New ELC Article Explores State Obligation to Ensure Money Matters

In March 2015, Education Policy Analysis Archive (EPAA) published “Resource Accountability: Enforcing State Responsibilities for Sufficient and Equitable Resources Used Effectively to Provide All Students a Quality Education” by Education Law Center’s (ELC) David Sciarra and Molly Hunter.

The ELC article, written for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education’s (SCOPE’s) New Accountability project, headed by noted educator Linda Darling-Hammond, explores cutting-edge school finance reforms that include not only fair and adequate school funding, but also frameworks to ensure the “effective and efficient” use of funding by local districts and schools.

In “Resource Accountability,” Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter explain that the current debate over state school finance reform, by focusing on how much states spend on education, is too narrow. What’s missing is the oft-ignored but crucial question of how states must also put in place mechanisms to drive funding to support essential resources and research-proven programs in local classrooms, especially in schools serving high concentrations of students in poverty, English language learners and students with disabilities.

The article points out that all 50 state constitutions obligate states to provide public education to every child. The states, through their finance systems, provide approximately 90% of elementary and secondary school funding in the U.S. State school finance laws, determine the level and allocation of state revenue to local school districts and the extent to which communities can raise local tax revenues to support their schools.

As ELC’s just released 4th Edition of the National Report Card shows, most of these state finance systems provide inadequate funding overall, with little or no increase distributed to districts tasked with educating high numbers of students living in poverty.

In “Resource Accountability,” Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter note that a few states have enacted school finance reforms that go beyond determining the level and allocation of funding. These few states have taken the lead by including measures to foster the effective and efficient application of funds at the local level. These states, including New Jersey and California, have pioneered new ways to support local school and district implementation of proven educational programs and services that meet student needs. Importantly, these finance systems are designed to be “standards-linked,” that is to ensure delivery of essential resources in schools and classrooms to afford all students the meaningful opportunity to meet state academic learning standards and become prepared for civic and economic participation.

The article explores new ground by describing concrete examples of how to broaden current narrow formulations of state school finance by not only providing funding to districts, but also directing that funding to the resources and programs essential for students to achieve rigorous academic standards. Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter call for new models and research to address the urgent need to develop, implement, and evaluate new frameworks designed to ensure states meet their concomitant obligation of both funding schools adequately and ensuring effective use.

“Put simply, resource accountability means states must simultaneously provide fair and adequate funding and advance the effective use of those funds,” the co-authors state in the article.

New Jersey’s Standard Linked School Funding

In “Resource Accountability” Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter detail New Jersey’s major strides along the path to resource accountability by aligning needs-based resources and costs with state learning standards, and from this state’s reforms they deduce a model applicable to all states. They also note progress in this direction in other states. New Jersey is the most developed of these states, propelled by successive court directives, as the state’s Supreme Court was the earliest and most articulate court to frame resource accountability. The Court laid out a roadmap for the state, writing, “We have always insisted that increased funding to the [high-need districts] be allocated for specific purposes realistically designed to improve education. The Commissioner [of Education] has an essential and affirmative role to assure that all education funding is spent effectively and efficiently … to achieve a constitutional education.” (Abbott v. Burke, 1994)

New Jersey’s remedial measures included high quality preschool for all three- and four-year-olds, full-day kindergarten, technology, and school-to-work and college-transition programs for children in the formerly underfunded low-wealth districts. While the low-wealth districts saw ongoing progress, the state functioned with a disjointed funding system, one for the high-need districts and another negotiated annually for the rest of the state.

Therefore, a few years later, the state’s education officials undertook the process of calculating the costs of programs and services needed for all students across a wide variety of school districts. On the basis of this educational cost study, the state developed and adopted the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA), which provides a base cost, plus additions of 47 to 57% for low-income students, 50% for English learners, and amounts for students with disabilities. The SFRA funds preschool at $11,506 to $12,934 per pupil and $7,146 per pupil in Head Start to augment federal funds. All of the programs must comply with high quality benchmarks.

Applying the New Jersey experience more broadly presents a practical model for the challenge of devising a meaningful formula when states decide to hold themselves accountable for actually funding their standards—due to a court order or otherwise.

California’s Local Control Finance Formula

More recently, in 2013, California adopted the Local Control Finance Formula (LCFF), which takes into account the higher costs of educating students from low-wealth families, students learning English, and students in foster care. LCFF provides a base per-pupil amount for each district’s average daily attendance, plus upward adjustments of 10.4% for K-3 students to reduce class size in the early grades, 20% for students learning English, in foster care or low-income, and 50% for these students where they exceed 55% of the district’s enrollment. The new system requires all districts to develop accountability plans that include how to invest the funding in programs, services and strategies that will lead to better outcomes for students.

Money, Effectively Used, Matters

Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter conclude by noting the growing research demonstrating that the combination of sufficient investment in public schooling with efforts to effectively spend those dollars yields demonstrable progress in educational achievement and attainment. Citing the landmark longitudinal analysis of school finance changes in 28 states from 1970 through 2010 and their effects on children born between 1955 and 1985, the authors explain that the researchers used newly available data that revealed significant increases in the likelihood of high school graduation or education beyond graduation. It also produced “25 percent higher earnings and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of poverty in adulthood,” and based on the pattern of these results “these impacts indeed reflect the causal effect of school spending.” The researchers answer the question whether increased school spending can improve educational and lifetime outcomes of disadvantaged children: “Our findings show that it can.” (Jackson, Johnson and Persico, 2014)

Mr. Sciarra and Ms. Hunter underscore the importance of building resource accountability into state school finance systems. Resource accountability is “realized by investing sufficient educational resources, equitably distributed to ensure access to quality teaching, a rigorous curriculum, and other essentials for all students, including those in poverty, learning English, and with other special needs. Resource accountability requires applying these resources effectively to provide proven programs and services that address student needs. Measuring access to each key resource and ensuring that gaps in access are closed is the only sure road to equity and higher achievement. Resource accountability is a prerequisite for meaningful learning enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, the two other pillars of a comprehensive approach to accountability.”

Related papers

In an earlier EPAA article, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger explained the need for a new accountability paradigm that focuses on three pillars: 1) meaningful learning, enabled by 2) professionally skilled and committed educators, and supported by 3) adequate and appropriate resources. Adequate resources, effectively used, are prerequisites to building the capacity of schools to provide professionally skilled and committed educators and meaningful learning, the first two pillars. After almost 15 years of narrowly defined test-n-punish accountability, which has failed to deliver better opportunities or student achievement gains, this article addresses how schools across the country can prepare all children for success.

“The definition of ‘accountability’ must be radically expanded. High-stakes consequences for schools, staff, and students based on yearly state tests will never create the kinds of powerful education systems we need to close the opportunity gap in the United States and to give every child a chance to reach their potential,” said Darling-Hammond, who is Stanford University Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education and Faculty Director of SCOPE. “An effective accountability system will offer a rich and well-taught curriculum to all students, raising expectations not only for individual schools but for the functioning of the system as a whole.”

An EPAA series on education, A New Paradigm for Educational Accountability, edited by Gustavo Fischman with guest editors Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Snyder, features more than two dozen articles, commentaries, and videos by policymakers, state and district administrators, educators, researchers, students, leaders of civil rights organizations, and business leaders.

Some of the other articles in this series include:

Darling-Hammond, L., & Snyder, J. (2015). Accountability for resources and outcomes An introduction. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(20).

Menefee-Libey, D. J., & Kerchner, C. T. (2015). California’s first year with local control finance and accountability. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(22).

Affeldt, J. T. (2015). New Accountability in California through Local Control Funding Reforms. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(23).

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