session is in its waning days, and according to House rules, May 14th was effectively the last day that House-authored bills could move along without extraordinary measures (like super-majority votes and intricate parliamentary maneuvering). That means that any House bills that didn’t win approval by the majority before the clock struck  midnight died, struck down by a procedural Death Star. And one of the casualties of the day was the school finance overhaul proposed by House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock.

The plan had little chance of making it to the Governor’s desk for several reasons. For one, the state is on the losing end of a district court ruling finding the school finance system is both underfunded and unfairly funded; but the appeal is still pending with the Texas Supreme Court. With the suit unresolved, it’s not surprising to find little appetite in the legislature to make a bold move on school finance. Second, school finance isn’t the big policy priority for leadership this session, especially on the Senate side. It’s tax relief. Both chambers want it. They’ve built billions for it into their budget plans. But they haven’t reach agreement on which tax to cut. And that’s the premier political battle being waged as the session hurtles toward a close, not addressing a school finance system that isn’t under the gun.

In pulling his bill down, Mr. Aycock did the right thing for the chamber. He saw the writing on the wall and avoided a lengthy floor debate that would have doomed many of his colleagues’ bills to the harsh reality of the clock. So he bought some good will (or at least avoided some bad), and ultimately, it’s not all bad news for the school finance debate either.

Aycock’s bill opened the dialogue on several politically challenging features of the current system. And it laid the groundwork for some very technical, but important, fixes to the school finance formulas that would improve both their function and their transparency. Plus with significant turnover among legislators in recent years, the process of educating members on the technical aspects of the system to build comfort and support around a big overhaul is critical. Aycock’s bill provided a platform for that process.

Yes, it would have been great to see the legislature move ahead with a thoughtful school finance plan without being forced by the court to do so. The court process takes years. And meanwhile, millions of Texas children and thousands of Texas schools continue to operate under a system that the district court found fundamentally broken.

But given the distance between the district court’s ruling (finding a $10 billion annual shortfall in funding), and the “if you can’t squeeze blood from the turnip, squeeze harder” brand of fiscal conservatism that dominates the Texas legislature, it’s hard to see the political downside of waiting for a final ruling by the markedly more conservative Texas Supreme Court. That way, if they do end up having to spend a boatload of money to address the final ruling, members can blame the court and maintain their fiscal conservative cred with their constituents.

And they need that cover. Purity testing of conservative ideology is happening on a whole new level. In addition to primary battles focused on pandering to the extreme wings of the parties, now operatives are recording casual off-the-record conversations with legislators in an effort to catch them not walking the ideological walk.

Now the ball is firmly with the Texas Supreme Court, and we have to wait and hope for the best. What does the best look like? A court ruling that keeps the needs of all Texas children front and center and that gives the legislature a clear path and political courage. A state treasury that can bankroll what needs to be done would also be nice.

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.

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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