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New Funding Reports Try to Sound the Alarms, But Simply Don’t Add Up

Are you interested in new K-12 “research” that creates new ways to measure funding, obsesses over inputs, rests on logical leaps, AND challenges its own claims? Well, then I have a couple reports for you!

The headlines create such drama:

Sure, the United States stands at or near the top of the world’s rankings in per-pupil spending, yet its students finish well below that on measures of math and science achievement. But somehow a disaster is looming, if we don’t spend more money. Or is it that money isn’t being spent equitably? Or both?

Let’s start with the Education Law Center’s “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.” As its title suggests, the report purports to focus on the issue of whether states provide “fair funding” based on student poverty.

Two of their four primary measures at least try to answer that question: A weighted measure of state funding based on student populations and regional economies called Funding Levels, and an attempt to show whether school districts with more poor students get more money through Funding Distribution. After that, the Education Law Center loses me by trying to measure Effort (spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product) and Coverage (the share and relative income of students being served by public vs. private schools — I’ve got an answer for that: School Choice!).

The authors grab on to a core of truth: funding reductions widely faced during the Great Recession. But they ignore federal funds used to help offset losses, ignore longer-term funding trends, or even get close to the most basic issue, which is: How much do schools and districts really need to serve students well?

That brings us to the other report, by the Education Law Center and Leadership Conference Education Fund called “Cheating Our Future: How Decades of Disinvestment by States Jeopardizes Equal Educational Opportunity.” It leads us to the conclusion: “State governments have failed to adequately and equitably resource schools.”

In a magical utopia land, with forests of money trees providing every dollar desired, giving endless funds to K-12 would be a wonderful policy. But we have to look at real trends and trade-offs, something at which this report falls short. A few other issues arise — these just have to do with the report’s portrayal of Colorado:

  • The foreword, citing the 2013 Lobato ruling, notes: “In Colorado, rural school districts lost a court challenge over school funding, but nearly everyone in the state knows that the playing field isn’t equal.” A later section dealing with the “aftermath” of the “devastating court loss” begins: “Colorado’s school funding system provides equity. The problem: Schools almost everywhere in the state are grossly underfunded….” Which assertion am I supposed to believe?
  • Without citing any instances of actual school district bankruptcy cases, the report tells us: “In Colorado, state-imposed local tax caps have been maxed out for years and bankrupt rural districts have no avenue to find new resources.” In fairness, these districts are elsewhere referred to as “near-bankrupt.”
  • The affluent Boulder Valley School District (less than 20% free and reduced lunch students) received nearly $12,000 per student in 2012-13, before approving a $576 million bond deal in 2014. Yet these salient facts are overlooked, as the report highlights the district as an example of experiencing “funding woes.” The school board president is quoted saying “Even though we’re in the best situation in the state, we still don’t have enough money to do the things we want to do.” My family wants to take me to Disney World Resort twice a year on our own private Lear Jet, but unfortunately that’s not happening either.

Taken together, these reports tell us that at the same time we need to close the funding gap for high-poverty school districts, we also need to spend more money overall. But the Education Law Center doesn’t confront the contradictions their own measurements show. One report starkly observes that Mississippi is “failing to provide even the required baseline of funding,” while the other report gives Mississippi a B grade for “Effort,” one of the highest ratings it has to offer.

Maybe though, just maybe, it’s not about crafting realistic solutions. In the end, you never really have to address how the extra dollars will improve outcomes for students. But if you create enough categories, you create enough states ranked 48th, 49th, or 50th. And you can go back to voters courts with compelling arguments to commit more resources. Meanwhile, after getting judges everywhere to rule more money is spent, you can come back later and find the same old (or new) states to rank 48th, 49th, and 50th.

What a gig.