School Funding Equity Smokescreens: A note to the Equity Commission

Posted on February 25, 2011



In this blog post, I summarize a number of issues I’ve addressed in the past. In my previous post, I discussed general reformy myths about school spending. In this post, I address smokescreens commonly occurring in DC beltway rhetoric about school funding equity and adequacy. School funding is largely a state and local issue, where even that “local” component is governed under state policies. So I guess that makes it a state issue, really. Occasionally, the federal government will dabble in the debate over how or whether to intervene more extensively in state and local public school finance.  Now is one of those times where the federal government is again at least paying lip services to the question of equity – with some implication that they may even be talking about school funding equity. The federal government has created an equity commission!

One of my fears is that this current discussion of funding equity will be typical of recent beltway discussions of school funding, and be trapped in the constant fog of School Funding Smokescreens and insulated entirely from more legitimate representations and analyses of the critical issues that should be addressed.

So, for you – the equity commission – here’s a quick run down on School Funding Smokescreens:

1. On average, nationally, we now put more funding into higher poverty school districts than lower poverty ones (to no avail)

This argument seems to be popping up more and more of late, and often with the table below attached. This table is from the National Center for Education Statistics and shows the average current operating expenditure per pupil of school districts nationally over time. The table would appear to show that in 1994-95, low poverty school districts had between $300 and $400 less in per pupil spending than higher poverty ones. By 2006-07, the highest poverty quintile of school districts had about $100 per pupil more than the lowest poverty quintile. That’s it. We’re done. Equity problems fixed. No more savage inequalities. And after all of this fixing of school finance equity, we really got nothing for it. Achievement gaps are still unacceptably large and NAEP scores stagnant? Right? All of this after dumping a whole extra $100 per pupil into high poverty districts. I guess we should be rethinking this crazy strategy of systematically pouring so much into high poverty districts.

Table 1

NCES Oversimplification of Funding Differences by Poverty


Well, to begin with, a $100 difference really wouldn’t be that much anyway, given that the costs of actually meeting the needs of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are much greater than this. Setting that (really important) question aside, this table provides a less than compelling argument that we as a nation have accomplished improved funding equity for kids in high poverty districts.

Here’s the underlying scatter of school districts that lead to the neatly packed aggregations above. In the graph below, districts are plotted by current expenditures per pupil with respect to census poverty rates, using 2007-08 data. Clearly there is substantial variation in current spending. In fact, the underlying relationship isn’t even a relationship at all. It’s all over the place. And yes, if you fit a trend line – if you take out a huge magnifying glass – you can see that the trendline is ever so slightly higher in the higher poverty schools than in the lower poverty ones (perhaps about $100?). It’s not systematic. It’s not statistically significant. It’s pretty darn meaningless.

Figure 1

Pattern of school districts underlying Table 1


In our recent report Is school funding fair? we conducted a far more rigorous analysis of state and local revenue per pupil with respect to poverty, for each state. What we showed was that there exists huge variation across states both in the overall level of resources available to local public school districts and in the differences in state and local revenue in higher and lower poverty districts.  In that report, we showed that 9 states have statistically significantly lower state and local revenue per pupil in higher poverty districts (after controlling for economies of scale and competitive wage variation). Overall, half of states had lower funding per pupil in higher poverty districts (with many of those approximately the same).

Among the worst states were New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Let’s pull Illinois forward in Figure 1 – and also look at state and local revenues (excluding federal support, to focus on state policies) in place of current expenditures.

Figure 2

State and local revenues with respect to poverty, with Illinois highlighted


Now, when we exclude federal revenues the overall line tips slightly downward. The federal effect is slight, but there. More strikingly, when we pull Illinois forward in the picture, we see that funding by poverty across Illinois districts is highly regressive, and is systematic and statistically significant. Funding inequities across Illinois districts are far from being resolved. AND ILLINOIS IS NOT ALONE. I could go on and on with this.

2. The remaining (Because of #1), most egregious disparities in funding and teacher quality occur across schools within districts (because of politically motivated and corrupt local administrators) and these disparities are what cause the persistent racial achievement gaps (the reason those gaps haven’t improved since we’ve fixed between district inequity)

To many, this argument seems absurd (and is) on its face. Who really says that? Does anyone? Am I just makin’ this stuff up? No. And in fact, because this argument has become so pervasive of late, I even had to take the time to write a fairly extensive research article on the topic. See: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/718

I have written about this topic on my blog on several occasions and much of my writing on this topic can be found by reading my critiques of reports from the Center for American Progress and from the Education Trust. Here are some choice quotes where CAP and Ed Trust frame this argument – or blow this smoke!

Center for American Progress

State funding formulas tend to exert an equalizing effect on per pupil revenues between districts, on average, and not by accident. These formulas were sculpted by two generations of litigation and legislation seeking equitable or adequate funding for property-poor school districts.

Scandalous inequity in the distribution of resources within school districts has plagued U.S. education for more than a hundred years.

empirical literature documenting the extent of within-district inequity is astonishingly thin. [my reply: well, not if you actually read the research on the topic]

Center for American Progress

The outcome of such practices is predictable: A further widening of the dangerous achievement gap that has become endemic in American schools today.

Education Trust

Many states have made progress in closing the funding gaps between affluent school districts and those serving the highest concentrations of low-income children. But a hidden funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools persists between schools within the same district.

These gaps occur partly because teachers in wealthier schools tend to earn more than their peers in high-poverty schools and because of pressure to “equalize” other resources across schools.

All of these claims that within district inequities are the major source of persistent inequity and that our failure to close within district funding and teacher quality gaps (having already fixed between district ones) are the reason for persistent black-white and poor-non-poor achievement gaps might be reasonable if poor children and non-poor children and black children and white children actually lived in the same school districts. BUT, IN GENERAL,* THEY DO NOT! As a result this argument is patently absurd, ridiculous, irresponsible and ignorant. It’s one massive distraction. A smokescreen of monumental proportion!

Here’s a quick visual of the reality that any informed analyst (or anyone who simply lives in the real world) understands. Below are two maps of the Chicago metropolitan area. On the left is a map which shows school districts and the level of state and local revenue per pupil in each of those districts. We know from above that Illinois maintains a very regressive state school finance formula. That is, higher poverty districts have less funding than lower poverty ones. Note that the diagonal shading indicates the location of districts that have majority minority (black and Hispanic) enrollment. As it turns out, most of those districts are in the orange – lower funding levels.

Now, CAP and Ed Trust would have you believe otherwise to begin with (that poor minority districts already have enough money), but would then go further to say that the real problem is that these Illinois districts are putting money into their white, rich schools at the expense of their poor black and Hispanic ones. How is that even possible?

Okay, so let’s look at the right hand panel, in which I have indicated the locations of individual schools, with majority black schools in red and majority Hispanic schools in purple. Majority white schools are in white. NOTE THAT THE WHITE DOTS TEND TO BE DISTRICTS ENTIRELY SEPARATE FROM THE PURPLE OR RED ONES. AND ONLY CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS HAS MUCH OF A MIX OF PURPLE AND RED. Only a handful of districts have both white and majority minority schools. Also, only a handful of districts have both low(er) poverty and high poverty schools. Districts are highly segregated.

Figure 3

State and Local Revenue and the Location of Majority Minority Schools in Illinois


FEW IF ANY SCHOOL DISTRICTS IN THIS MAP HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO REDISTRIBUTE RESOURCES ACROSS THEIR “RICH” AND “POOR” OR “BLACK” AND “WHITE” SCHOOLS – BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE BOTH!!!!!  Yes, Chicago Public Schools and a few other districts can re-allocate between poor black and poor Hispanic schools. But such re-allocation accomplishes little toward improving educational equity in the Chicago metro area or State of Illinois.

Now… to those at Ed Trust and CAP – if you really don’t mean this, I dare you to actually say it. Say that between district differences in demographics and funding are THE BIG ISSUE. At least as big if not much bigger than within district differences. Say it. Acknowledge it. I challenge you. Release another hastily crafted report and press release – but this time – having conclusions that are at least reasonably grounded in reality.  The data are unambiguous in this regard. Yes, within district disparities exist and it is important to address them. I will certainly admit that, and I’ve never said otherwise.  But solving within district resource variation alone will accomplish very little.

*Clarification – In states with county-wide districts, and large diverse populations, like Florida, one is more likely to see between school  within district segregation to be a greater problem.

3. High need, poor urban districts (in addition to misallocating all of their resources to the schools serving rich white kids in their district???) are simply wasting massive sums of money on things like cheer leading and ceramics.

This is another absurd and empirically unfounded argument. Again, you ask, is anyone really saying that high need, low performing school districts are actually wasting money on cheerleading and ceramics that could easily be translated into sufficient resources for improving reading and math performance (can we really fire the cheer leading coach and hire 6 more math specialists)? Surely no-one is advancing an argument – SMOKESCREEN – that utterly absurd. But again, these quotes can be found all over the Beltway talk-circuit regarding the best fixes for school funding inequities and inefficiencies (and nifty was to stretch that school dollar).

Here’s the advertisement headline from a recent beltway discussion at the Urban Institute:

Urban Institute Event Headline (based on content from Marguerite Roza)

Imagine a high school that spends $328 per student for math courses and $1,348 per cheerleader for cheerleading activities. Or a school where the average per-student cost of offering ceramics was $1,608; cosmetology, $1,997; and such core subjects as science, $739.

I’ve only recently begun exploring more deeply the resource differences across school districts that fall into different performance and efficiency categories. I’ve been specifically looking at Illinois and Missouri school districts, and estimating statistical models to determine which districts are:

a) resource constrained and low performing (low-low)

b) resource constrained and high performing (low-high)

c) resource rich and high performing (high-high)

d) resource rich and low performing (high-low)

These categories are based on thoroughly cost adjusted analysis. As such, a district identified as having low or constrained “resources” may actually spend more per pupil in nominal dollars than a district identified as having high resource levels. The resource levels are adjusted for various cost pressures including differences in student needs. I should be posting the forthcoming paper on my research page some time in the next month. But here’s a preview.

In both states, most districts fall into categories a) and c), where you would expect. There’s somewhat more “scatter” in Missouri, either because Missouri has some better funded high need districts (less regressive than Illinois) or because my statistical model just isn’t working quite right. I picked these neighboring states because Missouri is less regressive than Illinois and because I had similar data on both. So, the big question here is – if I compare the dominant categories of resource constrained low performing schools to resource rich high performing ones what do we actually see in the organization of their staffing and course delivery?

In Missouri, I tabulate each individual course to which teachers are assigned. In Illinois my tabulation is by the main assignment of each teacher. To begin with, in both states, the high spending high performing schools have more course offerings per pupil and more teachers per pupil (and smaller class sizes). These differences are far greater under the more regressive Illinois policies.

Here are a few fun visuals of what I’m finding so far, expressed in “shares of staff” allocation and relating staffing allocations in low-low districts to those of high-high districts.

The first two graphs compare the main assignments of teachers in high resource high performing Illinois schools (high school assignments only) to those in low resource low performing ones. The diagonal line represents “comparable” allocation to high resource high performing schools. Assignments falling below the line represent “deficits” (relative) in low resource low performing schools.

Across all assignment areas, Figure 4 shows that kids in low resource low performing schools tend to have reduced access to physical education, biology, chemistry and foreign language. Sadly, no indicator for ceramics in these data.

Figure 4

Allocation of Main Teaching Assignments in Illinois Districts


Focusing on less frequent assignment areas – lower budget share & staff allocation areas – Figure 5 shows that in Illinois, kids in low resource low performing schools tend to have reduced access to advanced math and science courses and drivers education, but have greater access to basic courses. That is, these districts are already channeling their resources to the basic, at the detriment of potentially important advanced coursework in math and science, and even basic coursework in biology and chemistry.

Figure 5

Allocation of Main Teaching Assignments in Illinois Districts (less frequent assignments)


Missouri – despite having somewhat higher relative resource levels in higher poverty settings (than Illinois, but still regressive), shows very similar patterns. Figure 6 shows reduced access to physical education for kids in low resource low outcome schools and elevated access to “general” math and language arts courses.

Figure 6

Allocation of Assigned Courses in Missouri Districts


Kids in low resource low outcome schools have reduced access to advanced math courses including calculus and trigonometry, and reduced access to chemistry. They have higher shares of teachers in special education, basic life skills, earth and physical (basic/introductory) science and in JROTC. Again, significant reallocation to “basics” is already occurring and within significant resource constraints.

Figure 7

Allocation of Assigned Courses in Missouri Districts (less frequent courses)


Also, LET IT BE KNOWN THAT HIGH SPENDING HIGH PERFORMING SCHOOLS IN MISSOURI HAVE TWICE AS MANY CERAMICS COURSE OFFERINGS PER PUPIL AS LOW SPENDIGN LOW PERFORMING MISSOURI SCHOOLS!!!!!

4. None of this school funding equity – between district stuff – matters anyway!

Rigorous peer reviewed studies do show that state school finance reforms matter. Shifting the level of funding can improve the quality of teacher workforce and ultimately the level of student outcomes and shifting the distribution of resources can shift the distribution of outcomes.

We conclude that there is arbitrariness in how research in this area appears to have shaped the perceptions and discourse of policymakers and the public. Methodological complexities and design problems plague finance impact studies. Advocacy research that has received considerable attention in the press and elsewhere has taken shortcuts toward desired conclusions, and this is troubling. As demonstrated by our own second look at the states discussed in Hanushek and Lindseth’s book, the methods used for such relatively superficial analyses are easily manipulable and do not necessarily lead to the book’s conclusions. Higher quality research, in contrast, shows that states that implemented significant reforms to the level and/or distribution of funding tend to have significant gains in student outcomes. Moreover, we stress the importance of the specific nature of any given reform: positive outcomes are likely to arise only if the reform is both significant and sustained. Court orders alone do not ensure improved outcomes, nor do short-term responses.

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