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At the end of March, after four months of sometimes acrimonious debates, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ended the arguments in the trial of William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al., a case challenging the constitutionality of the Commonwealth school funding system. The case continues a long and contentious history of legal battles to translate funding mandates into an equitable education for every student. Like other landmark cases of school financing, Penn places the fundamental principles of resource allocation and equity at the forefront of the public education debate.
Too often, these court cases reduce school funding to a binary issue: add more money or limit public investment. Yet research and practical evidence point to a thornier debate: the amount of money matters, as does how it is used. These systems are complex, and even the experts sometimes get it wrong, as was recognized recently in Penn. Oversimplifying and neglecting this nuance produces solutionless solutions that either fail to adequately fund public schools so they can meet the diverse learning needs of students, or neglect to direct funding specifically to this end. .
Unfortunately, this is often the path of least resistance. It’s easy to choose simplicity over efficiency. Stakeholders who benefit from the status quo and understand how the systems work have no incentive to share this knowledge. Funding schools is the biggest expense in most state budgets, and the policies that pit communities that benefit from the current system against those that don’t are fierce. As a result, policy makers often give up, abdicating responsibility for enacting necessary changes.
When this happens, these contentious issues often end up at the courthouse rather than the courthouse. Court cases can bring about significant change, but they cost time – and not just the time it takes to argue them in court. School funding cases take years, if not decades, to make their way through the courts before the implementation of fairer policies can even begin. Students in schools where funding conditions were bad enough to prompt a lawsuit are often adults with their own children when court issues are resolved. Generations of students spend their entire school careers in systems later deemed unfair.
So what is the remedy for improving funding inequalities in schools? Financial systems should be as transparent and simple as possible, yet sophisticated enough to reflect and meet the diverse needs of students and schools across a wide range of communities in a state. There must be less precariousness and better decision-making. With One-Time Injection of Federal COVID-19 Aid, Leaders Have the Opportunity to Go Beyond “How Much” and Engage with “How” — to learn what works to accelerate learning, expand strategies that ensure students have equitable access to high-quality education, and support long-term investment and opportunity. Here are three ways to get there:
Education leaders and advocates must publicly recognize and reflect in their decision-making that “how” is as important as “how much”.Funding discussions need to become “yes” conversations, and conversations about providing sufficient resources to align with student learning needs, measure the impact of policies and interventions, continue or expand what works well and get away from what isn’t working. This ongoing evaluation, scaling, or redirection must happen at the local level, keeping students at the center of every decision. And it must define success not just as producing great results the first time, but also as failing, learning, and quickly changing course along the way.
Policy makers must be prepared to enter into the nuances necessary to make the right decisions for students at the right time. The need for a “yes and” conversation must extend to policymaking, where political polarization is the enemy of good systems that produce great student outcomes. Policy makers must recognize that the solutions to challenges in schools are not simply allocating more funding through a broken system or just urging leaders and educators to use what they have more effectively. Policy makers must create the conditions for success by providing the right amount of resources, allocated equitably to meet student and community needs, as well as the tools and supports to implement sound practices, including the capacity to evaluate, scale or reorient based on evidence. This will guide thinking not only about how much, but also how states invest in children’s education.
School system leaders need more information and support to make good spending decisions. School systems become better versions of themselves when they act on data that shows not only progress in student achievement, but also the quality of implementation of strategies and programs to support students. The collection of data on student achievement and progress has improved dramatically over the past two decades. The same cannot be said for data on how the education sector makes resource investment choices. Supporting good funding decision-making starts with collecting different and better types of information, helping leaders use that data to guide decision-making, and creating opportunities for decision-makers to learn. one another.
The result of Penn will not be known for some time. But the case highlights a pervasive problem: School funding policy debates too often swing between the poles of “just add more money” and “just spend the best you have,” without acknowledging the common ground where the development of more realistic, practical and effective policies is often over. Unless this changes, the cycle of ill-informed school funding policies leading to protracted court battles will continue – a lose-lose for students and schools.
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a partner of Bellwether Education in its policy and assessment practice area, leading a body of work focused on school financial equity. She has served as an advisor to Heads of State on school funding policy issues.
Jason Willis is Director of Strategic Resource Planning and Implementation at western education. He has advised state and school system leaders on issues of school funding, resource allocation, and system design, including serving as an expert state witness in the William Penn School District, and para. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al.
Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He is sitting on The 74board of directors.