School Beat: Imagining A New Funding Framework for Schools

by Lisa Schiff on January 27, 2011

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night promised a continuation of flawed education strategies while ignoring the need for truly transformative actions. Reaffirming his support for the exclusionary and unfair approach of competitive grants as embodied in the Race To The Top (RTTT) program, Obama once again sidestepped the most fundamental challenges our students and their schools are facing – increasing child poverty across the nation and chronic underfunding of education in almost all states.

If our children are to have a new and better educational future, one that lays the foundation for living a full engaged-life, thus benefitting all of us, then addressing poverty and school finance must be the first priorities of elected officials and educational leaders, beginning with the White House and Congress. When President Obama announced allocating more money to education, two years of experience with his policies tell us that addressing baseline school finance is not where that money will go, but instead will be spent on expansion of RTTT type efforts, “innovation” grants for tracking students and grading teachers and the increase of privatization of schools. Despite the President’s confidence, this is simply the wrong direction.

A new vision of our schools, in which the various needs and interests of our tremendously heterogeneous population are taken seriously, begins with recognizing today’s harsh economic realities. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21% of children are in families with an income below the federal poverty level ($22,050 for a family of four) and 42% are in families described as low-income, meaning they have an income less than twice the federal poverty level. While these statistics are quite a condemnation of life in the U.S. in general, they also have particular educational implications. Kids struggling with issues related to poverty will struggle in school as well, plain and simple. Reducing poverty indirectly improves educational outcomes.

Since poverty is in so many respects an over-determining factor for our schools, it is an arena of work that education activists can jump into. Our vision for a better public school system will by necessity be aligned with a vision of reduced – better yet, eliminated – poverty. When funding for schools comes at the cost of programs for poor families, as in the case of the federal emergency funding to prevent teacher layoffs, or in Governor Jerry Brown’s recent budget proposal, no student comes out ahead. As much as schools need those dollars, we need to resist those kinds of trade-offs.

Holding that line will be difficult at best, given the huge gaps in school budgets. But the problem is not just within states, it’s across states as well. Our model, where education is controlled and primarily funded state by state (federal funding is a relatively small proportion of a given state’s school budget, just over 12% for California), has lead to tremendous differences and inequities across the country, as can be seen in the annual reports from the National Education Association (NEA).

Californian’s know how consistently low we rank in per pupil funding – 44th in K-12 per pupil expenditures for 2008-09 (Table H-16 of the NEA’s Rankings of the States 2009 and Estimates of School Statistics 2010). For certain this should be cause for alarm for Californian’s, but it should worry the rest of the country as well. As much as we might like to see our states as separate entities, they are interdependent. Families move and children who began school in one state finish in another, and eventually grow up and move to a third. In each of these states the educational experience will have varied, with differences in funding and expectations, yet we all feel either the benefit or the cost of those variations, regardless of which state we’ve been hunkered down in.

While the states’ rights sentiment is powerful, our national interests couldn’t be clearer – we need all of our children to be well-educated, regardless of where that education happens. The federal government has a huge opportunity to begin to bring in line funding standards and expectations, hopefully raising and normalizing the resources states put into their public schools program.

At the same time that we advocate for increases in school funding, we need to advocate for rationalization and transparency in our funding systems. These needs have been well-detailed in California’s case, starting with the Stanford Getting Down to Facts report of a few years ago to the more recent reports from the Public Policy Institute of California proposing finance reforms to streamline and increase funding. Without such changes, structures for site-based decision making such as School Site Councils and community oversight efforts are little more than empty gestures.

More important than aligning today’s current meager education budgets is committing to expanding them. Rhetorical flourishes from Washington aside, there is no point in dreaming about the schools we feel our children need and deserve if we don’t intend to fund those aspirations. Education budgets should be approached from a new perspective and with new respect – the needs are essential. The national conversation we need to have now should not be about the dollar amount we are willing to spend, but about how to best provide the education we feel is necessary.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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