Bernie Sanders is Right: We Should Federalize Public School Funding


Bernie Sanders just dropped a massive dose of truth on us Monday night.

No politician in my lifetime has ever said anything so dangerous, fraught with problems, unlikely, impractical, and absolutely on the nose right!

The Presidential candidate running for the Democratic nomination wants to make the federal government largely responsible for funding public schools. Right now districts are supported mostly by local and state taxes.

This is what he said:

“One of the things that I have always believed is that, in terms of education, we have to break our dependency on the property tax, because what happens is the wealthiest suburbs can in fact have great schools but poor, inner-city schools cannot. So I think we need equality in terms of how we fund education, and to make sure the federal government plays an active role to make sure that those schools who need it the most get the funds that they deserve.”


(Find the quote above 17 minutes into this video.)


Wow! What a statement!

Don’t tell me that was focused grouped. Don’t tell me his campaign did a poll first. Don’t tell me he ran that by any big donors for approval.

Whether you agree with it or not, such an audacious remark has to come from a genuine belief. This is really what Bernie thinks, and it’s entirely consistent with the Democratic Socialism of his whole political career.

I don’t think his rival for the party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton, will be parroting THIS stance! If anything, she might criticize him for it. And she’d have a multitude of practical reasons to do so.

Lots of folks on both sides of the aisle are sick of federal intervention in our schools. No Child Left Behind was a disaster. Race to the Top was worse. And the just passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) amounts to a massive giveback of power to the states. Under the most popular interpretation, the reauthorization of the federal law governing K-12 schools makes the states responsible for filling in the details of education policy while limiting federal interventions.

And now Bernie is suggesting the Fed foot the bill!?

That is going against the political tide. Who would vote for such a thing? Probably not Hillary. Or any of the Republican candidates. Or more than a handful in Congress, either.

But it’s exactly the right thing to do.

The reason?

The biggest problem with America’s public school system isn’t test scores, lazy students, or teachers unions. It’s poverty, segregation and inequitable funding.

We have separate schools for the rich and separate schools for the poor. We have schools serving mostly black and brown populations and schools serving mostly whites. And the way we allocate money and resources to these schools both allows and perpetuates this system.

Nationwide, state and local governments spend 15 percent less per pupil on poor school districts. I see this first hand. My home state of Pennsylvania is the worst offender, providing the poorest districts an embarrassing 33.5 percent less per student. This means higher class sizes, less teachers, less arts and humanities, less electives, less nurses, guidance councilors and wrap around services. This is the reality in 23 states.

An additional 23 states do buck this trend with more progressive funding formulas. States like California and Florida actually provide MORE spending to poor districts. This helps heal the wounds of malnutrition, violence, family instability and a host of other problems that go hand-in-hand with generational poverty. It also offset the costs of greater numbers of special education students and English Language Learners you typically find in these districts.

You might say, then, that the states where poor children get shafted could simply follow the lead of their more enlightened neighbors. Good luck with that! Rich folks rarely volunteer to subsidize the poor. They got theirs, and they vote and donate more regularly to local politicians than their indigent brethren can afford to do.

The result is a funding system based on local wealth. Rich areas have Cadillac education systems. Poor areas have dilapidated ones. That’s demonstrably unfair and leads to worse academic outcomes for needy kids.

What’s worse, no one else runs their schools this way. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

Federalizing education funding could solve all these problems. It could set the groundwork for an even playing field. All students could get a fair start in life! That’s a goal worth shooting for! And that’s what Bernie is suggesting.

But it’s an incredibly dangerous proposal.

Our school system still suffers nationwide from the effects of corporate education reform. National policy has been and continues to be one of high stakes standardized testing, poorly conceived and untested academic standards, and a push to privatize struggling schools. Corporatists call this “Accountability.”

It goes something like this: raise your test scores or we’re closing your school and turning it into a for-profit charter. Adopt these academic standards written by the testing companies and we’ll give you a couple extra bucks. De-professionalize teachers with junk science evaluations and hiring under-trained Teach for America temps or else we’ll cut your funding.

THIS is the federal legacy in education, and Bernie is suggesting we give them MORE POWER!?

Yes, and no. I can’t speak for Bernie, but that’s certainly not how this has to go. We can increase the Fed’s responsibility for funding schools without increasing its power over education policy. In my view, education decisions should be made locally, and I don’t mean at the state legislature. Decisions about how best to run schools should be made at the district level by the experts – the teachers and parents.

Certainly there will be those who call for more federal power over policy as a condition of federalized funding. But that has to be a deal breaker. Equitable funding with inequitable policy would just be plugging one hole while making another.

In my view, equitable funding IS the role of the federal government in public education. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first passed in 1965, it’s purpose was to make sure all schools were getting adequate resources. Under Bush and Obama, that became perverted to mean more standardized tests and philanthro-capitalist interventions. Bernie’s suggestion could be a step in returning to the original intent of the law.

Yes, the Fed should be engaged in accountability. It should make sure it’s funding schools properly. Maybe it should even be responsible to make sure those funds are being spent on things that broadly can be construed as education. I don’t mean that the fed should be able to withhold monies from districts with low test scores. But maybe it can prosecute administrators who use funding to lavishly redecorate their offices or who neglect the needs of students in their districts.

However, even if you agree – as I do – that this is a lofty goal, it is almost impossible to achieve. It’s like single-payer healthcare was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This is what most of the world is doing but it was completely out of reach here politically. In fact, we still don’t have it, but look at how the landscape has changed. Obamacare is not-single payer, but it is a step in that direction. Bernie is even championing going that extra step and providing a medicare like system for all.

What seemed impossible decades ago, now seems within reach. The same may be true one day with federalized education funding.

To be honest, I doubt fixing our school funding system is high on Bernie’s list of things to do. Breaking up the big banks, overturning Citizens United, free college tuition, even healthcare probably come first. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. If any or all of these goals were realized, it would help the more than half of our public school children living in poverty. Moreover, just having equitable funding on the list with these other worthy goals puts it on the national agenda.

Right now, no one else is talking about this. It isn’t even a recognizable goal for most progressives. Frankly, I doubt many people have even thought about it. By bringing this up, Bernie is forcing us to do so.

When I first became an education activist, I thought I was doing it for my students. Then we had a daughter, and I thought I was doing it for her, too. But as the years have gone by, the landscape has changed only slightly. We’re still reaching a level of critical mass when the culture demands a major shift. We’re not there yet. So now I wonder if the people I’m really doing this for are my grandchildren.

One day we may have the courage to change the course of our education system. We may gain the nerve to actually accomplish our convictions. We might actually try to have a nation with liberty and justice for all.

That’s what I’m fighting to achieve. I think many of us are doing the same. But do we have the bravery to take Bernie at his word, to push this topic onto the national stage?

A Bernie Sanders presidency would do that. It might not achieve this lofty goal. Not now. The political winds aren’t favorable. But we can try, knowing full well the dangers and the improbability.

I wish Bernie would flesh out the details of his plan. I wish he’d exorcise the devil from the details. But the very fact that he has the intrepidity to offer this as a solution fills me with hope.

Is it hot in here or am I starting to Feel the Bern?

37 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders is Right: We Should Federalize Public School Funding

  1. Its sounds good. But I doubt the courts or the public would ever allow it. The other problem with centralizing funding is that politicians have used the purse strings of centralization over the past five years to make billions in cuts.


    • No doubt, Julian. The Fed has an ugly history of holding our schools hostage for funding. But we need a new way of thinking about public schools that puts control of policy at the local level. The Fed’s job should just be equitable distribution of funding. I think we’ve already begun the first part. The second may come, too. In any case, an honest debate on how to best fund our public schools is long overdue.


  2. Wait, I didn’t hear the same message you heard. I heard that Bernie believes that the federal government should ensure that states provide equitable funding, and that funding should not be tied to property taxes (which seems painfully obvious). I don’t see that the only option is centralization of education funding. It may just mean the federal government insists that states find equitable solutions that don’t rely on property taxes. I can envision other routes than federal takeover.


    • Becca, Bernie does say, we need “to make sure the federal government plays an active role to make sure that those schools who need it the most get the funds that they deserve.” I guess he could mean the Fed will monitor state funding and ensure it’s equitable. However, I don’t think that was his meaning. As usual, we’re a bit short on details.


  3. I agree with Rebecca.

    I think more of our federal tax dollars should come BACK to the schools while local control should never be dominated by federal policy.

    Weaken federal policy and strengthen the flow of federal tax dollar, all while strengthening state and local control.

    Why shoul WE have to pay for Syria and offshore tax havens for Apple in Ireland?


  4. … and while we’re at it, let’s end Common Core, which like NCLB, is a disaster.

    We can thank Hillary for kickstarting Common Core (dumbing down educational system) in the 80’s:

    Marc Tucker and she had plans to have national standards, national tests, national curriculum, and a national database way back in the 1980’s. The “Dear Hillary” letter, written on Nov. 11, 1992 by Marc Tucker, lays out a plan “to remold the entire American system.” This is now the blueprint for the Common Core plan.

    Tucker’s ambitious plan was implemented in 1994 in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and the School-to-Work Act. These laws establish [using] “national standards” and “national testing” to cement national control.

    Now that NCLB and Common Core are increasingly being seen as an educational disaster, Obama recently ended NCLB. Hillary flip-flopped on NCLB, praising Obama, even though she voted for it in the Senate. However, Bill Gates partnered with UNESCO to expand CC worldwide.

    “How many parents … send their children to school so central planners can mold them into functionally illiterate cogs in a centrally planned machine, having just enough knowledge to do their preassigned task? How will such cogs be able to think critically, much less sustain liberty and the American experiment? The short answer is that they will not – and that is the point.”


    Hillary’s Common Core initiative prepares students for school-to-work only. The math architect of CC, Jason Zimba, readily admits that they will not be properly prepared and college-ready for STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering and Math).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ESSA does not give power back to the states and localities… if there is a federal “ombudsman”… and thousands of parents are now receiving ominous letters saying they have no parental rights on a few issues… then, that is NOT the government relinquishing it’s power


    • Cassandra, I completely see your point. That’s why I noted that the Fed giving up power in the ESSA was the most popular interpretation of the law. We’ll see how it actually plays out. As you noted, things may be much different than the popular interpretation leads us to believe.


  6. This comes just after both parties in Congress have just adopted a radically state-centered basic law for public education, more than forty years after the Supreme Court in Rodriguez said that there was no federal right to such equalization, and in a political and budget context in which legislation on such a policy is inconceivable. I love Bernie’s goals but so much of what he is promising is wholly within the control of Congress and is not connected in any way with the Congress we have or any we are likely to have without a vast political revolution that reaches far beyond the presidency.


  7. ESTABLISH JUSTICE: Bernie is asking the US whether we want a Scandinavian system of fiscal equity for children in school. It’s a basic civil right to have a decent public education, and the current USDOE is “lagging behind” other nations in budgeting fairness in public ed. Two big reasons:

    1 – the USDOE wastes billions on corporate contracts and junk science, subtracting millions from school budgets, but they do it equally – the same amount of time and resources are robbed from Scarsdale and the Bronx. But the overall funding that reaches students is vastly unequal. As we see, the whole idea of NCLB, RTTT and ESSA is to “identify” struggling schools through tests and then do nothing about it, year after year.
    Instead we see corporate cronies enriched, and policies blessed by sugar daddies like ALEC.

    In the US, struggling schools get LESS than high performing schools, but a sensible system would increase support where it’s most needed. Scandinavians believe in sacrificing a little for the common good (the basic kernel behind a society choosing socialism), but critics say it’s easier for them because they are racially and culturally more homogenous. Which brings us to:

    2 – The current system of school funding via property taxes increases the real estate value in areas with top schools. Where you move or live is very often a matter of “how are the schools”? So systemic change to equalize funding schools leads, as property values gradually level out, straight into (dare we think it?) greater economic, cultural and racial integration.

    Bernie is idealistic enough to imagine all of the US being as diverse as Queens, NY but this will be a tough sell in Republican-land because it’s a long-term plan that would require everyone who thinks like Archie Bunker to die off first. Because of this, every political consultant in the world would tell Bernie not to mention this until he’s inaugurated….


  8. Great post and thread. In California there is a thing called LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) that guarantees specific funding for targeted student populations, specifically ELL (English Language Learners) and Economically Disadvantaged (based on family income), Foster Children, and the Homeless, which is greater than what is available for the general population. The problems surrounding Common Core, obsessive testing, assessment, and teacher scapegoating remain. We are an uber wealthy community strangled by primarily a property tax based funding mechanism, believe it or not. The district is small and almost totally built out and nobody moves, so taxes stay the same. I’ve always thought there should be a way to equalize per pupil funding across the country and supplement funding from the national level. How to stop attaching absurd requirements and the obsessive need for bureaucratic accountability and oversight seems to me to be the problem. And then there is the “let’s make some widgets” mindset. My last child will be aged by the time this gets worked out, but change needs to happen. Go Bernie. It would be a start.


  9. I’ve been for Bernie for quite a while. I thought that because of his strong record on income inequality and his pro-union stance that his policies would be good for students and teachers even if he wasn’t being specific about the problems of K-12, but Anthony Cody’s transcript of Bernie’s remarks at the Massachusetts Teacher Association’s November meetings convinced me that he’s connected the dots and gets it:

    “…we’ve got to fight against the privatization of public education, and I intend to do that.”

    “… we will find a Secretary of Education who is much more interested in the whole child than teaching to tests.”

    “…in order to be good teachers, in order to provide the quality care that your kids need, you need to stand up and fight, and be involved heavily in collective bargaining…”


  10. […] During last week’s Black and Brown Democratic Presidential Forum in Iowa, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized the nation’s dependency on local property taxes to fund public schools, offering instead that we need “to make sure the federal government plays an active role to make sure that those schools who need it the most get the funds that they deserve.” See from Vox: “Bernie Sanders has a Bold, Simple Idea for Improving Public Education” and “Bernie Sanders is Right: We Should Federalize Public School Funding.” […]


  11. So, if next president of Bernie will be Trump, are you still a good idea to federal controlling education? You got to be kidding.


    • No. Federalize the FUNDING. Not control. That should be local. But it just makes sense that we pull from a larger tax base so we can ensure all schools get equitable funding. We need to make that a priority. Otherwise, nothing we do will have much of an impact for our most needy children.


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