Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Eighty Percent of Southern Voters Want Improvements in School Funding: Why Won't Their States Act?

A group of non-profits conducted a research based poll of voters in the South.  The sample was geographically, demographically, and politically representative of those who actually vote.  The key results were:

  • 74% of voters see differences in quality of education across their states
  • 85% of voters say states should fix differences in education
  • 84% of voters say states should adjust funding to address differences

There were not even significant variations across party lines.  Seventy-five percent of republican men recognized the difference in the quality of education in their state and eight-five percent of that same group said the state should take action.

On one level, these numbers should not come as a surprise.  All but two of the surveyed states have regressive funding systems.  Georgia and  Louisiana are the only two states that actually send additional resources to districts that need it more.  Those efforts in Georgia and Louisiana, however, are offset by relatively low fiscal effort in general.  Louisiana, for instance, earns a "D" on the school funding fairness report card for effort.  Thus, while it may distribute its funds fairly, it doesn't distribute many funds.  Everyone is just equally poorly funded.

Also, if one looks nationwide, seven of the twelve states that have enacted the biggest cuts in education are southern states.  Florida and Alabama, for instance, rank second and third in the nation in terms of the biggest cuts to education.

With these results, one can understand why the vast majority of southern voters see a problem and want a change.  On the other hand, I do wonder if the questions in the poll were too leading.  How many voters would actually say that we should not fix inequality in education?  Yet, a lot of people would surely say that "money does not matter" or that the primary problem is not money (although they would be wrong based on numerous studies).  Thus, the fact that the respondents did not balk at changing the funding formula means that maybe there is some validity to the poll.  

Assuming these numbers are valid, it begs the question of why state legislatures are not doing a better job.  One answer lies in the information deficit.  The Education Law Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have done fantastic work over the last several years in providing national snapshots.  But more than national snapshots is necessary to hold state accountable and move policy.  Most southern states lack institutions that can transparently and consistently shine a spotlight on what the state is or is not doing in terms of education funding.  As a result, the states can mismanage education funding without the general public fully understanding it.  And, thus, there is no accountability.

This network of organizations that sponsored this poll, however, may be the institutions that can help the South take a step in the right direction.  In a separate document, the group also issued a set of policy proposals.  They proposed a set of teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention strategies; giving students the support they need (rigorous, meaningful classes; help with family and emotional issues; better school climates and fairer discipline); strengthening the bridge to college and work; and matching funding to student needs.

They, of course, offer details beyond these broad outlines.  But what struck me was how simple the proposals were and that I basically agreed with them entirely.  Their proposals show how straightforward quality and equity can be.  It is time for legislatures to give it to them.




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