The more that I’ve learned about the workings of our public education system, and the more that I’ve experienced the connections between that education and how children succeed (or don’t) in the larger society, the more I’ve come to see school finance as a critical social justice issue.
Here in Kansas, our legislative session starts next Monday, and revising the school finance formula is expected to feature heavily in the session. There’s a real threat, in particular, that legislators from wealthier suburban districts (including, most prominently, my own) will push for more “local control” (read: local funding, as contrasted with a centralized state funding scheme) for school districts. It hasn’t made me that popular within my neighborhood, or on the Board of the PTA where I serve, but I’ve been saying often that, while that might make sense (at least temporarily, and at least if our property values don’t plummet, which seems like a lot of “maybe” to me) for our own district, it would be disastrous for much of the state.
Perhaps even more importantly, it would reflect a fundamental abdication of our responsibilities as part of a common society. And it would take us farther down a road of injustice.
Preparing for this legislative session, then, I was particularly intrigued by a recent National Report Card on school funding fairness. The methodology for this report card has key strengths that other attempts to quantify and qualify school funding have not, including the ability to measure funding equity among districts within a state, and to assess the extent to which a state’s school funding levels compensate for child poverty and other obstacles to learning.
I can’t honestly say that I think that my legislative delegation will be tremendously responsive to these data, but I do intend to use them to make the case with parents and patrons:
Yes, we all want our own children to go to “good” schools. But we also want our children to graduate into a world with other children who also went to good schools. And, like it or not, a centralized funding mechanism that attempts to account for some of the great disparities among local areas is the only way to achieve that.
Some of the key findings for my home state of Kansas:
The Report Card reiterates what should be accepted fact: Of course sufficient school funding doesn’t guarantee quality education. Of course we need to pay attention to how districts are spending dollars, and how well teachers are trained, and what efficiency measures there might be. Of course. But of course adequate funding levels, fairly distributed, are “essential preconditions” for the delivery of a high-quality education.
And until we’re guaranteeing that, the rest of those measures of “success” will remain elusive.