Skip to main content

Education Law Prof Blog: The Great Education Gerrymander: Another Framing for the Education Inequality Debate

The idea that “legislators are picking their constituents rather than constituents picking their legislators” may be the one the Supreme Court finally uses to stop vote gerrymandering.  This framing cuts through all the technicalities to suggest there is but one acceptable result.  Even better, the public understands it.

School funding begs for an analogous reframing.  Inequality and inadequacy claims do not always carry the rhetorical weight they ought to.  Some excuse inequality as nothing more than the result of wealthy neighborhoods trying to do more for their kids.  Others are skeptical of adequacy because they are not really sure what the term means or that it can be fairly defined.  Even the those who are not skeptics may have simply come to accept certain educational inequalities as tolerable facts of life.  In real dollar terms, school funding in most states is lower today than it was before the Great Recession, but arouses little outrage. 

A different framing might undercut these premises: Rather than ensure basic education for their citizens, states cook the books to maintain advantages for certain communities.   Or more concisely, rather than educate all students for citizenship, states pick winners and losers through their funding systems.

To stick, the rhetoric has to match reality, and most know very little of educational realities. So reframing school funding conversations is not enough.  The public needs to understand school funding in a way that confirms the reframing.

The new school funding decision by the Kansas Supreme Court in Gannon v. State presents one of several opportunities to bridge that gap.  The first thing to appreciate is that this is the Court’s fifth decision in the case in four years.  The case has not ended because the state will not act.  Instead, the state has threatened the court system itself.  When the Court did not cower, the state finally flinched this past summer, calling a special legislative session and passing a new education budget.

Yet, the budget reveals the state is still gerrymandering educational opportunity.  Unfortunately, no map or bottom line of a district budget can reveal this.  Gerrymanders happen in the subterranean levels of state funding formulas littered with demographic head counts, multipliers, and cost adjustments—all of which then intersect with other funds from local and federal government.

Kansas’s budget manipulates this complexity.    The 2018 budget looks plausible on its face, with substantial increases over the prior year.  But the budget fails to account for inflation in future years.  Within a couple of years, it will be underfunded again.  The state’s objective appears to be to placate the Court just long enough to get out from under its thumb.  While this strategy was relatively obvious, others require a much keener look at the budget.

The state revamped the base funding that it sends to districts.  Yet, rather than meeting student need, the revamp is designed to produce a result the state can tolerate.  The new budget is based on a successful schools approach.  The approach determines the necessary base per-pupil funding by examining how much successful schools spend on their students.  While fine as a general method, the state rigged its evaluation to produce an artificially low estimate of required funding.

The state did not actually identify and evaluate its most successful schools.  Instead, the state cherry-picked a sub-set of schools and looked at the most successful ones in that group.  The Court emphasized that many of the so-called successful schools in this subgroup had relatively high levels of student failure—as high as one in four students were achieving below grade level.  The other oddity was that these “successful” schools were among those that plaintiffs had originally argued were inadequately funded.  In other words, the schools the state chose were “merely the best, or the most efficient, of the constitutionally inadequate” schools.

The state also manipulated its funding increases for at-risk students.  While Kansas slightly increased the percentage bump it would provide for at-risk students, its actual per pupil funding for low-income students went down.  It went down because, again, the state had artificially lowered its general base per pupil funding.

The biggest culprit in Kansas, however, is the burden the state places on local districts.  The average districts must raise forty percent of its budget through local property taxes.  So no matter what sort of fuzzy math the state uses in its own formula, districts are left to close an enormous gap between state funding and the total actual cost of educating students. 

Districts with the largest percentages of at-risk students have far larger gaps to close, and tend to have less capacity to do it.   Their local tax bases are just too low or the politics skewed against it.  The state provides these disadvantaged districts very little help.  In fact, state law just makes matters worse, requiring a local vote on any increases in school taxes.  The practical result is to lock-in low funding in poor districts and allow wealthier ones to spend at their leisure.  Funding increases failed 81 percent of the time in poor districts, while passing 75 percent of the time in wealthy districts.  In short, the state creates very different burdens and possibilities for school districts.

The details in Kansas are important because they are emblematic of what occurs in so many other states.  While most state supreme courts have found inequities and inadequacies in their education systems, states manage to find new ways to gerrymander opportunity.  States decide how much they are willing to spend on education or which constituents they want to favor.  They then work backward to create a formula that will fit that result.  This is the great education gerrymander—one that is just as much a threat to our democracy as the manipulation of voting district lines, but harder to spot. 

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Derek W. Black

Derek Black is one of the nation’s foremost experts in education law and policy.  He focuses on educational equality, school funding, the constitutional right to ...