After All These Years,
Can’t We Reach Common Ground on School Funding?
Part 1 – Setting the Stage
AND // The California Model with Michael Kirst
Part 2 – Forging Agreement from Karen Jez
AND // A Feature on Titusville, Pennsylvania
Part 3 – Building the Path to Equity from William Hite, Jr.
AND // A Feature on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In This Article
Setting the Stage
In a time when American society seems more polarized than at any time in the recent past, the question of equitable funding for K-12 education — or the very definition of the word “equitable” — is often a matter for heated debate.
The argument is as old as funding for one-room schoolhouses and is played out broadly at the national level and often more intensely at the local level.
It is a debate about funding, funding sources, control and measurable values. At the level of state governments, there are progressive funding plans that aren’t always adequate, and there are state plans with adequate funding and wildly differing levels of education fairness.
Your own views on equitable education funding may vary depending on the size or demographics of your district. Within our communities there may be greater divergence of opinion. Most want what is best for “our” children, but that may not be what is best for “all” children.
In most states, there is a long history of education funding heavily dependent on local real estate taxes. It would be difficult to construct a funding system that could be more inequitable. It guarantees that if my district is one of high real estate values and commensurately higher real estate taxes, I’ll have more funding for students on a per-pupil basis. Indeed, the quality of local schools is a fundamental selling point for real estate in particular townships or neighborhoods.
The notion that this funding formula is unfair goes back to at least the 1960s when a group of parents in San Antonio, Texas sought relief in the courts essentially contending that education was an equal right and entitled to equal protection or, more simply, equal funding.
The case, San Antonio Independent School District, et al. v. Demetrio P. Rodriguez, et al. made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, overturning a district court ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that funding based on real estate values caused funding disparities but said those inequities were not entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
The federal government has since tried to remedy these inherent inequities by tying federal education funding to school performance at the state and local levels, and states have embarked on other remedies — some more quickly, or more effectively, than others. Lawsuits challenging funding have been brought in 45 out of 50 states.
Few states have addressed equitable funding more diligently than California. Michael W. Kirst is president of the California State Board of Education, and there are not many Americans with more experience than Kirst in education inequities or the politics that attack or preserve them.
Kirst is working under the current reincarnation of California Governor Jerry Brown, first serving that same governor in the 1970s. Kirst has seen his own state move from inequity to “horizontal” equity toward what he calls “vertical equity” and the “adequacy” movement.
What Kirst means by horizontal equity are funding plans that allocate funding by the size of the district. To move further toward true equity means tying funding down to the individual pupil needs. To get there initially meant moving from real estate taxes to other sources of education funding.
“To move further toward true equity means tying funding down to the individual pupil needs.”
“So you have this, ever since the early ‘70s, this crazy system where you have states that are highly equalized and then states that are not — like Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania — all of which had never done a thing of any substance in terms of large-scale equity,” Kirst said.
According to Kirst, California has begun the process of moving past just equalizing districts.
“We have both horizontal and vertical equity in California … you had to have a state formula that accommodated pupil needs,” said Kirst.
While some areas of need are difficult to quantify, California measures things like the number of children in poverty, foster care or those just learning English. In districts with high concentrations of such children, California allocates as much as 50 percent more state funding per pupil.
Kirst has been actively and enthusiastically working at education equity for more than 50 years, and he’ll be the first to admit that equity doesn’t always mean adequacy. California, according to Kirst, spends less than half as much per pupil as states like New York. You may know Kirst as the co-author of “The Political Dynamics of American Education,” now in its fourth edition and arguably the most widely used text in politics of education classes. He sees windows of opportunity for equitable and adequate education funding as varying state by state. He credits political solidarity in California, coupled with a progressive state income tax and an economic boom, as factors amenable to more adequate education funding.
Books, White Papers and Studies
“The Relationship Between School Spending and Student Achievement: A Review and Analysis of 35 Years of Production Function Research”
— Deborah A. Verstegen and Richard A. King
“Does Money Matter?: The Effect of School Resources on Student Achievement and Adult Success”
— Eric A. hanushek
“The Political Dynamics of American Education”
— Michael Kirst
Kirst doesn’t suggest that answers to local education performance issues must be driven by the state.
“So our view out here is, clearly this state is too big — 6.2 million children from about Maine to South Carolina — and too complex for Jerry Brown and I to figure out how to spend your money. So we are trying to reform the local budget process, which has been a sleepy affair where local budgets are rarely related to student outcomes, and work from the bottom up,” said Kirst.
Kirst defines the California effort as a “massive experiment,” and he is well aware of those who would suggest that there is very little relationship between funding and student performance. For example, there’s economist Eric A. Hanushek with Stanford’s Hoover Institution who is credited with saying “money doesn’t matter” in student achievement. He points to nearly 400 studies that refute a “strong relationship between student performance and school resources” after family circumstances are considered.
Still, Kirst, also at Stanford where he is professor emeritus of education and business administration, would argue that he has never seen one of these funding experts put his or her own child in a low spending, low income district with minimal services.
Kirst moves fluently from the language of educators to the language of economics, especially regarding his ideas of education “capacity.”
“As you ratchet up standards and accountability you need to ratchet up the capacity of the educators to teach to those high standards,” said Kirst. “And you are never better than your teaching force.”
Kirst sees the need for a balance of policies. “I’m not a big fan of just pounding them with accountability as your sole policy instrument,” said Kirst. “I have 325,000 teachers and we have revamped all four curriculum areas in California — next generation science standards, for example. So, how can I get the capacity building to teachers and principals?”
If building capacity through equitable and adequate funding is critical to educating large populations, it is no less so in the smallest of environments.
Consider the needs of schools in rural Pennsylvania, a state still bound by outdated funding formulas and filled with small communities once driven economically by oil, coal, steel and heavy manufacturing.
Forging Agreement on the Mission of Public Education Then Funding
The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.
– John Adams, U.S. president, letter to John Jebb, 1785
The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men in all ages, as the surest foundation of the happiness of both private families and of commonwealths. Almost all governments have therefore made it a principal object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified to serve the public with honor to themselves, and to their country.
—Benjamin Franklin, U.S. statesman, inventor and diplomat, “Proposals Related to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,” 1749
By Karen Jez
Head of Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools & Superintendent, Titusville Area School District
“From the early days of the nation, public education has played a vital role in American democratic society. In addition to preparing young people for productive work and fulfilling lives, public education has also been expected to accomplish certain collective missions aimed at promoting the common good. These include, among others, preparing youth to become responsible citizens, forging a common culture from a nation of immigrants, and reducing inequalities in American society.
In recent years, however, some of these public-spirited missions of education have been neglected and are in danger of being abandoned. Most current efforts to reform public education have focused on increasing students’ academic achievement — without a doubt, a central purpose of schooling. But the reasons given for why it’s important to improve achievement often stress individual or private economic benefits (such as preparing youth for good jobs in a global economy), rather than public benefits (such as preparing youth for active citizenship in a democratic society). An emphasis on the individual goals of education is especially obvious in proposals to give families vouchers toward private school tuition — proposals that treat education as a private consumer good. As many developing nations understand quite well, investing in public education is one of the surest means to improving a nation’s economic standing.”
– Center on Education Policy, “Why We Still Need Public Schools: Public Education for the Common Good,” 2007.
The majority of U.S. students attend public schools, the quality of our public education system not only affects their ability to get a good job but it also impacts our nation’s ability to compete in a global economy.
Therefore, leaders are obligated to come together using our knowledge, expertise and experiences to begin the civil discourse on educational school funding. It is our responsibility to build relationships across all sectors of our immediate communities, the states in which we live and the nation to define or reestablish the mission of public education in America of preparing our youth for productive work, fulfilling lives and promoting the common good of, and for, the nation.
If we, collectively, can agree on the purpose of a free appropriate system of public education in America, then the funding conversation could take a very different path from the recent trends of privatization, to finding ways to fund the public system from which all individuals, communities and the nation will benefit. It is important to understand that the traditional industrial-aged system of education, which prepared many generations successfully for the past economic reality and workforce needs, must be transitioned to a personalized learning model which encourages creativity, and incorporates hands-on, authentic learning opportunities for all children at their developmental learning levels.
In conclusion, economic development leaders need to sit together and listen with open minds to reach common ground on how to best fund our system of public education which will ensure that all children from different racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds learn to respect each other, build a common culture for our nation and continue our economic strength in the world.
If you don’t know Titusville, you’ll learn that it was once one of America’s first oil boom towns. Those days are long gone. You can buy one of the best houses in Titusville — and other communities like it — for about $100,000, so if you’re funding schools from real estate taxes, you don’t have much from which to draw. Good jobs are hard to find and much of the land surrounding these kinds of towns are state or federally protected and cannot be developed.
According to the 2010 census, about 13 percent of Titusville households live below the poverty line.
A school day in Titusville might begin by getting on a bus as early as 6:30 a.m. and might end getting off a bus sometime after 4 p.m. In rural communities like Titusville, the “school” is more than just a place you go for an education.
In Tiny Titusville, Pennsylvania,
A Lack of Funding Impedes Progress but Doesn’t Eliminate It
Shared Tenets of Public Education
- Advancement of American student achievement is paramount.
- Education outcomes have bearing on our country’s economic success.
- Mediocrity isn’t acceptable.
- Disparities in education quality are real and must be addressed.
- Standards for teacher and student performance have merit.
- Accountability in the classroom matters, so does giving teachers what they need to meet student needs.
- Innovating new, smart spending practices is not a partisan approach.
“The schools are the hub. They are the center of the community. Our high school never sleeps. It’s used by every community group out there and we welcome that,” said Karen Jez, superintendent, Titusville Area School District. Most of the children in Titusville attend public schools and most people in the community are satisfied with the school setting.
To Jez, the “need” level for rural students and their families may mirror urban needs in some ways but may also be more hidden. “There may be three families living here in a single family trailer. It’s harder to determine family need, and so the whole poverty issue is a huge concern in rural America, not just Pennsylvania,” said Jez. “The need for a consistent funding formula, whether it’s the Title I funding from the federal level or the basic education funding formula at the state level, there needs to be some consistency that take into account things that happen in rural America.”
The lack of funding impedes education innovation but does not eliminate it. Jez is part of a personalized learning experiment that customizes learning opportunities based on knowledge levels, rather than grade levels related to a student’s age.
“When you customize learning opportunities you’re taking the same 8-year-old that is a first grade learner in age but may be progressing at a rate equivalent to a third grade curriculum. By customizing, and using the technology available to us, we can accommodate that,” said Jez.
Parents of students involved in the initial rollout are pleased, but the costs and availability of technology present some challenges for rural communities.
“I can tell you right here in the Titusville Area School District we are 200 square miles, and there are some areas that don’t have any cell phone service and people are living with dial-up connectivity,” said Jez. “A funding formula is great on its intent but if the legislative bodies don’t put the dollars behind it, the formula won’t work,” she said.
Working Together to Build the Path to Equity
Here in Philadelphia, our mission is to deliver on the civil right of every child to an excellent public school education and ensure all children graduate from high school ready to succeed with the ability to fully engage as a citizen of our world. This mission is operationalized by a vision of having for all children a great school close to where they live.
By William Hite Jr., Ed.D.
Superintendent, The School District of Philadelphia
This map of all Philadelphia public schools (district and charter) displays each of our school’s performance on our School Progress Report. This is an accountability framework using an overall index score from three domains for all schools and a fourth domain for high schools: achievement, progress, climate and college and career readiness for high schools. Schools with the lowest index scores across each domain fall in the bottom quartile (red) and represent schools whose progress report score is 25 or below. The next group features the schools with an index score of 26-50 (orange). Schools that make up the top two quartiles, 51-75 and 76-100, are the green and purple schools, respectively.
“Seeking to find common ground with these stakeholders community has allowed us to considerable progress Philadelphia over the last five years, and I am grateful for that.”
While our vision is to have great schools close to where children live, this map shows that 80 percent of our schools fall in the bottom two quartiles of our accountability framework. This means that across all schools, too few students are reading or doing math on grade level and/or attending school regularly and/or satisfied with their school experience and/or graduating on time, etc.
We must continue improving as a district on our path to equity, creating great schools close to where children live, which means that our work — and the funding that supports that work — must be specific, intentional and measurable. Our work is defined in our strategic plan.
In order to make our plan a reality we need to make strides in management and funding.
On the management side, it means the district becomes a demand-driven system that defines the most important level of operations at the school level and, therefore, all decision-making is based on nothing other than what’s best for students. On the fiscal side, the district must take a sharper view of resource allocations and funding activities (including schools) that are producing positive results. This forces a move away from incremental budgeting toward performance budgeting, best practice, decision making equipped with academic return on investment data.
Unfortunately, districts like Philadelphia have been operating on financial life support that is inadequate to meet the needs of all the city’s children. Any resource reallocation made with the best or most noble intentions will create losers. Although we subscribe to the position that the district needs to move toward a rational, equitable way of allocating resources based on desired actions and results, we cannot do this currently without accounting for those students who live the reality of having (additional) funding stripped from their schools. And, we have found it not good enough to assume that “the funding will come” for more expensive schools, while we continue to diminish the available resources from neighborhood schools.
Clearly the funding needs to be fixed. In the meantime, we must balance our equity and quality agendas while ensuring that they are not in conflict.
So, how do we as a district reach sustainable funding that improves quality and results in equity? We must continue to work with government, corporations, non-profits and individuals to secure the funding we need. This is a process. Seeking to find common ground with these different stakeholders in our community has allowed us to make considerable progress in Philadelphia over the last five years, and I am grateful for that. Despite the challenges that exist today I am optimistic about our future.
Did You Know
In 2016, Pennsylvania passed a new weighted funding formula that accounts for differences in need based on the number of students living in poverty or learning English and giving extra to districts with diminished ability to generate funding from tax revenue. Still, advocates argue the formula falls short for its failure to address what schools need to meet more rigorous state standards and accountability measures. What’s more, the formula “locks-in” inequities, as it applies only to funding increases.
Depending on how the statistics are compiled, Philadelphia is often described as having more people in need as a percentage of population than any of America’s other 10 largest cities. Its history over the last 10 years or so is one of funding cuts, state takeover, lawsuits and criticism from all sides.
It is described as beleaguered by many and hopeless by some, but it has a superintendent of schools determined to make progress, despite an ongoing funding crisis. William R. Hite Jr. was named superintendent in 2012 and was recently given a five-year contract extension by the School Reform Commission that oversees the district.
Hite is, by necessity, an optimist and, according to news accounts, has made political headway in the state capital, where antipathy toward all things Philadelphia is often a prevailing mood. That’s especially true when it comes to equitable, adequate funding for urban schools.
Funding Philadelphia’s Schools
Hite cites an $800 million cut in stimulus spending on Pennsylvania education as a driving force in the budget crisis, but inequity is also a problem. The Commonwealth’s new funding formula is a step in the right direction but it only applies to new revenue so most monies are still distributed in block grants. Pennsylvania also has a “Hold Harmless” provision that allocates the same funding to districts in rapid student population decline.
“When our state revenue is $1.4 billion — a pretty significant chunk of money for education — and all coming to one location, then it creates some bias,” Hite said. He also acknowledged that a history of monies that were misused or labor contracts seen as too generous were also part of a historical bias that wasn’t necessarily unwarranted.