When it comes to education spending, middle-income Americans typically don’t put their money where their mouth is. How often do we hear politicians and parents wax poetic about education being the great equalizer? Yet they do nothing about lopsided budgets that favor wealthier districts. It’s impossible for education to be an equalizer if budgets don’t meet every kid’s needs.
In a noble attempt to level the education playing field, in October a Maryland state panel, known as the Kirwan Commission, voted to recommend a new funding formula that calls for spending to increase by $4 billion per year by 2030. About a third of that increase, $1.2 billion, would come from local municipalities, with the state picking up the remaining $2.8 billion per year — 37 percent more than it currently spends. The increases would be phased in over the course of this decade. How to pay for this plan, which would certainly benefit low-income districts, will ultimately be determined by lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session.
There are many states that have passed new laws that mitigate large funding disparities between rich and poor districts, but, if fully funded, Maryland would become “the first in the country to prioritize equitable distribution of funds among school systems,” according to reporting from the radio station WAMU 88.5 FM.
The Kerwin Commission’s vote is a rare victory in the ongoing battle to disrupt an education financing system most of us accept as status quo. It’s a long time coming. There have been other efforts to create more equitable funding formulas, but resistance from local districts has largely resulted in small incremental changes that take years to kick in. Change at the state level could happen more quickly, if local school districts did not resist real changes that would end the exclusive nature of our school financing structures. If education financing systems could talk, they would say middle- and upper-class Americans don’t like paying for the education of poor children.
Of course, no upstanding middle-class American will say they don’t want to fund strong educational opportunities for poor children, but when municipalities insist on retaining local control, they also manifest their opposition to creating equitable systems. For instance, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in 2018 that large districts that receive at least half of their revenue from the state demonstrate they are allocating money to the neediest schools as a condition for receiving budget approval from the education commissioner, district leaders bucked. The commissioner who represented the districts’ views said at a joint legislative session on the matter, “The process that has been proposed would be very, very difficult, and ultimately, I believe local control should be in place.”
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School districts rely heavily on the revenue that comes from local property taxes, creating funding disparities between rich and poor districts. Since race and income are highly correlated due to the pervasive discrimination that has blighted this nation’s history, whiter districts receive more money than majority-minority districts. An oft-cited education-finance report, published last year by the nonprofit EdBuild, found that predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in funding in the 2015-16 school year than districts that serve mostly students of color. You’d think that a more educated middle class would dismantle structures that suppress educational attainment. But, alas, that means that there would be fewer resources for this educated middle class, and they tend to be loath to give up the privileges they’re used to expecting — even it means that neighboring districts are left behind.
Along with more resources, families in middle-class neighborhoods gain a sense of privilege that restricts their understanding of who a public education is supposed to serve. The “public” isn’t a term that only applies to those who live in the neighborhood and send their kids to the same schools. The “public” also includes people in the neighborhood and school districts on the other side of the railroad tracks. When it comes to state and national growth, we all have an opportunity to contribute.
We’ve become too accustomed to learning within the confines of inequality. If we really want a level playing field for children, we have to pay for it.
When Congress passed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, proponents of the law touted that it would enable states to hold local districts accountable for negative outcomes. The education reform movements that stemmed from NCLB pressed for district-, school- and student-level accountability. Yet what policymakers largely sidestepped were the legal and structural inequalities that facilitated divergent outcomes. But ignoring the lack of a level playing field is naïve. It’s like asking two people to build a dining table, but giving one all the required tools and the other only a block of wood, and evaluating them by the same measure. By punishing poor districts for failing to meet accountability measures, the NCLB reaffirmed structures that have stifled black majority districts with high percentages of people in poverty, such as Baltimore, where nearly 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest Census figures.
According to Associated Press reporting, the state of Maryland would give Baltimore $503 million under the proposed funding formula. But to receive that additional funding, Baltimore would have to allocate $329 million more to its schools over the next decade. To make it work, city officials are already asking other agencies to reduce their spending by 5 percent. Clearly, there are tradeoffs to this proposal. But this is how you back up the claim that education is a great equalizer.
Not surprisingly, many have voiced their displeasure with the costs associated with funding education equally, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who in the past has spoken out against all major tax increases. He has called the panel responsible for the plan the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.” Supporting his view, the editorial board of The Washington Post wrote, “Better to focus on targeted areas likely to produce more bang for the education buck, including offering alternatives (such as charter schools) to students floundering in failing schools, and stringent means of identifying, nurturing and rewarding the best teachers.”
I’m almost sure that the people who have significant reservations about the plan live in a well-resourced district or send their children to private schools. Again, the privilege that comes with inequality can blind us to solutions that can bring about educational justice.
Kids who have less need more. Leveling the playing field means giving all students similar chances at the American Dream. The state of Maryland is taking steps to do just that.