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Money matters

To get support for school funding educators should understand how it works.

No matter how they feel about the methods, experts in school funding say that the teacher strikes are bringing attention to school funding – and perhaps gaining public support.

The wave of strikes that began in the spring of 2018 typically press state leaders for increased pay for teachers, and increasingly that concern seems to make its way into political rhetoric. But teachers also talk about huge class sizes, the lack of supplies and a potential decline in the quality of education – and some experts say that message is hitting home even more strongly.

“I think they are gaining some public support,” says Michael Addonizio, a professor of education policy studies at Wayne State University and specialist in school finance. “They clearly are at the end of their rope and have been very vocal, and there is some indication in polling that they are getting quite a bit of public support.”
Addonizio says that while formulas in states often make changes in school funding difficult, he sees movement and he believes it is because teachers and administrators have become better educated about school funding and made their case.

He and other experts say it may be important for educators to better understand their state and district funding streams so they can advocate for improvements and perhaps find ways to get their schools increased support.

Kristin Blagg, a researcher with the Urban Institute and co-author of a recent report that attempts to “make sense” of the process, notes that states and districts each contribute about half of most of a school’s funds, with the federal government adding another 10 percent.  But, she says, each state does things quite differently and there are “a lot of factors in school funding that make it unique for every district and every school”.

And critics say the formulas that determine those state levels of funding and the economic realities in districts can make support inequitable and inadequate.

Over the last 25 years court orders or legislative action improved spending levels and decreased disparities, one study showed, which led to improved student performance, particularly among low-income students.

But during the recession a decade ago, states and districts cut funding. A recent report showed that in 29 states funding had not returned to the levels before the recession. It also said local support has not recovered from that period where property values dropped and, therefore, real estate tax revenue, which pays for most district funding of schools, declined.

Some experts say, however, that along with vocal teachers, some changes in funding levels now is being driven by concerns that students aren’t “college ready”.

Blagg explains that despite talk of changes, there are generally two ways that states determine school funding, as defined in the Urban Institute study.

Foundation Grants: This is the most popular model for school funding. “Under it, the state decides the minimum amount that should be spent per student, calculates each district’s ability to pay, and fills in the gap”.

Guaranteed Tax Base: Some state formulas equalize both access to a minimum level of funding and the revenue generated in each district at a given tax rate. “This approach, sometimes called power equalization, allows each district to tax and spend as if it had the same local property tax base, thereby eliminating the inequities that foundation funding can produce”, the report says.

Some states have “essentially centralized their school finance system”, Blagg says. “The state assigns a standard property tax rate for all districts. In return, it guarantees roughly the same per student amount across districts.”

Other experts note that formulas for states or districts distributing money are increasingly “weighted”, in some cases, assigning more weight (and therefore more dollars) to students from low-income backgrounds or to students with special needs, for example.

And, in some cases, local administrators are given more opportunity to make decisions about how to spend the money. It could be used to tackle a broad significant problem in a school such as poor performance by ESL students, or it might provide additional support to a school-based initiative that is showing good results but might not be additionally funded under state formulas.

So what can individuals do at a school level to improve funding for their school?

Get involved. Brian Cox, principal at Johnson Junior High School and an active advocate for school funding, says educators need to become “boots on the ground”. “It is our responsibility to show the data, brag on our students, teachers, and their gains. We cannot find ourselves upset with what public opinions of education are when we don’t make sure that our message is conveyed.” He and other experts say that often requires making contact with a legislator and getting others to lobby for educational support too.

Spread the word. Teachers and administrators can improve school funding by talking about their concerns with parents and others in their community – so that they then are aware of the issue when they vote for representatives at the state level or hear about a school funding issue in a district.

Direct support. Often funding can be gained or other resources can come to the school in the form of contributions of money or hours directly from the community. To raise money, schools can hold fundraisers – and some are very successful, although they should be done with care. Often parents and others in the community are happy to provide funds for school supplies and schools may get support for a specific initiative from a business or other organization locally. Support for a tech class, for instance, from a local firm, or sponsorship of an after-school group by an organization that supports the cause could come this way. Often volunteers can contribute man hours that staff members would otherwise have to put in.

Be informed. Addonizio says any effort to help schools starts with the staff and parents understanding how school funding works in their state and district, and what changes are taking place, the options available and the specific ways they might increase funding for their school. “It requires understanding the system,” he says.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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