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By Amanda Litvinov
Every school funding battle is unique. But three current conflicts have something in common: State leaders threw out (Kansas) or are attempting to throw out (New Jersey, Mississippi) a school funding formula, blaming the formula itself for their school funding problems.
It’s a tactic meant to divert attention from the real issue of chronic underfunding, say public school advocates.
The state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state has failed to fund schools by hundreds of millions of dollars per year. It is yet another indictment of Gov. Sam Brownback’s “march to zero taxes,” which has drained the state’s revenues and with it, the ability to adequately fund essential services such as public education.
The state’s Republican-controlled legislature has until the end of June to replace Gov. Brownback’s block grant funding system with a new school funding law.
High school science teacher and Kansas-NEA President Mark Farr said the ruling is “a hard fought victory for Kansas students and affirms what parents and teachers throughout Kansas know: Our students have been short-changed as a net result of Brownback’s reckless policies.”
No one knows that better than Kansas Sen. Minority Leader and veteran teacher Anthony Hensley. He helped craft the promising school finance policy that passed in 1992, was chronically underfunded, and was repealed by Gov. Brownback and his allies.
“Now, more than ever, Gov. Brownback and Republican legislative leaders must stop playing political games and get serious about fully funding our children’s and grandchildren’s education,” Hensley said in a statement in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We have to get this right and we have to do it right now.The future of Kansas children depends on it.”
Last month, Gov. Chris Christie finally stopped pushing his so-called “Fairness Formula,” a school funding proposal that would have given every district the exact same amount for every student regardless of any other factors. Public school advocates objected, given that students living in poverty typically require more services than their wealthier peers, and their communities have less ability to dedicate local money to schools.
Now, Christie is calling for the legislature to agree to a new school funding formula within the next 100 days. The Education Law Center has identified New Jersey’s existing school funding formula as one of the more progressive models out there—it just needs to be fully funded. The state Senate president said on the record that although they would consider tweaks, “we’re not doing a new formula.”
High school math teacher and NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer says instead of trying to change the formula, Gov. Christie should instead be committing to funding it. “His attempt to demonize the formula itself, when he has never funded it or allowed it to work, is typical of his strategy of casting blame wherever he can to distract from his abject failures,” said Steinhauer in a statement. “But facts are stubborn things.”
Last fall, legislative leaders in Mississippi approved a $250,000 no-bid contract to hire an out-of-state firm called EdBuild to “modernize” the state’s school funding formula. The Republican-controlled legislature has talked for years of revamping or repealing the funding law, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).
But many public school advocates, including the Mississippi Association of Educators, point out that the formula–which was designed to increase equity across the state, providing more state funds to poor districts with less local revenue–has been fully funded only twice since it was enacted in 2003.
“Since fiscal year 2008, state leaders have created a public education funding crisis to the tune of $1.5 billion,” wrote MEA President Joyce Helmick, who has 37 years of experience working in Mississippi classrooms. “That translates into putting more than 5,000 teachers in our classrooms. Imagine how that can help our students flourish with smaller classrooms, more reading, math, and science courses, and more arts and athletics!”
Incredibly, EdBuild has recommended that Mississippi—which has long ranked at the bottom of every measure of education funding—spend less on education. EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia was also caught on video showing enthusiastic support for bankrupting urban school districts, allowing states to abandon pension obligations to educators, administrators, and education support professionals.