Strings (or, With State Dollars Come Bureaucracies)
This is a continuation of my prior post about the history of school finance in the United States.
The adage holds: Nothing is free. When states began to pay school districts to educate children, the money came with regulations — and those regulations drove the system of attendance reports, standardized testing, and school administrators that we have today.
After school districts began taxing their communities to pay for schools, states started to step in, according to Elwood Cubberly in his book Public Education in the United States. And the moment a district began to depend on state money, it had to cope with the threat of the state taking that support away.
What began as a small effort by states to funnel land — as well as revenues from liquor and marriage licenses — to schools has expanded enormously. The state pays out more than $3 billion per year to Missouri school districts alone, according to numbers from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The first demands placed on states, from those community schools that had accepted aid, included things like attendance reports, a set school-year length, income and expense reports, and curriculum requirements. States also asked that schools collect money with a local property tax levy. (Right now, the minimum tax levy for Missouri school districts is $2.75).
But it’s not enough to have regulation, you also have to enforce it. So, states set up officers — often elected — to deal with school regulations, and by 1870, a city superintendent of schools had cropped up in Kansas City.
On the other end, schools had to make those reports to the state and ensure they met its requirements. Schools added their own administrators essentially to take care of the extra paperwork. The bureaucratic ball was rolling.
A side effect of state control was a limiting of the power and oversight of a school district’s board.
When schools were consolidated into school districts, a small group of people worked to oversee the system:
Even by 1850 the tendency in the states had become marked to limit the powers of the district meeting, and to take away powers from the trustees and transfer them to the county and state superintendents […] In most States the district meeting was shorn of such powers as the right to designate the teacher, select the textbooks, or make out the course of study and the trustees were early shorn of their power to examine and certificate the teacher they selected.
— Cubberly, p. 241
So, here we are. State funding is anywhere from 5 percent to 60 percent of a Missouri school district’s revenues, with the district average around 33 percent during the 2004–2005 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the system of state regulation is large.
Is the price of the state funding schools worth it? It would be oversimplifying to paint state regulation broadly as bad or good. But each requirement comes at a price.
Theory suggests that bureaucracies will try to expand their influence and budgets regardless of whether they’ll do any more good with additional resources. As we can see, Missouri spends more and more on education each year and the number of regulations are growing. At the very least, the state should think about regulation costs before asking more of school districts.
If you have anything to add about school finance history or state regulation, please leave a comment below. I’m going to try to explain the Proposition C tangle Friday. If you have questions you’d like me to address, please email me.