School Finance Reform Should Focus on Access to Key Programs, Not Just Money, CAP Says in New Report

School finance systems, perpetually at the center of legal and legislative battles across the country, should go beyond funding to ensure equal access to core educational services, with outcomes-based accountability as a check, the Center for American Progress says in a new report.

This next wave of school finance reform should go beyond efforts in years past to ensure sufficient funding overall and equal funding between school districts, the authors wrote.

“In our mind, there’s been equity debate, there’s been adequacy debate, and we need to move beyond that. That’s what we tried to really hit on,” Ulrich Boser, one of the report’s authors, told The 74.

An ideal school finance system should start with a weighted student funding system that provides more resources for higher-needs kids, like English learners or those growing up in poverty. Though many factors influence a child’s education, a school finance system should at minimum ensure access to “a strong teaching workforce,” high-quality preschool, and “a robust curriculum and instructional tools,” according to the report by the left-leaning think tank.

A strong teaching workforce might be supported by raising salaries, improving professional development, and, at the federal level, enhancing loan forgiveness programs that encourage graduates to teach in low-income neighborhoods, the CAP authors wrote.

States and the federal government should also work to ensure the equitable distribution of skilled and experienced teachers, the report said. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to describe how they’ll ensure that low-income children and students of color aren’t taught by less effective or experienced teachers than affluent white students are; many states have “significant room to improve” both on equitable distribution of teachers and addressing the problem, according to the report.

To guarantee a rigorous curriculum, states should ensure, at minimum, that all students have access to algebra in eighth grade and to Advanced Placement or “similar rigorous courses” in high school.

States should use outcomes-based accountability measures as a check on these formulas, which often offer a high degree of local autonomy, the authors said. That would include school-level data on outcomes and program availability and efforts to turn around low-performing schools.

They also argued for full funding of education and child welfare programs, including Medicaid, at the state and federal levels.

Despite the flood of school finance lawsuits filed in the past few decades, legislative will, not legal firepower, is more helpful in accomplishing those goals, the authors wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1970s declared there is no federal right to a quality education, and lawsuits based on a right guaranteed have had only a few notable successes, like the Abbott decision in New Jersey, which spurred more equal funding and new pre-K programs in low-income districts, and the McDuffy ruling in Massachusetts that led to the state’s landmark education reform law, the authors said.

“The lawsuits are really important for raising visibility, but ultimately the policy changes need to happen in state legislatures. … Even looking at the state constitutions [for guaranteed rights to a good education] wasn’t as important as whether or not the state legislature rose up and really decided to tackle this issue head on,” Boser said.

Going forward, California is “one to watch if you get excited about all things school finance,” Boser said, as it implements a new weighted student funding system on a large scale.

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