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Is There A Better Way To Pay For America's Schools?

A view of two coal seams and coal hauling trucks being loaded in the Buckskin Coal Mine, 12 miles north of Gillette, Wyo.

The Kansas Supreme Court gave state lawmakers an ultimatum:

Make school funding more equitable by June 30, or it will consider shutting down the state's public schools.

Since then, things have gotten ugly.

Lawmakers followed up with a plan — to make it easier to impeach Supreme Court judges who attempt to "usurp the power" of the Legislature or governor.

Then came a plan to address the court's concerns over school funding: Send a little more money to roughly two-dozen of the state's poorest districts without taking money away from other districts or raising taxes.

The plaintiff districts have already responded to the plan, calling it a "shell game."

It's unclear if the Kansas Supreme Court will be satisfied.

What is clear is that the politics of school funding can be bitter.

Over the past two weeks, the NPR Ed Team has taken a hard look at how we pay for public schools in the U.S. In Part 1 of our School Money series, we mapped the consequences of a funding system that favors affluent districts.

In Part 2, we unpacked the difference a dollar can — and cannot — make in the classroom, finding compelling evidence that money, spent wisely and consistently, can improve the lives and outcomes of disadvantaged students.

This week, we grapple with the politics of school money, asking:

Is there a better way to pay for our schools?

The answer requires that we do two things: explore the challenges to change, and spotlight a few ideas that could lead to a more balanced system.

What follows is a wrap-up of our reporting. For nearly every name and place, you'll find a hyperlink to more.

Like this one, for the latest on the school money showdown in Kansas.

The TABOR Trade-Off

First, the challenges. In a word: taxes.

In 1992, Colorado voters had had enough, no longer trusting state lawmakers to spend their tax dollars wisely.

They amended the state's constitution with something called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

It required that voters, not lawmakers, have the final say on tax increases, and it capped tax revenue. Anything the state raised over that cap — typically in boom years — would be refunded to taxpayers.

TABOR's effect on Colorado's schools has been severe.

Its cap on property tax revenue limits how much money districts can raise locally. And by capping income tax revenue, the law also limits the state's ability to help schools make up the difference. A one-two punch.

"I don't think people on average knew what it meant, especially long-term," says Tracie Rainey with the Colorado School Finance Project, a nonprofit research group.

Today, the state's economy is booming. The unemployment rate is just 3 percent. And, thanks to TABOR, taxpayers are on track to get $156 million back from the state.

But Rainey says Colorado's schools are struggling more than ever.

"They have outdated technology, larger class sizes. They've lost the opportunity to offer certain programs. They can't retain teachers. They can't attract teachers," says Rainey. The list goes on.

In 2013, according to Education Week, the state spent roughly $2,500 less per student than the national average. That ranks Colorado, the nation's 14th richest state, below two of the poorest, Mississippi and Alabama.

Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based, free-market think tank, says TABOR's a big reason the state's economy is doing so well. As for its effect on schools, Caldara says, more money isn't the answer.

"I think parents and family members and taxpayers are saying, 'No. Fix the problems. Use the money you have more wisely and educate our children,' " he says.

That's a common refrain, not just in Colorado but across the country.

For more on the long tail of TABOR, click here.

'And Now, This Is Storage"

In 1990, not long before Colorado passed TABOR, voters in Oregon were feeling tax anxiety, too.

Many worried that their rising property values would also mean a rise in property taxes. And so, with something called Measure 5, they capped them.

Since schools depend heavily on property taxes, the state was supposed to use income tax revenue to help offset the effect of this new cap.

There's just one problem: In tough economic times, income is more volatile than property values. And so began a roller coaster for Oregon's schools.

Even in Pendleton, an area known for rodeos and ranches, it's been a rough ride.

On a recent tour of Pendleton High School, Superintendent Jon Peterson opened the door to a room full of old fish tanks and plastic storage bins.

When state funding was good, Pendleton launched a fisheries program.

"We were raising fish and growing plants," Peterson says, "and now this is storage, what you're seeing here. It ended quickly, just kind of after we got it going."

Ten years ago, Pendleton led a lawsuit against the state over its school funding.

Voters in Oregon, as in Colorado, ultimately tried to undo some of the damage these tax caps have done to their public schools. But to little effect.

In Oregon, the state set up a commission to determine just how much money its schools really needed. Their conclusion: more, a lot more.

Voters even approved a requirement that state lawmakers spend what the commission called for. With one caveat.

The rule gave legislators an "out." They could either fund schools to the level recommended by the commission or write a report explaining why they didn't.

Since then, there have been lots of reports.

Not once have lawmakers fully funded the commission's recommendation.

For more on what's happened in Oregon, click here.

Hold Harmless

It's obvious but worth saying: Helping low-wealth schools requires buy-in from voters who live beyond those districts' borders.

And it requires lawmakers to look past their local interests.

Last May, Texas state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican, stood on the bustling floor of the House of Representatives in Austin and asked his fellow lawmakers to do just that.

"Members, it's just a small, technical cleanup of a little bit of school finance stuff, and I move to passage," Aycock said.

He wanted his colleagues to limit their use of two words: hold harmless.

A hold harmless provision creates a kind of force field around a lawmaker's district, temporarily exempting its schools from, say, a budget cut.

In 2005, in an attempt to shrink the spending gaps between affluent and low-wealth districts, Texas tried to cap how much property tax revenue a district could raise and spend on its schools.

In response, some 900 Texas districts asked to be held harmless.

Now, those communities still saw limits to how much they could raise in property tax revenue. But, under the hold harmless provision, the state agreed to use state dollars to make up that difference.

The result: Some affluent districts that could raise money locally to pay for their schools were being told not to — and getting more state money in return.

Which also means that, while Texas was technically putting more state money into its schools, those dollars weren't targeting its neediest students.

In many cases, they were doing the opposite.

This hold harmless phenomenon isn't specific to Texas, either. In many states, powerful districts with declining student enrollment have lobbied for, and won, exemptions from state efforts to make school funding more equitable.

Ultimately, Rep. Aycock withdrew his bill and is retiring from the Legislature.

When it comes to Texas' school funding system, Aycock says, "I'll go to my grave wishing I could've done more."

A Few Big Ideas

The stories of Kansas, Colorado, Oregon and Texas are an important reminder of why funding increases most often require a court order: because Americans genuinely don't agree on how — or how much — schools should be funded.

But surely there is common ground, somewhere.

In an attempt to find it, let's leave behind the conflict and cautionary tales and explore a few big ideas in school funding.

Last week, we presented compelling evidence that funding increases can help disadvantaged students — those living in poverty, with disabilities, or who are learning English. Given that many of these students live in property-poor communities, that extra help usually comes from the state.

But how, exactly, does a state know how much money is enough money?

There is no magical spending threshold for success. And attempts at solutions are made incredibly complicated by the fact that different children with different needs require different levels of support.

To better understand those needs — and what it will cost to meet them — a state can commission what's called an "adequacy study."

Most states have already done at least one.

Michigan is a late-comer. Its first adequacy study is due out in May.

Last year, the state Legislature ponied up $500,000 to get it started. They hired Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, or APA — a consulting firm that's done dozens of school funding studies for states across the country.

Justin Silverstein is heading up the Michigan study from his office in Colorado.

He and his team aren't going to Michigan to visit classrooms or interview teachers. Instead, they're wading through tons of data to find the answer.

They're using the "successful schools" model, which means they're only going to look at data from the most successful districts in the state — districts that are performing at or above the state average on tests.

"How are they spending funds? Where are they getting revenues? So we're trying to get a real good picture of the fiscal realities for those districts," explains Silverstein.

That includes how much money successful districts spend on at-risk students and whether it's more expensive to teach in certain parts of the state.

Almost every study Silverstein's firm has done has found that states need to spend more money to give all students a shot at meeting state academic standards. But that hasn't always led to increased spending.

"Having good information doesn't mean you can get change done right away," Silverstein says.

Many times, states get back their adequacy studies and do nothing.

But it's a start.

For more on Michigan's adequacy math, click here.

Property Tax, Revisited

Studying adequacy is one thing. Wyoming is trying to guarantee it.

Nine years ago, Mark Shrum moved his family to the city of Gillette, in the northeast part of the state, for two reasons: a coal-mine job and good schools.

This March, Shrum was laid off from the Powder River Basin's Buckskin coal mine, but he's not leaving.

"We're in a tremendous setting for our kids, academically," says Shrum. "It's one of the primary reasons we're doing everything we can to stay here."

The Campbell County School District operates a children's museum and a mental health clinic. Kids can take swim lessons in the district's aquatic center, and the state is funding construction of a brand new high school.

"You see a lot of money spent on the students: the technology, the nice buildings," says Shrum. "And high salaries keep good teachers here, even though we don't have shopping, restaurants and the things cities have."

When it comes to school funding, Wyoming is an exception among states in more ways than one. It's got relatively few students and spends a lot on them.

According to Education Week, after adjusting for regional cost differences, Wyoming spends an average of $17,513 per pupil, ranking among the top-five spenders in the nation. The national average is $11,841 per child.

Where did all of this money come from? Two answers.

First, an energy boom helped fuel a boom in school funding. The production of oil, gas and Gillette coal accounts for 70 percent of state revenue.

Then there's the legal answer.

In response to several lawsuits demanding better school funding, the Wyoming Supreme Court told lawmakers to "treat the wealth of the state as a whole."

That led to a rare, Robin Hood-style funding model where some property tax revenues generated in mineral-rich districts like Campbell County are redistributed by the state to other, poorer districts.

The court-ordered changes "essentially doubled the amount of state resources we were putting into education and in some ways more than doubled it," says Mary Kay Hill, the policy director for the state's current governor, Matt Mead.

To be clear, affluent districts can still raise and spend money locally, and big spending gaps remain. But state policymakers are quick to point out that, in every Wyoming district, funding now exceeds the national average.

"We put an awful lot of effort into ensuring that every kid in the state has access to the same education," says Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat.

There's another important asterisk to the Wyoming story: Despite its outsize funding, test scores haven't risen with this two-decade investment. The state remains in the middle of the pack in most measures of academic achievement.

But don't tell that to Mark Shrum.

When he and his family moved to Gillette from Sacramento in 2007, their son Jarrett was at the bottom of his class. Now 17, Jarrett is a straight-A junior at Campbell County High School. Seventh-grader Cody is in his school's gifted and talented program and travels the state for science competitions.

For more on Wyoming's approach to school funding, click here.

Local Control

Not all school funding problems are about the funding itself.

Often, when cash-strapped schools do get extra money from the state or federal government, it comes with strict rules about how they can spend it.

While those rules are generally well-intentioned, they can be inflexible, prohibiting a principal from using the money where it's needed most.

California is trying to change that.

After lunch at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento, Calif., a fight breaks out.

Principal Daniel Rolleri hurries to the scene, his walkie-talkie squawking.

A sixth-grade girl has been hit in the face.

"She's going to relax in my office for a little bit," says Rolleri, as he walks her inside. "She's a little emotional, a little upset."

Every teacher at this school has a way of helping kids calm down. Rolleri's technique is aromatherapy.

He sits the girl down in his office, lets her choose from three different aromas, turns on a small water fountain, and gives her some time alone.

Rolleri says students here lash out not because they're bad kids, but because many live in poverty. Life at home can be stressful and frustrating. He's determined to use state funding to help these kids feel good about themselves.

Just a few years ago, low-spending California made it easier for him to do that.

"We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classroom where real decisions are made, and directing the money where the need and the challenge is greatest," said Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, the year California enacted what's known as the Local Control Funding Formula.

The formula embodies more than one big idea. It's meant to send more money to districts, like Rolleri's, that serve disadvantaged students. It's also meant to give Rolleri — and his community — a greater say in how that money is spent.

The formula requires that school leaders work hand in hand with teachers, parents and community leaders to lay out goals they hope the funding can help them accomplish. Rolleri won't be judged simply on his students' test scores but also on things like parent involvement, student engagement and school climate.

In 2015-2016, Oak Ridge got $187,000 in extra state funding for its high-needs students, and Rolleri struggled with how best to spend it.

"Just because we do have additional state funding, [that] doesn't make the job easy," Rolleri says. "I would even say it's harder because inherently there is the obligation that we can't ruin this, we can't mess this up."

To find out how Rolleri chose to spend the money, click here.

The Federal Role

So far in this series, we've heard a lot about state and local spending in schools — but little about the federal government's role in all of this.

The fact is, on average, federal money accounts for only around 10 percent of school spending. But, in high-need schools, that money can be a lifeline.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson helped create the federal education program known as Title I. It was part of his War on Poverty, and it sends federal dollars to schools that educate lots of low-income students.

It was intended to help places like Holmes County, Miss., where schools serve some of the poorest students in the nation. The median income there is just north of $22,000 a year.

District resources — or a lack of them — reflect that poverty, with Holmes spending $8,368 per student (the number has been adjusted by Education Week to reflect regional cost differences).

That's roughly $3,500 below the national average. For every child.

The extra $1,500 per student in Title I money that Holmes receives — it matters.

"We need those resources," says Holmes County Superintendent Angel Meeks.

On last year's statewide reading assessment, nearly two-thirds of the district's incoming freshmen scored well below grade level.

If she could, Meeks says, she'd use her federal dollars to pay for a literacy coach and a reading interventionist. It's just not enough money.

Mississippi could be getting more, says Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. She has spent her career studying Title I and its effects on schools and has just released a few big ideas to improve it.

"About a third of the kids in Mississippi are eligible [for Title I], more than any other state," Gordon says. "Yet, among all states, Mississippi is near the bottom in how much help it receives per child."

The average Title I allotment for a student in Mississippi? $1,100.

Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming all have far fewer poor students but receive more than twice as much federal funding for each of them. Why?

Several reasons, but the real difference-maker is in the Title I math itself.

"It rewards places that spend more," Gordon says. And Mississippi, in addition to being one of the poorest states in the nation, also has one of the lowest per-pupil spending rates.

In this way, Title I, an anti-poverty program, privileges more affluent, high-spending states. But, Gordon argues, it doesn't have to.

For more on Gordon's proposed fixes to Title I, click here.

Lessons Learned

Over the past three weeks, the NPR Ed Team and our 20 member station collaborators have taken readers (and listeners) from the rain-soaked ceiling of a rural Alabama school to Wyoming coal country, where the best place to find water is in the district's beloved aquatic center.

We've explored the imbalance that exists in many state funding systems between affluent districts and property-poor districts, and given voice to the students, parents and educators who feel they aren't getting the resources they need.

To those who respond, "But money doesn't matter," we've offered compelling evidence that it does, especially for disadvantaged children.

The achievement gap between this nation's wealthiest and poorest students is growing dramatically, not shrinking. Something's not working.

Our reporting suggests that the solution, however, is not for lawmakers and taxpayers to simply open their pocketbooks.

The solution is dialogue — for all Americans to look more closely at the school across town or down-state and to consider the stories of the students inside.

Because not every child is the same, but every one deserves the same access to a good education.

And so let's leave the last word to Texas state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, whom we met earlier. He said this last May on the floor of the Texas Statehouse:

"We think in terms of black kids and brown kids and white kids. We think of poor kids and rich kids, kids from small districts and kids from larger districts. And we each come here representing our subset of kids, and that's how the process works."

Aycock asked his fellow Texas lawmakers: "What will it take to fix school finance? It'll take a common view of [the state's] 5.2 million children."

And of the nation's 50 million schoolchildren, too.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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