How to Analyze Your State's Education Finance System

Last Updated: June 01, 2001

How to Analyze Your State's Education Finance System

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By William Mathis

If you are a rural citizen concerned about the fairness (or lack of fairness) of your state’s school finance system, this booklet is for you. It will help you get the information you need, and connect you with people who have similar interests and who can help. It will provide you with tools to analyze your state’s school finance system. Its ultimate purpose is to change laws and school funding systems to provide equity and adequacy for rural education programs.

You will find that some parts of this booklet are simple and easy to follow, while others may be more complicated and difficult. Most likely, you will skim over some sections and concentrate on others. The booklet is designed with these different needs in mind. If you have questions, the Rural Education Finance Center is available as a resource. You may need to talk over some of the issues and terms discussed in the first part of the booklet, or to get advice on some of the unique statistical procedures and how to apply them in your state. People have different levels of background and expertise, and the Rural Education Finance Center is available to help, whatever your previous experience with school finance issues. The most important thing is that you get involved.

Throughout the text, you will find boxed “Guiding Questions.” These are reflection points. You will need to ask yourself about your unique state situation and your specialties, skills, and circumstances. In every case, tools are provided to help you move forward. Appendix A also provides a step-by-step flowchart to guide you through the process of analyzing your state’s finance system. 

The Context

Throughout the country, you can find citizens, school board members, and parents who feel that their school funding system is unfair. In their own communities, they see run-down school buildings, outdated texts, large classes and few support staff. Their limited computers are obsolete. This is in contrast to the more affluent suburbs and neighborhoods, where they see modern, expensive, well-maintained facilities, new computer laboratories, and plenty of learning materials in the classrooms and libraries. While they struggle to make do, other schools boast small class sizes, highly qualified faculty, lots of special services personnel, and numerous support staff.

Parents in communities whose schools are struggling care just as much about education. They are just as willing to pay taxes. But they simply do not have the money, even at higher tax rates, to fund an education as good as that in richer towns. Often, they cannot even provide a minimally adequate education to their children.

As anxious as they are about their children’s education, they are frustrated. They don’t know how to change the system. They don’t know how to prove their funding system is unfair. Gathering the information seems like an overwhelming and impossible job. They don’t know what to ask for or who to ask. They are apprehensive about bureaucratic runarounds. They will have to tackle the legislative, judicial and administrative branches of government to solve their problems.

If these issues matter to you, this booklet is designed to help you address them. It will help you gather the information you need, evaluate its meaning, put it in context, establish networks with others, and work with your legislature and courts to solve the problems. In every state with successful reform, there is a small handful of people who made all the difference. They had few resources, but they persevered. Often at odds with the interests of the existing political structure, they faced daunting obstacles. They learned to enlist the media in their cause, and to make what seemed impossible a reality.