Battling to reform school funding

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(For new readers, I am convinced that the only realistic way to pull up our lower-performing districts involves running longer school years and longer school days for students who are performing significantly below grade level. No substitute exists for teaching time. We have been frantically looking for that substitute, that piece of pedagogical magic, and we still are not closing the gap in any meaningful way between our best and worst schools.)

the graph for cal school dist blog

This graph sums up the problem with trying to expand the school year to offer more academic time to those students who have fallen behind. I am very familiar with insolvency. I watched for years as my district begged, borrowed and stole its way to putative solvency. I watched as the state threatened to take us over and told us not to issue bonds that the Board decided to issue anyway. I watched as the state fired the Board and took over. I watched as administrators were arrested. Finances were far from the only district problem the state wanted to address, but finances helped put the district on the radar, largely because we blithely ran in the red, year after year.

As I study the California insolvency graph above and other similar charts, my data crystallizes into one solid realization: We cannot reform school performance without reforming school funding. Too many districts are running near the edge and pulling out their credit card when they can’t pay all the bills. The following examples may be particularly egregious examples of misuses of funds, but my graph above makes clear that insolvency has become far from rare.

ILLINOIS MOVES TO DISBAND TWO LOCAL SCHOOL BOARDS — The Illinois State Board of Education is moving to dissolve two local school boards in historically low-performing districts. East St. Louis School District 189 and North Chicago School District 187 are both slated to have their boards removed due to poor academic performance and corrupt leadership. The East St. Louis district has not made adequate yearly progress in nine years—or for almost as long as that has been a federal requirement—and has a $12.5 million budget deficit. In North Chicago, the federal government charged the local district board’s ex-president with taking more than $800,000 in bribes from bus companies. She is currently serving time in a federal prison for a multi-state Internet fraud conviction. Under Illinois law, the State Board of Education or state superintendent can remove a local board if the district does not make sufficient yearly progress for seven consecutive years. Upon the removal of the boards, the state will appoint a new panel to take over all school matters until academic benchmarks are met. The current local boards may appeal the respective takeover decisions to the State Board of Education. Sources: Belleville News-Democrat (4/21/12), Quincy Journal (4/25/12) (

Eduhonesty: This post has not even touched upon the inequities created by property-tax based funding, but that funding system results in large gaps in per pupil spending between districts. Federal and state bureaucracies then try to patch the system with complicated grants and loans. We can do better.

Again, zip code should not be destiny.