Arkansas is following some two dozen other states that have had to respond to a court finding that its current financing system is unconstitutional. These events are always traumatic, but—from a slightly different perspective—they offer enormous opportunity.
The nation is watching to see what happens with New York City school finance. After a dozen years in the courts, the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. New York is now back at the Court of Appeals for a final judgment about the added appropriations that the legislature must send to the city. This judgment is, however, unlikely to be the final statement. If the legislature must come up with an incredible sum of money close to the more than $5 billion currently on the table, it may well balk, precipitating a true constitutional crisis.
By our cultural heritage we are led to believe that the performance of students can be improved by providing more resources to the schools. This would allow schools to provide more individualized instruction, to hire more qualified teachers, and to expand program offerings. But what is often missed in current discussions is that this is exactly the experiment that we have been conducting. School expenditures per pupil, after allowing for inflation, almost doubled between 1960 and 1975. These increases led to smaller classes, more teachers with advanced degrees, more experienced teachers, and better paid teachers. But there were no concomitant improvements in student achievement.
California's education finance system is broken in every way, but the real story is the dismal achievement of kids in California. What needs to be fixed is not just how schools are financed, but more important how the whole K-12 educational system is organized, and especially the incentives given to schools to do better.
The PISA results came out recently, and they were greeted in the normal manner: The vast majority of U.S. citizens, both educators and populace, presumed that the discussion was about a bell tower in Italy and went on to something else. Germany was at the other extreme. Virtually every local newspaper covered the results on its front page.
The state of schooling in New York City returned to the news Thursday with the highest court coming down on the side that the city's schools fail to meet constitutional requirements. The court has now turned the spotlight back on the state Legislature to "fix things."
In the state of Washington, adequacy plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in early 2007 that is expected to rely heavily on a report prepared at the request of a gubernatorial-appointed commission, Washington Learns. This report, "An Evidence-Based Approach to School Finance Adequacy in Washington," claims to present scientific evidence of exactly what needs to be done to bring everychild to proficiency as defined under state and federal law. The advance, if true, would go far beyond this specific court case and could revolutionize American education.
In an unexpected action last summer, the Los Angeles Times published the ratings of teacher effectiveness for 6,000 teachers by name. This is a potential game-changer. The publication created a firestorm. The unions were apoplectic. A vocal set of commentators attacked this action from a variety of viewpoints. Nonetheless, it shows signs of spreading – to New York City and elsewhere.
Now that the state Court of Appeals has once and for all settled the New York City school finance lawsuit, state and city officials must soon initiate the next necessary discussion, which should prove much more interesting — about what needs to be done to improve the city's schools.
Between 1992 and 2011, the improvement in achievement by Wisconsin students was the fourth worst of the 41 states for which data are available. In that relatively short time, Wisconsin moved from sixth to 14th in the rankings. This signaled a fundamental set of problems ranging from the future earnings of Wisconsin students to the growth and prosperity of the entire state.