At the end of January, the first list of interim charges for House committees was released by the Speaker of the House. Appropriations, the budget-writing committee of the House, was given a charge to conduct a basic review of the public education funding formulas and specifically if items funded outside of the formulas should be brought into the formulas.
Of the $5.3 billion cut from public education by the 2011 Legislature, $1.3 billion was from funding outside the formulas. These cuts had a disproportionate impact on economically disadvantaged students because many programs and services targeted toward academic success of at-risk and economically disadvantaged students are funded outside the formulas. For example, $208 million for Pre-K expansion grants was eliminated in 2011, as was $97 million for the High School Completion/Success program and $20 million for the Teen Parenting Program. Of the small funding restorations made by the 2013 Legislature very little went towards funding outside the formulas.
Programs funded outside the formulas are often the first targeted for cuts, because they are a low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to cut a line item in the budget than to adjust funding formulas. In an ideal world, the formulas would provide every district with just the right amount of money to meet the educational needs of its unique student body. However, as the school finance trial playing out in the courts right now shows, we are far from that ideal.
Unfortunately, this basic review of the formulas does not include an in-depth study of the weights and allotments and cost-of-education index—the major drivers of school finance. At the core of the plaintiff’s arguments in the school finance lawsuit is the fact that the state does not know the cost of its requirements, and from the charges released so far, it appears that the state is in no hurry to tackle that question over the interim.