The Gist Twist(s) & Rhode Island School Finance

Posted on July 1, 2010

So, I’ve tried not to… but I’ve been following the relatively uninformed debate over Rhode Island’s nifty new Foundation Aid formula on the National Journal “Experts” Blog.

Yep, Rhode Island has invented the… wheel… or perhaps bread… one or the other. Pretty much a run-of-the-mill foundation aid formula here. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But there are a number of “wait and see” issues here… like how well the crafty state-local matching aid formula will work and to what extent the single relatively small and completely arbitrary poverty weight will actually drive additional funding to higher poverty districts.

One thing really caught my eye in Deborah Gist’s response to David Sciarra. Mr. Sciarra criticized the inclusion of New Hampshire in the calculation of the foundation aid level for the 2010-11 incarnation – adoption year incarnation of the nifty new bread/wheel. Here’s how Gist responds:

1. Our core instructional amount was based on national research, using data from the NCES, is sufficient to fund the requirements of the Rhode Island Basic Education Program, and it in no way focused on states with low per-pupil expenditures. In fact, we looked particularly carefully at our neighboring states, which have some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation, and we included only those states that have an organizational structure and staffing patterns similar to ours.

First, I must say that it is a strange use of the term “national research” to refer to simply taking averages of spending data from states collected from a national survey, jointly from the National Center for Education Statistics and Census Bureau. It’s an annual survey. Collection of data. Not national research. It could be used for research. Heck, I love those data and know them oh too well. Which brings me to the Gist Twist here. And, it’s a three part twist.

You see, the goal is to identify an underlying “foundation” level of funding for school districts in Rhode Island.

Twist Part I: The first part of the twist, which I will not dig through here in great detail, is the pruning back of core instructional expenditures, a definition in the NCES data intended to be reported uniformly across states, albeit imperfect. The choice of core versus all current operating expense clearly drops the foundation value, and quite significantly. What remains unknown is the extent to which other aid beyond the foundation formula will actually address those other cost areas. In 2007-08, Rhode Island instructional spending per pupil was about $8,500 and current operating expenditures per pupil over $14,000. That’s a big difference to cover with other aid. Let’s hope they do.

Twist Part II: I was also quite intrigued by Gist’s explanation of how national data were used, and her defense to the accusation that they picked low spending states and took the average of the low spending states. Gist responds by saying they took “neighbors” of Rhode Island, which are, of course high spending states.

Here’s how the actual legislation describes the process:

(1) The core instruction amount shall be an amount equal to a statewide per pupil core instruction amount as established by the department of elementary and secondary education, derived from the average of northeast regional expenditure data for the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that will adequately fund the student instructional needs as described in the basic education program and multiplied by the district average daily membership as defined in section 16-7-22.

Even though I love maps, I won’t post one here. Maybe it’s because I used to teach in New Hampshire, and once lived in eastern Connecticut that I realize that one of these two is actually a neighbor of Rhode Island and one is not. Okay… for those of you pulling out your maps to figure out how all of those tiny New England states line up… yeah… New Hampshire does not neighbor Rhode Island. So then, why include New Hampshire in the calculation of the average instructional expenditures to set the Rhode Island foundation. Okay… let’s set aside the fact that this whole approach is actually not a reasonable way to identify the costs of meeting Rhode Island’s education standards, in Rhode Island districts and charter schools. But if you’re going to go down this road, the decisions should be somewhat justifiable.

Here’s the average core instructional spending per pupil for the states used:

Hmmmm… which one of these is not like the others? Yeah… New Hampshire’s per pupil spending is somewhat lower. But, it is a smaller state than the other two, and thus has lessened effect on the averages.  Oh… by the way… “similar organizational structure” as noted by Gist above, was her/their way of cutting out Vermont from the averages – because Vermont has too many non-unified districts – or actually – because Vermont is the highest spending of these states.

Here’s the effect on the averages. Including New Hampshire brings the average down by just under $200 per pupil. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, it’s about 1/3 of the difference between Rhode Island’s current spending per pupil and the target spending. That is, including New Hampshire cuts the aggregate increases in funding (difference between RI current and Target) required by about 1/3 … but that’s before we get to Part III of the twist.

Twist Part III: As far as I can tell, the proposed foundation level for fy2010-11 or even fy2011-2012? is to be set at $8,295.  Please correct me if this is not true.  That’s the amount cited here on slide #8:

And in any other documentation in which a foundation number is cited. These documents are generally from this past winter/spring leading up to passage of the legislation. So what’s wrong with that?  Well, the average spending of CT, MA and NH which comes out to about $8,295 (actually, mine comes out to $8,259) is from data from fiscal year 2006-07. Are they really basing the 2010-11 or 2011-12 foundation level on 2006-07 data?  Take a look at my second graph above. The 2007-08 data came out the other day. And, as it turns out, the 2007-08 Rhode Island average core instructional spending per pupil was over $8,500. That’s actually more than the new foundation level.

That’s not to say that it can’t be reasonable to have a foundation level that’s less than current average spending. After all, the average spending is the average of all districts, including their varied needs. It is conceivable that the current average is more than sufficient… to achieve current average performance in districts with less than average needs. But that’s not how this is being spun at all. Rather, it’s being spun as a breakthrough based on thorough and thoughtful empirical analysis.  That’s hardly the case.

Quite honestly, Ms. Gist and the RI legislature may have been better off saying that the foundation level will be set at $8,295 because that’s how much we are willing to pay for – not this silly back of the napkin justification of the amount they were willing to pay for. That in mind, this foundation formula and its arbitrary weights – excuse me – weight – actually bring us backwards, not forwards in the school finance debate, making a mockery of “research” and its potential use for informing state school finance policy.

Sorry… got a little edgy at the end there.

And here’s a little extra credit reading which actually covers national research on estimating the cost of achieving state standards. It’s from the National Research Council of all places:

Follow up note:

As the statute reads, RI itself would also be included in the average calculation, lowering the value further. It makes little sense to include current average (or even 3 year old average) spending of the state you are trying to “fix” in the average spending to inform the foundation level if the assumption is that the state has, for lack of any real formula, fallen behind in regional competitiveness. Of course, it hasn’t fallen behind New Hampshire. So… my above averages do not include Rhode Island itself and are intended only to be illustrative of the arbitrary (well… not really arbitrary… intentional) choice of including New Hampshire in the calculation.

By the way… I wonder if Deborah Gist can see New Hampshire from her window, or does Massachusetts actually get in the way?

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