Social Justice and the School Finance Formula

I’ll readily admit that I’m a bit obsessed with school finance.

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 highly decentralized (and increasingly so) funding for K-12 education results in tremendous disparities between states. This is especially true because states’ concentration of children in poverty ranges from very low (less than 1% of Nebraska’s districts have more than 30% of children in poverty) to alarmingly high (more than 33% of Mississippi’s districts face that concentrated poverty).
  • Current measures of school funding equity are inadequate, complicating our efforts to solve a problem that we have yet to correctly define or quantify.
  • We need to define what “fair funding” looks like, so that we can hold states accountable for achieving those standards. Here, they define “fair” as “a state finance system that ensures equal educational opportunity by providing a sufficient level of funding distributed to districts within the state to account for additional needs generated by student poverty.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the context of my own children; the reality is that some of their peers need a better school system, truly, to compensate for the disadvantages they face elsewhere in life, unless and until we’re going to get serious about eradicating poverty and discrimination and the ills that transcend our classrooms.
  • There’s a certain Biblical justice to school funding, if you think about it. My Bible has Luke 12:48 as “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Maybe I could put it on a bumper sticker to hand out to those who complain about having to send “their money” to “those schools” to help “those other kids”?
  • While Kansas is pretty mid-range on measures of funding level, we’re much worse on funding distribution (among districts within the state), earning a D. The wealthiest school districts have almost $1000/child more to spend than the poorest, rather than the compensating effect we would hope to see. But we’re not alone; only 14 states have progressive funding systems.
  • Kansas earned a B in state effort, which is measured by education spending as a percentage of real GDP. Given our current budget struggles, though, and the vow of the new Governor not to raise any taxes, I wonder how we’ll score a few years from now.

    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.

  • 7 responses to “Social Justice and the School Finance Formula

    1. Pingback: Social Justice and the School Finance Formula | Classroom to Capitol « Parents 4 democratic Schools

    2. Pingback: Social Justice and the School Finance Formula | Classroom to Capitol « Parents 4 democratic Schools

    3. Pingback: Social Justice and the School Finance Formula | Classroom to Capitol « Parents 4 democratic Schools

    4. I been watching SMSD for years and watching the disparity grow larger and larger between the schools. This has also occured throughout the state. I agree school finance is a social justice issue. It’s not really fair to compare schools that have so many opportunities and programs in place to ensure student success to schools that lack those programs. Those in less affluent areas just don’t have the funds to make up the state and local budget cuts.

      I also agree that we want all children to get strong educations. We want our children to grow up ready to discover new and creative answers to issues like global warming and cancer.
      It will be interesting to see how education in KS is impacted by Brownback and his quest not to raise taxes but to actually lower them.

      • Thanks, Lesa, for your comments, and for your tireless advocacy on education. We should talk sometime about some of my work as the legislative person for Parents as Teachers, and my concerns with the district’s legislative positions. I hope your second semester is starting off well!

    5. I want to shout, “Hear! Hear!” Before any other injustice can matter, the disparity in education must be addressed. Otherwise, “equal opportunity” is a complete sham.

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