Guest blogger Joshua Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. In this post, originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, he dissects a judge's flawed ruling in a recent Colorado school funding case.
In a 2001 interview, a little-known state senator and law school professor from Illinois cautioned that courts are “poorly equipped” for making public policy. Pointing to problems with the legitimacy and ability of courts, particularly in the field of education, he advised seeking change through politics rather than through litigation. Sadly, both of Barack Obama’s concerns were exemplified in a Colorado state court decision last December.
In the long-running Lobato v. Colorado school finance case, Denver District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport declared that Colorado is underfunding education by more than $2 billion per year. She said that the seventeen-year-old Public School Finance Act violates the education clause of the state Constitution, which says that the state legislature shall provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public schools. She instructed the state legislature to design a school funding system that complies with her order. Although she did not specify a precise sum, her order indicated that billions of dollars of additional spending would be required every year.
Unfortunately for Rappaport, the Colorado Constitution consists of more than just the education clause. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires voter approval for tax increase. Voters must also approve spending increases which exceed the rate of inflation plus population growth. Another
Last week, Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education made the dispiriting but long-expected announcement that the Archdiocese will close or consolidate nearly 50 schools. Keeping more than 150 schools open with enrollment down a third over the past decade is creating enormous cost pressure for the city’s parochial schools, and the Commission saw consolidation as the best hope for saving the nation’s first diocesan school system, a key part of Philadelphia’s heritage founded by St. John Neumann.
As we described in our 2008 report, Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?, Catholic schools face major challenges in the form of declining enrollments, fewer vowed religious sisters and brothers available to teach students, and shifting population and demographic patterns. These pressures don’t only impact Catholic Americans, however. Anything that weakens the nation’s parochial schools means bad news for education generally, for three reasons:
- Catholic schools are relatively cheap. According to data from the National Catholic Educational Association, the average per pupil cost for Catholic elementary schools is just under $5,500, and the cost for high schools is less than $11,000 per student. The average for K-12 public schools is more than $10K per student, making Catholic schools a serious bargain, especially since private contributions further reduce the actual tuition charged to parents.
- Catholic schools are
effective. Achievement results on NAEP suggest
performance in parochial schools compares very
favorably to public schools. (Parents are pretty satisfied,
too!) This is a bargain for the country, with about two million students
getting a solid education for very few dollars (and almost no
Last month, the District of Columbia’s CFO discovered a nice chunk of unexpected revenue, some $42 million, had come the city’s way. The mayor promptly called for half of the money to go to the District’s public schools. In apparent disregard of the law, however, the mayor wants to give the whole $21M windfall to DCPS, bailing them out for a loss of federal funding and mismanagement of the district’s food service and merit pay programs. See Bill Turque’s characterization of the budget holes this bailout will fill:
DCPS said the extra $21.4 million budgeted by Gray is needed to address several issues: Congressional cuts in federal payments ($4.5 million); overruns in food service caused by higher labor and food costs and lower federal reimbursements ($10.7 million); mandated merit-based salary increases for teachers ($2.8 million); and the rising cost of excessed non-instructional employees who were removed from school budgets but are being carried on the central office books.
Privately, senior Gray administration officials said DCPS finances have historically been plagued by cost overruns, attributable to persistent overspending by school system leadership and weak oversight by Gandhi’s office.
Charter sector leaders in D.C. are incensed that DCPS is getting a huge payout to fill budget holes while they get nothing. They’re right to be angry. In the hands of charter school leaders, these funds could go to building new programs to help the 40-plus percent of the city’s students educated outside DCPS.
Charter sector leaders in D.C. are incensed that DCPS is getting a huge payout to fill budget holes while they get nothing.
It also shows
Money talk can put people off, especially in education, where the mantra for decades has been, "Just spend more!" In the "new normal" of flat education budgets, however, more money is not easy for school boards and administrators to find.
In many places, this has meant across the board layoffs and a reduction in services provided to kids. This new era presents a tough challenge for superintendents and school budget officers charged with balancing the budget and doing right by the youngsters in their charge. Schools must be empowered (and incentivized) to deliver instruction more effectively, improving both quality and cost-efficiency. Fordham works to provide resources for school leaders to do just that, as well as provide analysis and advice to policymakers hoping to make the jobs of K-12 leaders easier. (Check out our policy brief from last year for a few ideas for state policy.)
On this blog, I'll examine a broad range of topics related to school finance: state funding formulas, healthcare and retirement benefits for teachers, parent access to financial data, and more. I'll be joined from time to time by other experts from the non-profit and public sectors as well.
A bit about me: I came to K-12 education from the private sector, where I worked as a management consultant in the hospitality industry. I left to pursue an MBA at Duke University, and during that program I was a summer fellow with Education Pioneers working in charter
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.