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Janresseger: Public Education Budgets at State and Federal Levels Leave K-12 Public Schools in Hard Times

I suspect you have not seen a lot of details about the budget for the U.S. Department of Education, part of the remaining FY 2024 federal budget that had to be passed by Congress over the weekend and signed by President Biden in time to avoid a government shutdown.

The only report I’ve seen with any detail came from K-12 Dive’s Kara Arundel on Friday after a budget agreement had been reached but before it was passed by both houses of Congress: “The U.S. Department of Education would get $500 million less for fiscal year 2024 compared to the previous year—the agency’s first potential cut since FY 2015… The tentative agreement comes more than six months after the Oct. 1 deadline to finalize Education Department and several other agencies’ annual appropriations. A series of continuing resolutions has shielded the federal agencies from a government shutdown in the meantime… Under the proposal, Title I and state grants for special education services—two of the largest K-12 federal funding programs—would each get a $20 million increase over FY 2023 allocations. While a bump of $20 million for both does not seem like a financial victory…. a Republican-led proposal last year recommended cutting Title I funding by 80%.”

So… federal funding for K-12 public education is not the catastrophe many feared when House Republicans proposed slashing Title I by 80%, but it’s nothing to get excited about.  And the budget passed six months late.

The deeper school funding problems are at the state level, where the bulk of public school funding is prescribed by the state legislatures in the school funding formulas they establish.  At the end of January, based on the most recent data available from 2020-2021, Bruce Baker (University of Miami), Matthew Di Carlo (Albert Shanker Institute), and Mark Weber (Rutgers University) released their annual report on The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems, which explains how all this works: “In the United States, K-12 school finance is largely controlled by the states. Every year, hundreds of billions of dollars in public funds are distributed based on 51 different configurations of formulas, rules, and regulations to over 13,000 districts that vary in terms of the students they serve, their ability to raise revenue locally, and many other characteristics… Good school finance systems compensate for factors states cannot control…. (E)ducation costs vary depending on student populations, labor markets, and other factors… The key question… is not just how much states and districts spend but whether it’s enough…. Is funding adequate for students from all backgrounds…?” (emphasis in the original)

Baker, Di Carlo, and Weber report that the answer to their question is emphatically NO: “There are 39 states that devote a smaller share of their economies to their K-12 schools than they did before the 2007-09 recession… About 60 percent of the nation’s students that we identify as being in ‘chronically underfunded’ districts—the 20 percent of districts with the most inadequate funding in the nation are in just 10 states… Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas…. African American students are twice as likely as white students to be in districts with funding below estimated adequate levels, and 3.5 times more likely to be in ‘chronically underfunded’ districts…  Educational opportunity is unequal in every state… The largest gaps… tend to be in states, such as Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts… where wealthier districts contribute copious amounts of local (property tax) revenue to their schools.”

The Education Law Center released its annual school finance report on the same 2020-2021 data late in December 2023 and added to the worrisome conclusions: “Vast disparities in per-pupil funding levels persist with the highest funded state (New York) spending two and a half times more per pupil than the lowest funded state (Idaho) even after adjusting for regional cost differences.  Far too few states progressively distribute funds to high-poverty districts: more than half of the states evaluated have either flat or regressive funding distributions that disadvantage high-poverty districts. Many states lack the fiscal effort that is required to adequately fund schools.”

Baker, Di Carlo, and Weber also focus close attention to each state’s effort to fund schools: “Fiscal effort… measures how much of a state’s total resources are spent directly on K-12 education… (E)ffort is calculated by dividing total expenditures (state plus local)… by gross state product (GSP).” What worries these school finance experts is that when education funding fell in the 2007-2009 recession, state legislatures allowed their fiscal effort to fund education to fall as well, and in many places it has never recovered: “What’s truly disturbing—and unusual—is the fact that effort never recovered.  Between 2013 and 2021, when our data end, effort in the typical state remained mostly flat…. These trends since the 2007-2009 recession are in no small part the result of deliberate choices on the part of policymakers in many states to address their recession-induced revenue shortfalls primarily with budget cuts rather than a mix of cuts and revenue-raising.  In fact, a number of states actually cut taxes during and after the recession.” (emphasis in the original)

In a June 2023 column, Aidan Davis of the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy and Wesley Tharpe of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explore the impact of state tax cuts: “There’s a troubling trend in state capitols across the country: Some lawmakers are pushing big, permanent tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy…. These tax cuts will deplete the funding available for schools, infrastructure, health care and other public services. They will worsen inequality by making state tax codes less equitable and enriching those at the very top of the income scale. Meanwhile there will be cuts to public assets that are crucial for poor and middle -class families and less money for teachers in the classroom and for public safety personnel… The specific policies vary, but the outcome is the same: windfalls for disproportionately white households at the top and less public funding for education, health care, public transit, and emergency response , and other services that benefit all of us, but are particularly crucial to providing pathways to opportunity for low-income people of all races.”

In my state, Ohio, and many others, the impact of years of tax cuts on public school funding is being magnified by an enormous new diversion of state tax dollars to private school tuition vouchers that have proven to benefit wealthy families whose children already attend private schools. It is in this context that the federal education budget becomes extremely important.  The budget signed by President Biden over the weekend will not only prevent a U.S. government shutdown, but it will at least maintain Title I—a modest funding enhancement once it is spread across the states for school districts serving concentrations of poor children—and IDEA funding that partially supports programs for disabled children. It is not much compared to the enormous need, but the modest federal support is at least targeted for services for the vulnerable children that too many state legislators are failing to prioritize. When public school funding drops, class sizes grow, school districts shutter school libraries, counselor case loads rise to untenable levels, and teachers’ salaries fail to keep pace with those of other professionals.


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...