Mindless Underfunding Of Schools Continues, Doing Harm To Kids

Jeff Bryant

High school graduation season is in full bloom in many communities around the nation, but in some places, parents with children still in schools have to be worried about the conditions of the schools they’ll return to in the fall – or even if the schools will open at all.

As states wrap up their budget seasons, many lawmakers are proving they simply aren’t up to the task of adequately funding schools. State spending, which accounts for about half of most public school districts’ budgets, has been in steep decline for a number of years in most states, leaving most local taxing authorities, which provide about the other half, unable to keep up unless the populace is wealthy enough to withstand higher property taxes. (Federal spending accounts for less than 10 percent of school funding, historically.)

Many of these lawmakers say the problem with the nation’s education system is lack of accountability, but school kids and their teachers are being hurt by government officials not being accountable to adequately and equitably fund our schools.

In Chicago, the nation’s fourth largest school system, the district’s school chief announced schools may not open in the fall due to a budget impasse in the state capital. Separate funding bills in the state House and Senate have drawn the ire of conservative Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who would prefer to inflict on schools a program of tough love that includes a $74 million cut in funding to Chicago.

It’s not as if the city’s schools are living in the lap of luxury. Inadequate budgets have driven up class sizes in every grade way beyond the point they are officially permitted. District chief Forest Claypool has already told Chicago principals they should prepare for whopping cuts of between 20 to 40 percent to their school budgets, which will drive class sizes through the roof.

The budget impasse, according to a report from the Associated Press, imperils schools across the state. According to the AP reporter. Democrats want new taxes, “but Rauner first wants pro-business and union-weakening reforms, ideas Democrats say hurt the middle class.”

In other words, no more money for schoolchildren until teachers make sacrifices.

As Rauner was defending his miserly stance, he took a swipe at Chicago schools, comparing them to “crumbling prisons.” That set off a firestorm on Twitter, where Chicago teachers defended the good things their institutions do to provide to students despite the budget cuts.

Actually, if the schools were more like prisons, they might be more apt to get a funding increase, as Rauner has proposed a substantial increase to prison spending for 2016.

Illinois isn’t the only state hell-bent on cutting money for schools.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state lawmakers across the nation, especially in the Midwest, are at seemingly intractable odds over how “to make sure the next school year can start on time.”

In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has called a special session of the state legislature “after the state’s supreme court last month once again ruled that the state’s funding formula is inequitable and threatened to shut off funding to the schools,” according to a report from Education Week.

The court keeps telling state lawmakers the state is not funding schools based on what they deserve, according to another EdWeek report. State Republican lawmakers have considered various ways to circumnavigate the ruling, including changing the state constitution, but Democrats siding with the court forced their hand by petitioning for the special session.

Meanwhile, schools in Kansas City, Kan., where nearly 90 percent of the students are poor, “had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks,” according to The Hechinger Report.

The cuts are promulgated regardless of how the schools perform. In the case of Kansas City, schools had been making “double-digit” increases in some measures of achievement prior to the financial cutbacks that started in response to economic downturns in 2008.

Hechinger quotes a district administrator, “You could see the performance begin to decline as we had to cut back on people, human resources and all kinds of things to support our students.”

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers enacted improvements to the state funding formula, a long-standing problem in the state, but left budgets mired at levels below what is needed to make the formula meaningful. Due to the inadequacy of state funding, a statewide survey of local officials finds “at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A third of respondents said their schools will increase class sizes in the year ahead.

This time the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat leading the charge for increasing school funding, but the legislature controlled by Republicans “oppose new taxes and say the state needs to cut costs and find new funding streams.”

In Michigan, Detroit public schools will be out of money and unable to make payroll by June 30, according to a report from Reuters. House Republicans narrowly passed a bill to bail out the beleaguered school system, but Democratic leaders and the city’s mayor and teachers call the proposal a wasteful stopgap that funnels more money to charter schools while leaving the district adrift.

The big problem left unaddressed is how the state continues to underfund schools throughout the system. As a blog post from a district superintendent in the state explains, education funding in Michigan is in a 20-year decline. “This makes it impossible to provide the same level of teacher staffing, instructional materials, facilities maintenance, administration and operations,” he laments.

Outside the Midwest, “natural resource-dependent states” – such as Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia – are pulling “millions from their rainy day funds,” rather than raising taxes, to fund schools, according to Education Week. In Louisiana, the budget proposal would still leave schools in the lurch financially, leading to “teacher layoffs, cuts to programs, and cuts to the state’s department of education.”

Arizona is taking generally the same course, passing new legislation that raises education funding by raiding the state’s permanent endowment that supports stable financial resources for schools.

In Trenton, New Jersey, hundreds of teachers and school supporters rallied to protest funding cuts being proposed by the state’s conservative Republican Governor Chris Christie.

In North Carolina, conservative lawmakers are bragging about new teacher raises they just passed, but the state budget cuts millions from principal training, school Internet service, after-school programs, and a scholarship program to help fill shortages in math and science teachers.

“Can [school] districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring?” asks the author of the Hechinger article cited above. “How little money is too little for schools to function well?”

Maybe instead of cutting school funding to see how low it can go, it’s time we asked instead, “How much money for education is too much?” Indeed, without any real evidence that excess funding in the system is actually harming students and taxpayers, this continued austerity in education spending is mindless.

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