Thursday, November 6, 2008

Implications of Cuts to Educational Funding

State funding formulas across America have been under close watch for more than two decades due to the ongoing legal debate over adequacy and equity issues. Virginia is no exception due to the complex nature of the funding formula that relies in part on sales tax revenue, a state contribution accounting for regulations and mandates imposed by the general assembly, and a local contribution formulated via a "Composite Index" ranging from a low of 2.0 to a high of 8.0 (the lower the score the higher a locality qualifies for state funding), and finally an accurate accounting of school age children in the community and the "Average Daily Membership" in the local schools (ADM). The bottom line on this scenario relies upon the local municipality's ability to pay and the fact that School Boards in Virginia have no taxing authority. The result is that many communities in Virginia must rely upon the tax base within their boundaries to provide the basis for support in public schools. Add to this the tension that the Virginia Constitution created by allowing local governments to appropriate money for school purposes and schools often find that they must stand in line behind other agencies in order to balance the community "checkbook".

In good times, the state will step up to the plate and fund a generous portion of the overall school budget. In difficult times, the state will often pull back and leave the lion's share of the funding decisions to localities. Since localities often feel the budget squeeze (even in good times) they will sometimes hold pat on traditional funding resulting in less funding for local school budgets. One more dimension to this multi-layered funding issue is the fact that operational costs (year to year funding for personnel, energy, transportation, health services, etc.) must remain separate and distinct from capital costs (long term building costs and debt service).

Note the almost complete absence of the federal government in funding public education. Typically only 3% to 6% of the local school budget originates with the federal government, yet the feds demand far more from public schools than they are willing or able to fund: for example, the No Child Left Behind Act is the largest unfunded mandate in the history of public education. Ironically, the United States Constitution provides no language for the inclusion of public education in America. This is left entirely up to the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

During a significant downturn in the economy on the national and state level, public officials will turn to the various state agencies for reductions in funding. Public Education is no exception and thanks to extreme factions embedded in state governments public education funding is ripe for targeted reductions. The only problem is there is little (if any) room to cut educational funding without affecting the delivery of educational services to children. Almost 75% of local school budgets are tied directly to personnel salaries and benefits with the remaining 25% allocated to fuel, energy, transportation, health, technology, and administrative services. It is foolish to think that a significant amount of money can be extracted from local school budgets without damage to the way schools educate children and provide necessary special services to the most challenged children in our communities. Many school officials have indicated that the only way to reduce their budgets is to cut essential and non-essential teaching positions resulting in larger class sizes and diminished attention to students with critical needs.

The road ahead will be at best difficult if not extremely challenging for public schools. Schools cannot afford to reduce or fail to provide any level of educational services and have an ethical mandate to do everything in their power to continue with their mission to level the playing field for all children who enter the schoolhouse door. Without sufficient funding this will be impossible to accomplish: the public should not expect the same (if not higher) level of delivery of educational services with less funding or reduced resources in future years. So it is up to the state and local government to decide the worth and value of a quality public educational system for the community...and then decide to fund it.