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School Funding Gets More Controversial

Critics of public schools argue that spending more on education will not improve academic achievement. They point out that educational expenditures have nearly tripled over the past four decades after adjusting for inflation but that overall student achievement has for the most part remained flat. Simply "throwing more dollars" at the problem will do little to improve outcomes.

Yet if money doesn't matter, why do suburban parents go to great lengths to supplement existing funding? Parents in the Shawnee Mission School District, a wealthy Kansas City suburb, are fighting to pay more taxes to support their local schools ("Tax Complaint: Too Low," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 14). So far, they've been frustrated because Kansas law puts a cap on how much money local school districts can raise from property taxes. School districts in Texas face a similar problem. In 2006, the Legislature placed limits on how much districts can raise local property taxes ("Aid Cuts Have Texas Schools Scrambling," New York Times, Feb. 15).

In California, the funding issue has an unusual twist. A complicated formula determines how much money each district receives from state and local taxes. In most districts, property taxes are insufficient. As a result the state provides the remainder. The trouble is that when state revenues fall, these "revenue limit" districts feel the pinch. In contrast, districts that are funded primarily by property taxes from affluent communities are more insulated from the vagaries of state revenues. California has 87 such "basic aid" districts out of more than 1,000 districts.

Suits have been filed in several states arguing that the way schools are funded violates their respective Constitutions. The courts have ruled that when states guarantee free public schooling they also have an obligation to make funding equal, regardless of the economic situation in the communities in which students live (equity argument). But courts have also ratcheted up the requirement that states provide an education to meet the demands of the 21st century (adequacy argument).

These criteria create a high hurdle in light of two developments. Childhood poverty has increased, until today the Census Bureau reports that one of five children falls into that category. At the same time, the number of non-English speaking children has grown as immigration has risen. These factors directly impact student achievement. But what makes them particularly formidable is the Great Recession, which has placed enormous pressure on how money is spent. It's a perfect storm that will inflict severe damage on efforts to provide all students with a quality education.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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