A recent study published in the Education Policy Analysis Archives found that the Great Recession had – and continues to have – an unprecedented negative effect on state school finance systems. The study, authored by Bruce D. Baker, a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, looks at school district data from 1933 to 2011 to determine the impact of “these dark ages of American public school finance” on overall equity in school funding. Predictably, the findings were bleak.
In framing the relevance and timeliness of this study, Baker summarizes the growing body of empirical research establishing that “substantive and sustained school finance reforms,” which provide for more adequate and equitable distribution of education funds amongst rich and poor school districts, positively impact the educational outcomes of students in high poverty, traditionally underperforming districts. One such study Baker cites found that successful school finance litigations had led to reductions in inequality “by raising spending in the poorest districts while leaving spending in the richest districts unchanged, thereby increasing aggregate spending on education.” Thus, in Baker’s view of equity (which derives, in part, from school finance litigations), “fairness” in the school funding context is understood as state finance systems that ensure equal educational opportunity and outcomes by accounting for the additional needs of students living in poor and underperforming districts.
In the post-Great Recession era, Baker finds that fairness has been on the decline in a majority of states. Specifically, while only 11 states had decreases in funding fairness between 1993 and 2007, from the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 through 2011, over 30 states saw such a decrease. Baker attributes the assault on funding fairness largely to cuts in state aid and the declining ability of local school districts to offset these funding losses. In particular, while high wealth districts may have been able to offset some of the state funding costs themselves after 2008, high poverty districts were oftentimes not able to do the same. And while the federal government provided states with “fiscal stabilization” aid during the Great Recession, that aid was temporary and failed to address the ongoing state funding gaps.
While Baker concedes that it is too soon to evaluate the long-term effects of the Great Recession and the attendant decreases in “fairness” on student outcomes, he does believe that the ensuing fiscal austerity rhetoric from state-level politicians may be here to stay. Thus, contends Baker, the funding cuts and whatever deleterious effects they may have on student achievement – particularly within in high poverty districts – may be permanent.