Across the country, states face lawsuits on the way they fund schools. A policy analyst has some suggestions.

Share story

Legislators in Olympia have pretty much thrown in the towel on solving Washington’s school-funding problems this session, which leaves students and teachers hanging out to dry, again. It may be cold comfort, but at least we’re not alone.

In Texas, 600 school districts are suing the state for under-funding public education. In California the court of appeals signaled last month that it may demand changes to a school funding plan that relies on the inherently inequitable property tax system. And in Kansas the  Supreme Court is threatening to shut down schools this fall unless legislators fix their education-finance system by June 30.

If it all sounds like impenetrable legalese, consider the meaning, as stated in plain English by state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. While touring Washington last October, she heard from 1,300 residents outraged at massive teacher vacancies in Yakima; huge program cuts threatened in Everett; and tremendous holes in services for kids with special needs, particularly in rural areas.

“Common to every community, from Seattle to Selah, is frustration and anger from parents and taxpayers who feel like the state isn’t taking its paramount duty seriously,” Rolfes wrote in a Times Op-Ed.

But improving school funding means making hard choices. Jennifer Schiess, an education policy analyst at the reform-minded think tank Bellwether Education Partners, has been watching developments across the country and has some suggestions for lawmakers who’d like to get their education funding up to speed. All, incidentally, are cornerstones of the Massachusetts public education system, which consistently posts the best student outcomes in the country.

1.  Equity should drive the framework. Relying on local tax dollars to fill out state funding (as Washington does through its levy system) encourages inequity, because some communities can raise much more money than others. Yet local control of schools is a dearly held value. And altering the state formula to make up for inequities means some districts would get more money than others.

“There’s a real tension here so it’s complicated politically,” Schiess observed in an interview. “Beyond that, school finance is just plain expensive. Trade-offs have to be made.”

2. Stay out of court. In that arena, Washington’s nine-year battle to resolve the McCleary school-funding case stands out as particularly problematic. “One simple way to stay out of court is to push on equity,” Schiess said. “The fact that Washington has a ruling and hasn’t acted is significant. That should have happened already.”

3. To help ensure equity, use student-based funding. This is a method of calculating school budgets based on student characteristics—each child essentially represents a dollar figure, which can increase based on whether a child has special needs or comes from a low-income family. That money follows the student directly to school. Washington, by contrast, bases its funding on student-teacher ratios (though extra money is added for special-needs categories).

4. Allow schools greater flexibility to use their money. Giving school leaders greater leeway to use funds as they see fit opens the door to risk. But it also allows districts to “nimbly adapt” and innovate, Schiess writes. “Bottom line: Keep the allocation of school funding as close to students and their needs as possible, and let local spending decisions follow.”

“School finance policy isn’t simple,” Schiess acknowledged. “But it is arguably the most important policy debate in state houses.”