Tag Archives: state funding

New Report: Benefit Spending Consumes Growing Share of Education Budgets

The recent teacher strikes in Arizona, Colorado, and West Virginia highlight a common problem: education spending is stagnant or in some cases decreasing. If teachers working multiple jobs to make ends meet isn’t bad enough, here’s worse news: skyrocketing benefit costs, such as healthcare and pensions, are consuming an increasing share of K-12 education budgets.

In a new report, “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets,” I analyzed district education and benefit spending from 2005 to 2014. The results are troubling. Over that ten-year span, benefit spending increased more than 22 percent nationally. K-12 spending, on the other hand, grew less than 2 percent. As a result, more than $11 billion fewer dollars made it to classrooms in 2014 compared with 2005, after adjusting for inflation.

The problem of rising benefit costs varies significantly by state. As shown in the graph below, in the vast majority of states, benefit spending grew far faster than education budgets overall. In North Carolina, for example, benefits grew 48 percent while the state’s education spending only increased 2 percent. The problem persists even in states like Michigan that cut both K-12 and benefit spending, because they weren’t cut at the same rate. The Wolverine State cut education spending by 19 percent, but benefits were cut by only 2 percent. As a result, benefits eat up an even greater share of Michigan’s education budget than they did previously.

via “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets”

Barring a dramatic change, the problem of ballooning benefit spending will only get worse. Due to many states’ histories of underfunding their pension systems while simultaneously increasing the generosity of the plan, costs will continue to rise. Legislators will need to find politically viable solutions that both meet existing obligations and mitigate rising costs going forward.

Read my full report here.

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Five Finance Tips for States on School Funding

If my Google alerts are any indication, 2016 is a hot year for state school finance (first time “hot” and “school finance” have been used in a sentence together?). Kansas hit the news dramatically with the court imposing a June 30 deadline to fix its school funding system or schools will not open next fall. Some of this year’s other sizzling school finance stories include:

  • A handful of states are in court on charges of inequitable or inadequate funding or both, including California and Texas, with Texas expecting a high court decision soon that could require somewhere between $0 and $10 billion new dollars per year for public schools.
  • The Washington legislature is racking up $100,000 a day in legal fees for failing to address a 2012 ruling.
  • Michigan may increase spending flexibility to facilitate technology purchases.
  • Nebraska’s governor wants to cap school spending and school board taxing authority.
  • Colorado’s legislature is rigorously studying its school funding system, laying the groundwork for future action.
  • Arizona will soon implement a wonky but consequential shift in the way it counts students and is pondering big changes to public education revenue streams.

While funding alone cannot guarantee great outcomes, unstable, inadequate, or poorly-designed funding systems fail to create a solid foundation on which great things can be built.  

As these states (and all states) deal with these big funding questions, here are five things to consider:

1. Equity should drive the framework for state funding systems.

Allocating school funding and establishing and holding schools accountable for learning standards are two primary functions of states as the guarantors of the right to education. The ability of all schools to deliver on that guarantee depends on the equitable distribution of resources supporting them. Most, if not all, state funding systems are fundamentally geared to address equity, but those gears get sticky when policymakers add elements aimed at addressing other priorities, often for political expediency. Legislators must always keep their eye on the ball. (Hint: Equity is the ball.)
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In Some States, Pre-K Providers That Have the Money, Keep the Money, and That’s a Problem

Charter schools should offer pre-k. Sometimes they can, and sometimes they can’t. One reason they can’t: Policies in ten states privilege existing pre-k providers. When these states allocate pre-k funding, they allocate funding first to providers that are currently serving children, leaving little — if any — funding for charter schools that aren’t existing providers, which many aren’t. So the providers that have the money, keep the money. Continue reading

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.