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Money matters: Q&A

Q: Why doesn’t the federal government contribute more to K–12 education funding?

A: The short answer is education is viewed as a state responsibility and a local function. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t hold the federal government responsible for educating its citizens. The federal government does, however, provide assistance to the states and schools for special priorities, such as special needs programs, teacher education, technology, and research.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the federal contribution to elementary and secondary education includes funds not only from the ED, but also from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.

Source: Overview: The federal role in education. Retrieved on September 16, 2007, from www.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html.

Q: What are “unfunded” mandates? Can states ignore these mandates?

A: Mandates are actions required by federal or state laws. They are considered “unfunded” (or “under-funded”) when no increase in funding is provided to schools to help them absorb the cost of meeting those requirements.

The ED maintains that there are no unfunded federal education mandates because conditions specified in federal law “apply only when a state (or other grantee) voluntarily chooses to accept federal funds” (U.S. Department of Education 2005).

Still, many national and state education associations don’t feel they can turn down the money, and so consider requirements attached to federal dollars, such as the annual testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act, to be unfunded mandates. In its 2006–2007 legislative agenda, for example, the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development “acknowledges the burden that unfunded mandates place on local funding portions of school division budgets throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and supports full funding of current and future Standards of Quality,” (VASCD 2006).

Sources: U.S. Department of Education. (2005). 10 facts about K-12 education funding. Washington, D.C. Retrieved on September 16, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/index.html.

Virginia ASCD (2006). 2006–2007 Legislative Positions. Retrieved on September 16, 2007, from virginia.ascd.org/images/vadev_files/LegislativeAgenda.pdf.

Q: What authority do local school boards have in raising money for schools through taxation?

A: The taxes that school districts are authorized to levy varies from state-to-state. “Often, local school boards have authority for both developing budgets and levying taxes to support district budgets,” writes the Education Commission of the States (ECS 2004).

In some instances, however, another governmental entity, usually a municipal or county governing body, is responsible for approving the budget and levying taxes, according to the ECS (2004).

Source: Education Commission of the States. (June 2004). Taxation and spending policies. Retrieved on September 16, 2007, from www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/52/94/5294.doc.

Q: What are tax and spending caps?

A: Tax caps place a limit on the amount of money that state and local governments and school districts can raise by levying taxes. These caps are often on property taxes. Spending caps limit how much state and local governments may spend on educational programs in any given year. According to the ECS, thirty-five states have tax caps; twelve states have spending caps.

Source: Education Commission of the States. (June 2004). Taxation and spending policies. Retrieved on September 16, 2007, from www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/52/94/5294.doc.

Q: What is adequacy litigation?

A: Advocates of increased school funding have argued that even if spending is equitable across districts, it may not be enough to ensure that all students reach the state’s achievement standards. This is the adequacy argument.

“Adequacy is an approach to school funding that begins with the premise that the amount of funding schools receive should be based on some estimate of the cost of achieving the state’s educational goals,” writes Diane Ravitch in Edspeak: A glossary of education terms, phrases, buzzwords, and jargon (ASCD 2007). “This approach attempts to answer two questions: How much money would be enough to achieve those goals, and where would it be best spent” (2007).

Ultimately, Ravitch points out, the courts and state legislatures will decide how much money is enough.

Source: Ravitch, D. (2007). Edspeak : A glossary of education terms, phrases, buzzwords, and jargon.Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Q: How does “adequacy” differ from “equity”?

A: Adequacy approaches to school funding represent an evolutionary move from equity approaches to funding, writes Patricia F. First in Financing Arizona’s schools: Faltering steps toward the “good society” (2007). 

She quotes Richard Rothstein in explaining the shift, “Although equal treatment in terms of dollars per pupil was achieved through many court cases in many states, adequacy was pursued because ‘an equal amount of too little is not enough.’ That is, although every pupil was guaranteed an equal amount of money, the amount appropriated itself was simply inadequate,” First writes (2007).

"Equity is fairness," says Diane Ravitch. “During the 1970s and 1980s, many state courts found great disparities in base per-pupil spending between high- and low-property-wealth districts. They mandated that these funding disparities be eradicated,” Ravitch writes (2007).

Sources: First, P. (Winter 2007). First in financing Arizona’s schools: Faltering steps toward the “good society.” Journal of Education Finance (32)3: 373-81.

Ravitch, D. (2007). Edspeak: A glossary of education terms, phrases, buzzwords, and jargon. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

This Q&A is based on a guide written by Kathy Checkley, a freelance writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Kathy has over 13 years of experience writing about education issues.

Posted: July 10, 2008

©2008 Center for Public Education

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