Equity in funding public schools still eludes policymakers

At least seven commissions have attempted to remedy school funding inequities in Georgia without success, a record not atypical for school finance reform across the country.

In most states, school funding relies on property taxes, which hinge on local will — how much a local community is willing to tax itself for education — and local capacity — how much those taxes will raise — rather than how much it actually costs to educate a child.

As imperfect as the approach may be, Americans seem reluctant to break with it, likely because it works for higher-income communities. Those communities contend they should be able to provide greater resources for their schools if their taxpayers are willing to do so. States attempt to equalize disparities in high- and low-wealth areas, but a gap remains.

During the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to seek changes to Georgia’s decades-old school-funding formula based on his own recent reform commission but it’s doubtful he will delve too deeply into the property tax debate. No one else has.

His predecessor, Sonny Perdue, convened a task force in 2004 to develop a new funding formula that he pledged would elevate the standard of education in Georgia from basic to excellent, but the group came up empty-handed after three years of meetings. No official explanation was ever given, but the reason was apparent: Excellence was far too expensive to fund statewide.

It’s increasingly falling to courts to address funding inequities. This month in Connecticut, a Superior Court judge leaped into the quagmire. In a sweeping decision he read word for word for three hours, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said school funding in the state was inherently inequitable and enables “rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” He gave the state 180 days to return with a plan of not only how to fairly fund education, but how to apply best practices to evaluate and pay teachers and test and graduate students.

Moukawsher’s landmark ruling in the 11-year-old legal clash between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding is both a call to action and a fierce reprimand. And much of what he wrote applies to Georgia’s funding situation.

The judge criticized state education policies as “so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. For instance, the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools … Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.”

The judge said the state cannot improve schools by standing on the sidelines “imposing token statewide standards. To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools.” The Legislature, he contended, has to adopt an “honest formula that delivers state aid according to local need.”

That is good advice for every state, including Georgia. But it is not easily followed as it involves upending how we fund education. As Judge Moukawsher concluded, “The state has to accept that the schools are its blessing and its burden, and if it cannot be wise, it must at least be sensible.”

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