Q&A with Dr. Bruce Baker, One of the 50 Most Cited Rutgers University Professors of 2018

GSE Professor Dr. Bruce Baker was recognized among the top 100 most influential education scholars in the nation by Education Week and he was also recognized by Rutgers Today as one of the top 50 most cited Rutgers University professors. Dr. Baker has dedicated his work at Rutgers GSE to researching and working to positively influence public school funding in the state of New Jersey and across the nation. This Q&A highlights Dr. Baker’s expertise and knowledge in the area of school funding and offers an opportunity for readers to learn more about the ways that public school funding is affecting people across the nation.

1. On a daily basis, how do you think a lack of adequate school funding affects children’s ability to effectively learn in the classroom and what are the long-term effects on students due to inadequate funding?

The primary consequences of inadequate school funding are seen in class sizes and non-competitive wages for teachers. To some, these consequences may seem less obvious and apparent that decaying and inadequate facilities, which are certainly also a result of inadequate funding. But most of the money that goes into public schooling goes into paying the teachers and other school staff that work there on a daily basis. In some states like Arizona or Colorado, teacher pay is especially poor and teacher morale very low, resulting in statewide protests these past few years. Certainly this has to affect the students. Schools simply can’t recruit and retain the quality of teachers they need. Perhaps more observable to the students is that they may be in classes with 30 to 40 or more other students, so getting any attention or feedback from teachers can be difficult. This is especially true in middle and secondary school where those teachers may have to teach 6 sections for 30 or 40 kids per day. Making connections with teachers under these circumstances, getting extra help or any attention at all can be very difficult.

2. What is your ideal vision for addressing a lack of school funding in the next 5 years?

Financing of elementary and secondary schools remains primarily a responsibility of the states. States need to take that responsibility seriously, and some like New Jersey have over time. On average, even since the recession, states are spending a smaller share of their economies on public schooling than they did before the recession. They’ve reduced their effort. Some have driven that effort into the ground, including Colorado and Arizona. States need to recommit to broad based, predictable and balanced tax revenue sources. Providing high quality public services requires reasonable taxation. And when it comes to public schooling that responsibility falls on the states. There are some states which are particularly weak in terms of their economic capacity, like Mississippi and have significant educational needs (high poverty, etc.). The federal role in financing education needs to be refocused on assisting those states which simply lack the capacity to raise the bar, while requiring all states to put up sufficient effort of their own.

3. How do you feel about the recent approval of six education initiatives passing in Seattle, Washington; Georgia; Maryland; Montana; and two in the state of Maine? Do you think this is a sign that the nation is starting to understand the need for more adequate school funding?

It feels like there has long been a disconnect between local voter preferences for taxing and spending on schools and actions of elected officials. For elected officials, there’s no right time to raise taxes, or at least so they think. But many in the general public are willing to pay more in taxes for the quality of services they receive, in particular for observable changes to school quality, including smaller class sizes. We may be reaching a breaking point on that. But I think that breaking point may be more evident in the tipping of state legislatures, in traditionally red states like Kansas, favoring a new crop of pro-education legislators crossing party lines, and the election of pro-public education governors in states including Wisconsin.

4. Do you think that a lack of knowledge of how much money it costs to actually educate students in accordance with local, state, and national education laws is a contributing factor to the lack of funding for schools? If so, how do you think professionals in the education field can educate others to understand the need for more sufficient funding?

I think good, thorough but understandable evaluations of the costs of meeting state outcome standards can help to inform state policy. State boards of education and legislatures set outcome standards for schools without regard for what it costs and set spending levels without regard for what can be achieved at those levels. It’s worth taking a close look at the intersection of the two, which might lead to either adjusting the goals and standards or the funding. Kansas has actually been a leader in this regard, contracting three separate studies over time to guide school finance policy reform. New Jersey’s current funding system was built on an evaluation of costs conducted in the early 2000s. But the formula derived from those recommendations hasn’t been fully funded for years (adopted in 2008), and the analyses on which that formula was based considered outcome standards that are now over a decade old. We’ve raised the bar. Adopted new tests. New standards. And achieving those will cost more. In New Jersey, and many states, it’s time to re-evaluate and recalibrate.

5. How much does inadequate funding contribute to granting students an equal opportunity for education? Is there any way to provide students an equal quality of education without improved funding?

 Of course, public schooling isn’t equally adequate or inadequate across children and settings. Further, it costs a lot more in some settings and with some children to achieve a given set of outcome standards than in other settings or with other children. In New Jersey, for example, there are certainly many local school districts that provide very high-quality education, achieve very high outcomes on average, and far exceed what might be considered “adequate” under state standards. For others, that’s not the case. Funding is simply inadequate to cover the high costs of achieving even “adequate” educational outcomes for New Jersey students in some settings. A Kansas lower court judge once remarked that the system was “inadequate and the inadequacies are distributed inequitably.”

We have a national paper on this issue… addressing the relative adequacy of funding across the entire nation toward simply achieving current national average outcomes.