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State and Local Education Have Dinner Together: Who’ll Pick Up the Check?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
May 5, 2019

Paying for education can sometimes bring about what we used to refer to in the military as a SEE—a Significant Emotional Event. You can rest assured that no matter who picks up the tab when dinner is done, the taxpayer is the primary billpayer. It is the taxpayer that gives over hard-earned money to the community, the state and the nation. We hardly ever see what contorted paths and channels those personal contributions go through after they leave our pockets. This article briefly discusses how we got to where we are now with respect to public education funding.

For most of our history as a nation, the pendulum of school funding has been on the local side. In fact, until the 20th century, almost every public school was exclusively locally funded. Even up to the 1930s, local taxes paid for nearly 85 percent of all public education revenue. As the states grew more powerful in representation and influence, so did their penchant for trying to ensure that their schools met minimum standards across the board. For example, a family could say, “Sure, let’s move to Texas—we can expect a certain quality of education no matter which part of Texas we settle in.”

There is another big reason for the local control provisions: that of Americans’ long-standing and deep-rooted fear of large federal government. Some say that our citizenry is currently very divided on this point. Yet another cause for a noticeable shift of power to the state was the push for federalism in the 1970s. The dominance of power enjoyed by the federal government in the 1960s eroded in the 1970s and shifted back to the states. We saw a noticeable rise in state activism for educational funding in the Reagan era. President Reagan’s rhetorical prowess made it so that the states felt they needed to increase their control over education. In 1983, the administration published the report, “A Nation at Risk,” which connected the nation’s economic future to the performance of its schools.

Following are five areas or functions for which many states might wish to exert a dominant financial interest:

  1. Pre-K Education.

In Texas, Pre-K education has been a hotly contested issue and could constitute yet another example of asserting dominance over the local communities with educational resources. Texas has discussed universal Pre-K education for years but has not yet funded it completely. I believe that most educators would contend that Pre-K education is a wonderful thing and they would love for their districts to offer it—if only the state would pay for it.

  • Standardized Testing.

Testing is another example of the rise of state controlled education. This is an area that directly impacts how much a district needs to budget to accomplish such testing. States have engaged in foisting very high-stakes testing on their districts such as Texas’ State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

  • Security.

With every violent incident that takes place at a school, state governors enter the debate much more actively about school security. This emphasis spills over to the state legislators who scramble to devise new laws that will provide more security within all the state schools. I am beginning to believe that this area might be well-positioned at the state level for adequate funding and strategy.

  • Curriculum.

Many states have subject-matter experts that devise curricula and choose textbooks for all the public schools. The problem ensues when ideology enters the process and debates take place about whether children are being taught one ideology over another. Communities ought to be able to opt out of textbooks or subjects that they are uncomfortable with. Let the states propose and the communities dispose.

  • Teacher and Administrator Certification.

This is a hotly contested funding issue. Communities are often short dozens of teacher and administrators. Their efforts to fill these shortages are hampered by state rules concerning certification. Teachers unions and other public organizations continue to lobby heavily to close their ranks to business leaders or anyone who has not been a “traditional”—someone who started as a teacher, became a campus principal and then a superintendent. They perpetuate their own job security by closing ranks to non-traditionals. States follow along because the legislators are heavily lobbied by these groups.


Whoever brings the money to a part of public education shall enjoy majority control. This has been the understanding. In some cases, funds have flowed from the localities to the state and then back to the localities. At what point, therefore, can we say that funding is state or local? Perhaps a good range of state funding might be from 60 percent to 75 percent. Such a range would allow localities to build educational systems that are largely decentralized and very responsive to the local desires of taxpayers and the specific interests of diverse communities. It would also allow the state to have the effect and impact of standardizing educational systems so that they can attribute certain state-wide characteristics to the system.

Author: Dr. Robert Brescia serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS television and at the Permian Basin American Red Cross. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Please contact him at [email protected]  or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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