In Search of Equality in School Finance Reform

In Search of Equality in School Finance Reform

If any reform promised to bring about equality of educational opportunity, it was arguably school finance reform. By eliminating the large differences in per-pupil spending among school districts in the same state, it would have leveled the playing field between high-spending versus low-spending districts. Yet, after four decades of effort, fewer than half the states have made serious attempts to equalize school financing (almost always in response to decisions from state supreme courts ordering them to do so). Further, even in the states that have attempted to do so, the reforms have met considerable political and popular resistance. In most states in which the courts have ordered an overhaul of public school financing, the legislatures have at best tinkered around the edges of an equalizing reform. Some have ignored the rulings outright. As a result, there continue to be large differences in funding between high-spending and low-spending districts in just about every state

School finance reform challenges the very foundation on which U.S. inequality of educational opportunity rests. That is our historical reliance on local property taxes as the primary means of financing K–12 public education, coupled with the segregation of poor from affluent communities by school district boundaries. The result is the familiar patchwork pattern of “good” and “bad” public schools: with rare exceptions, to find the best public schools we need to look to affluent suburbs, and to find the worst we have only to turn to our central cities. School finance reform would have dismantled this system that typically relegates children from poor communities to low-quality public schools (and, as is less often publicly recognized, reserves the best public schools for children in affluent communities).

Popular and scholarly writing on school finance reform generally depicts it as a failed effort. We concur, but we believe that before addressing the question of the overall failure, we must explore a prior and equally important question: given its radically redistributive potential, how did school finance reform ever get any political traction? After all, the United States is hardly known for its commitment to redistributive social policies.

How did policy makers come to make a commitment to school finance reform in the first place, and how did reform efforts, once undertaken, get blunted, derailed, and sometimes outright defeated? An interesting complication to the story is that school finance reform efforts have been turned back even as the abstract principle on which they are based, the promise of equality of educational opportunity, retains its longstanding pride of place in American political culture. As it turns out, equality means different things to different people. This range of meanings is the key to understanding why school finance reform originally got its political legs and why it has been hobbled.

Political resonance notw...