library bookshelf

Funding Reform Can Improve Public Education

Mar 21, 2022 | Education


Prior to and during the 19th Century, education was not free in most of the United States, and most schools were private or required tuition. Often, only wealthy families could afford to send their children to school. Horace Mann, a prominent education reformer, pushed the concept of a universal public education funded by state governments in the mid-19th century. This idea called for the states to support “a free, secular education.” When states first implemented universal primary and secondary education in the 19th Century, states exclusively funded it using taxpayer dollars. This funding model and the resulting success of public education were instrumental in how education developed to what it is today. 

Today, however, state funding methods are often unfair. They include what Bruce Baker, David G. Sciarra, and Danielle Farrie at the Education Law Center call “flat’ or ‘regressive’ funding distribution patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high poverty districts.” School funding can be looked at from the same fiscal perspective as progressive and regressive taxation. Currently, public schools rely heavily on local property taxes, thus creating resource disparities between schools in low- and high-income communities. Alternatively, Baker, Sciarra, and Farrie define a fair funding system as a system “designed ‘progressively’ so that funding increases relative to student poverty.” This type of funding system would greatly improve and equalize the quality of public schools and provide local governments with much-needed money for public schools, making the joint state-local funding model work effectively. States that invest more money in their public schools often have better-staffed schools with smaller class sizes and narrower achievement gaps. 

To address the existing inequities in education funding, public education should be funded by both the state and local governments. However, state governments should be the primary source of funding, with local governments providing supplemental support. Furthermore, local governments should have total discretion over how to spend education funding as it relates to upgrades to classroom technology or increasing teacher salaries, for example. Giving local governments total control over education spending will produce better education outcomes without impacting the state’s ability to determine the curriculum and program requirements. Local governments know what is best for their communities, can better respond to student needs, and typically try to implement more progressive policies, which cause tension with the states.

Funding for public schools must also increase incrementally. Incremental funding increases will ensure that there are more schools and more resources being allocated to each school. The implementation of public schools requires massive funding levels and then a funding plan that is progressive and sustainable for the future.    

States should also be able to provide necessary interventions over troubled school districts and primarily focus on underfunded districts. State takeovers of school districts have been one way that state governments have tried to fix problems with public education. Even though some state takeovers of school districts have led to troubling results, the idea of state takeovers is not completely terrible. For example, the New Jersey State Department of Education took action towards the school districts in Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark after evaluating each of the districts by issuing “show cause” orders. In the state takeover of Jersey City, the State of New Jersey identified numerous justifications to take over the school district even if they were too narrow or unjustified. The primary reason for the state takeover was poor performance in the public schools. Performance in this case is based on raw data such as test scores. Being too dependent on raw data and letting that determine oversight and funding levels is too narrow of an approach to solving education problems. Jersey City is a once-thriving industrial city that has continually declined and has had minimal state funding for public education. For districts like Jersey City, the state should provide additional funding and should ensure that resources are distributed equally. Baker, Sciarra, and Farrie’s findings confirm that “Increased funding leads to greater and more fairly distributed education resources. When states make a greater fiscal effort to fund their schools, school spending goes up, and that translates into higher staffing levels, smaller class sizes, and more competitive wages for teachers.” The state takeover eventually ended in 2017. 

Furthermore, the State of Pennsylvania, for example, took over the Philadelphia public school district in 2001. This takeover impacted “260 schools and 220,000 students.” The racial impact of school takeovers is often overlooked. According to David Berman, “Over 80 percent of the some 100 takeovers have occurred in districts where African Americans and Hispanics make up more than half of the student population.” However, not all funding and oversight activities by state and local governments have been negatively received. By preempting elected school boards, local government control offers one alternative to state takeovers that has been better received. 

Handing control over school districts to mayors is another strategy that governments have implemented for failing school districts, and it is viewed more positively than state takeovers. Mayors can allocate local funds to the school districts and decide who can serve on the school boards. The mayor would also bear additional responsibility for school performance. The biggest impact of local takeovers is that they make public education issues more visible at the local level. If public education becomes essential for the mayors, then education would likely receive more funding in local budgets. Spending more money on education should lead to better results in schools and a lower achievement gap. Even with the debate on whether politicians or education professionals should oversee education, the joint model of state and local governments funding education is essential. Without funding primarily from the states and additional local government funding, education cannot improve.

Larger school districts typically have complex problems. Some of these problems apply to all school districts such as the allocation of funding and resources. There are many different resources that need to be allocated equally to each school and district. Fiscal distress likely plays a role in why some districts are underfunded and why resources are not distributed equally. 

Moreover, schools are often the target of state budget cuts. Currently, public schools receive “about half of their funding from state tax revenues, which have taken a big hit in the pandemic.” This will be a bigger challenge post-pandemic as states must allocate more money to schools than they may have in the past. Furthermore, budget cuts to education have sharply risen in recent years. In fact, budget cuts have been as high as “in the 20-30% range.” Given the steepness of these budget cuts, it makes the state-local joint funding model even more essential. 

The joint state-local funding model is the most effective for schools. It allows both the state and local governments to fund schools while providing the best quality possible in an efficient manner. 

Featured Image by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash.