Nebraska lawmakers are holding hearings on how the state might change the way it provides aid to local school districts. Policy- makers are right to examine the options.
But lawmakers also need to be wary of inflating expectations beyond what’s achievable. On this issue, it would be irresponsible to promise too much.
The discussion and debate need to take place within the bounds of what’s achievable. There are practical limits on how much school aid might be increased, for example, and on how much the aid formula can be simplified. As school aid is distributed, it’s important to tamp down unrealistic expectations that every district will be a major net “winner.”
Property taxes remain the top revenue source for school districts while state aid dollars come from state sales and income tax revenues. Currently, Nebraska is providing nearly $1 billion a year in state aid to local districts, and school aid is the single-largest part of the state budget.
Lawmakers frequently receive complaints that the current formula for distributing that aid is unfair. Fairness can be in the eye of the beholder, of course, given that complaints come from all categories of school districts: large, medium and small; urban and rural. In response, the Legislature’s Education Committee is understandably exploring options for revamping the aid formula.
One idea to be debated is whether Nebraska should break with current practice and allocate funding to districts that currently receive no “equalization aid.” Such aid — intended to help districts fill the gap between their needs and what they can cover through local property-tax revenue — accounts for the majority of financial support the state provides public schools. At present, 114 out of 249 districts do not receive any equalization aid.
That change would provide some help to rural districts where escalating farmland values have led to a cutoff of equalization aid under the formula. Would that change be fair? Raise the question at the State Capitol, and you’ll quickly have an argument on your hands.
Another complaint is that school districts get no predictability about their aid levels from year to year and that they receive the word fairly late for planning purposes. It’s a reasonable gripe, and lawmakers will see whether processes can be changed to address that problem.
But throughout this debate, there are limits to what can be achieved. Here are two key examples.
>> Level of aid increase. The debate on state aid has at times stretched credibility when unrealistic claims have been made about how large an increase the state can afford. At one point last spring, an aid increase of 20 percent was described as justified to make up for previous cuts, even though such a figure was completely outside the range of fiscal and political possibility.
In the end, the Legislature approved reasonable increases for the total school aid budget for each of the next two years. That was a responsible approach, given that lawmakers must balance a wide array of legitimate budget demands.
>> Simplifying the aid formula. Nebraska lawmakers often hear that the aid formula not only needs to be simplified but also that it needs to be fair.
In reality, it’s difficult for the formula to be both.
As testimony before the Education Committee this summer explained, the reason the state aid formula is so stuffed with allocation factors (for poverty, growth, “local effort” and more) is so the state will take into consideration the extremely wide range of differences that characterize Nebraska’s public school districts.
Each category of school district — large, middle- sized, small, rural, suburban, urban — has a different interest, and it’s the job of the Legislature to make sure each of those groups is heard. At the end of the day, it’s also the job of lawmakers to reconcile those interests as best they can through compromise.
It sent a troubling signal last spring when the Legislature deadlocked in rancorous debate for weeks over the aid issue, belatedly reaching agreement through the determined efforts of Speaker Greg Adams and Sen. Kate Sullivan, chairwoman of the Education Committee.
When elected leaders look at the school aid issue next year, they need to do so in practical Nebraska fashion, not copying the “my way or the highway” attitude that dominates the gridlocked Congress.
Any changes Nebraska makes to school aid need to be grounded in an appreciation for the districts’ varied interests, tempered by a realistic understanding of what is possible. That’s the balanced approach that will serve Nebraska best.