The Important Education Issue Leaders Are Still Ignoring

President Obama smiles Thursday after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

The Important Education Issue Leaders Are Still Ignoring

One of the more telling combinations of news stories from the past week found education policy insiders in Washington, DC rejoicing over the passage of a new law rewriting federal education policy while at the same time a new report revealed how political leadership is continuing to fail America' public schools.

One of the more telling combinations of news stories from the past week found education policy insiders in Washington, DC rejoicing over the passage of a new law rewriting federal education policy while at the same time a new report revealed how political leadership is continuing to fail America' public schools.

This is not to say that revising federal education policy wasn't a worthwhile goal. For sure, the new law, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has corrected some harmful aspects of federal education policy. Many good commentaries have pointed out significant problems with the new law too. But such is the nature of legislating. You don't always get everything you want.

However, despite all the celebration surrounding ESSA, the issue that remains mostly unaddressed in education policy is the massive under-funding that most states continue to inflict on public schools. The ugly truth about how political leaders continue to underfund local schools was exposed in a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Schools Aren't Getting The Money They Need

The new CBPP report finds, "Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools - in some cases, much less - than before the Great Recession." This is an issue that should be front-and-center in education discussion, not something burbling in the background while education policy leaders congratulate each other over a job well done.

As the commentary from CBPP on its report explains, state funding is a key factor in any assessment of the health and well being of the nation's public schools. K-12 schools generally rely on their respective state government to supply about 46 percent of their funding. Local governments provide another 45 percent, and the federal government chips in only 9 percent on average.

The significance of funding sources varies considerably from state to state, given state funding formulas and the demographics of a specific districts (schools with large populations of low-income, nonwhite students receive extra federal funds through a provision called Title I). But "because schools rely so heavily on state aid," CBPP explains, "cuts to state funding (especially formula funding) generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both."

Also, the severity of these funding cuts varies considerably from state to state. CBPP reports that while at least 31 states are guilty of underfunding schools, some states are worse than others. In 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent, and 12 states have imposed new cuts, even as the national economy continues to improve.

Alternative sources of education funding have not come forward to address the downturn of the states. Although CBPP found that in most states local funding for education has risen somewhat to counterbalance state cuts, total local funding nationally "declined between 2008 and 2014, adding to the damage from state funding cuts."

Federal funds for K-12 schools are also down, from their high of 11 percent average of school budgets in 2010 to the current level of 9 percent.

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Money Matters

Importantly, as the CBPP commentary states, "money matters for educational outcomes," especially for low-income children, whose best interest, many have said, is the main intention of federal education policy. The CBPP commentary points to two recent studies showing the positive impact of increased school funding on students.

The most recent of the two studies found "a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty ... The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families."

Deep funding cuts also hamper schools' ability to implement many of "reforms" federal education policy makers say they are so keen on, including higher salaries, costly data systems, and increased spending on education technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

What Spending Cuts Mean To Students

The impact of funding cuts revealed by CBPP at a 30,000-foot view is most apparent when viewed closer to ground level.

In Virginia - where education funding is still over 11 percent bellow 2008 levels, according to CBPP - the Washington Post reports schools have cut 11,200 staff members statewide while student enrollment increased more than 42,000 students during the same time period.

Many of the additional students pose greater challenges to more time-strapped teachers -- 39 percent more are economically disadvantaged, 33 percent more don't speak English as their first language, and the number of homeless students is up 73 percent.

In Pennsylvania, an ongoing funding crisis has driven many schools to borrow in order to make payroll. Some schools that are closing for the upcoming Winter break may not have the money to open up when the students return in January.

In Washington state, where a court order fines the state $100,000 a day for inadequate school funding, parents have organized to raise money for staffing levels in schools their children don't attend.

In North Carolina - where education funding is still nearly 14 percent bellow 2008 levels, according to CBPP - the impact of funding cuts are especially glaring.

As education correspondent Lindsay Wagner reports from the Tarheel State, since 2008, "the economy has recovered significantly, but state spending on education has not. And that is reflected in the disappearance of teacher assistants and in schools left scrambling for supplies, textbooks, and professional development for their educators."

Wagner's ground level reporting from districts across the state reveals schools where lack of funding has bloated class sizes to out-of-hand levels and eliminated one-to-one assistance for struggling students. In many of these schools, lack of money means textbooks and teaching supplies are scarce, vital art, music, and other elective programs are a memory, and classes that help low-performing students no longer exist.

"There's no turnaround in sight," Wagner reports. "For fiscal 2015, state lawmakers cut funding for at-risk student services programs by more than $9 million."

At the same time the funding cuts continue, education "reforms" continue to roll out from state lawmakers, including new requirements for schools to "do better at remediating students who don't read proficiently" and "a new A-F school grading scheme that punishes schools whose students don't perform well on standardized tests."

Wagner observes, "Without the funds and resources necessary to accomplish these end goals, the desired results appear to be very difficult to achieve.'

A Real 'Reform' Agenda, If We Want One

The problems caused by inadequate funding are no doubt most acute in schools that need money the most - where populations of non-white students go to get educated.

As a recent report amplified by The Atlantic revealed, "schools with a lot of minority students are chronically underfunded," especially, it appears, because those schools are populated with mostly non-white students. According to the study, the article reported, "No matter how rich or poor the district in question, funding gaps existed solely based on the racial composition of the school."

One wonders why organizations promoting "education reform" make standardized testing and certain mandated "performance outcomes" the focal points of their advocacy rather funding issues.

It's not that the research basis to argue for increased school funding isn't there. As Ben Spielberg argues on his personal blog, that research base "is at least as strong as, if not stronger than, that behind practically any other education policy proposal" currently in consideration in the "reform" agenda.

There's evidence the political will to support increased funding for schools is there too, at least among voters. Even in red states such as Arizona, - which leads the nation in cutting school funding by more then 23 percent, according to CBPP surveys show significant willingness among voters to raise taxes in order to more adequately fund schools.

"Increased funding, to be useful, must of course be spent in smart ways," Spielberg contends. "Money by itself isn't a panacea. But it's important to get the facts right: Money matters, and it matters quite a bit."

Yet despite the facts of the matter, he concludes, "We've yet to target and sustain increased funding in schools that serve our neediest students. Especially when it comes to low-income areas, America definitely can - and should - invest more in K-12 public education."

That would be a real "reform" agenda education policy leaders should be working on, if they want one.

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