January 31, 2023

Q&A: State Leaders Making Change in Equitable Education Finance

By Indira Dammu

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State education finance systems set the stage for providing equitable educational opportunities for all students. In most states, state finance systems also dictate or influence how local communities raise funding for their schools. Over the last decade, several states have overhauled their school finance systems in major ways, in large part due to the work of advocates working to ensure students and schools have the resources they need, especially schools serving marginalized students.  

In Making Change: A State Advocacy Playbook for Equitable Education Finance, Bonnie O’Keefe and I interviewed advocates in six of these states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, and Nevada — to learn more about the factors that enabled changes in states’ funding formulas. Our conversations revealed five conditions that emerged in different ways and helped pave the way for school funding formula changes.  

  • Coalitions: A strong, diverse coalition in support of change. 
  • Champions: Political leadership that champions funding changes. 
  • Research: A shared body of evidence demonstrating problems in the current finance system. 
  • Economics: Economic factors that necessitate state action. 
  • Lawsuits: Pressure or judicial mandates from funding lawsuits. 

We also asked leaders in these states to share their advice for advocates in other states who are interested in pursuing education funding reform.   

“Be strategic. “[It’s important to] look at the actual structure of how your state government operates and find where the power is as opposed to where the power seems to be. We looked around at the power that exists within the state legislature and figured out how we can leverage that to our benefit overall. Also, engage those unlikely allies as well and figure out where your common interests are. There’s no point in doing all this education work if we’re creating conditions for students who are not going to want to be in those schools or if we’re creating conditions for educators that are not livable. The vision that you were fighting for really does have to be a compelling one and there’s no better way to come up with a compelling vision than to communicate with the folks who are really invested in the work that you’re doing.”
Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland 

“One thing that advocates go into this work thinking is that there’s only one bite at the apple — that’s not true. [In Connecticut], 2017 was the starting point of bills that subsequently passed and made the system incrementally stronger. You have to be willing to go back and add things that you want or take out things that don’t work. Don’t plan to get everything you want in one fell swoop. It’s also important for advocates to hold political leaders accountable for what they said they were going to do.”
Katie Roy, senior advisor, Education Resource Strategies and founder of the School and State Finance Project (Connecticut) 

“I would encourage advocates to bring folks to the table with an inch-deep agenda. Here in Nevada, it was really valuable to bring everyone to the table with some very clear, simple goals, which included modernizing the current formula and fully funding it. We were able to pull a lot of people in our tent with these goals, and it was advantageous to say to legislators that our coalition included often divergent partners, such as charter school and union groups, that were united for such an important cause.  It was valuable to present our coalitions as folks working together despite perhaps being misaligned in some other ways.”  

—Amanda Morgan, executive director, Educate Nevada Now

Learn more from Bellwether on education finance: 

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