By: Duncan Robb, Lydia Hollon, and Chad Aldeman
Recently, K-12 funding news has been dominated by the coming “fiscal cliff.” With pandemic relief funding running dry and public school enrollment dropping in most states across the country, there is good reason for handwringing. So it’s easy to miss – we almost did – the massive investments that some states are making in K-12 education this year.
Amidst the culture war rhetoric and high-profile politics, states led by Republicans and Democrats alike are passing public school funding increases of 10%, 20%, or even more. We would do well to celebrate these investments and, just as importantly, to make sure districts use these funds to get students back on track.
By our count, 42 state legislatures have passed K-12 budgets in 2023. Of those, all but four have passed increases, with an average increase around 8%. What caught our attention is this: news media outlets report that 12 state legislatures have passed K-12 education budgets that are at least 10% larger than the prior year. Those states alone are committing an additional $12.9 billion to public education in 2023-24.
Where are the biggest increases? Nevada’s Democratic legislature passed a whopping 25% increase in their biennial budget this year. Not to be outdone, Nebraska’s legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one, approved a 23% increase. Oklahoma’s Republican supermajority was not far behind, voting yes on a 21.5% bump. In order, Utah, Kentucky, Ohio, Idaho, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Georgia, Alaska, and New York round out the list.
Those who follow education trends may hope these increases would help catch students up after a few hard years of lost learning.
But the reality is less strategic or targeted. Most states are simply directing more money through their general fund formulas with few strings attached. While policymakers may indicate a hope that districts will spend their funds on academic catch up strategies, teacher salaries, or literacy efforts, there is little accountability. That means it will be up to local communities to work with their school districts to make sure students get back on track.
There are some exceptions. Nevada, Nebraska, and Wisconsin each made significant investments in supporting students with special needs. Nebraska also made some changes to the state’s funding distribution to benefit rural school districts. Idaho and Georgia are funding teacher pay raises. Transportation and facilities funding got a big lift in a few states. Nebraska, Iowa, Utah, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Idaho, and Ohio all created or expanded direct-to-family education funding programs.
Some readers will notice that several of the states with the biggest funding increases have also seen pushes for more state funds to go to families for any educational use, including tuition for private school. A cynical, though reasonable, take is that these large public school funding increases were made to placate public school advocates who fear these flexible funding programs will, ultimately, mean less money for public schools. While the reality tends to be more complicated, the infusion of cash is nevertheless a boon for school districts in these states.
We’ll be asking both states and districts that are making K-12 education investments some questions about how the money will be used. We encourage advocates and community members to do the same. For example:
- How has pandemic-related learning loss influenced your K-12 budgeting decisions?
- What, if any, measures have you put in place to target this money toward improving education recovery, specifically in math and literacy?
- Are there specific student groups that you are hoping to support?
- How do your K-12 investments work to support classroom instruction through quality curriculum and aligned professional learning?
It is encouraging to see, even in a trying political climate, some state political leaders on both sides of the aisle investing in students. These leaders deserve credit, especially with districts facing big budget shortfalls next year. It’s worth celebrating the states that are increasing their investments in education, but now it’s up to districts to make sure those investments pay off.