A few quick notes on Tax and Expenditure Limits (TELs)

Below are some clips from abstracts of empirical research studies on the relationship between tax limits and school quality. I address this topic because of current policy discussions in New Jersey regarding a Massachusetts-style Prop 2 1/2 limit to local property taxes (and state expenditures). Perhaps the most notable examples of the effects of TELs are in Colorado (under their TABOR) and California (Prop 13). But, TEL’s have been implemented in a number of forms across states.

This list of research findings is only a start, but illustrates an important point that choosing to limit taxes and expenditures likely means choosing to reduce service quality – increase class sizes and reduce teacher quality in particular. Again, that’s a choice. But we should be well aware of the consequences of these choices.

Other literature also suggests that while TELs reduce service quality by constraining state and local budgets, those service quality reductions are not necessarily accompanied by increased economic growth. This may be because regional economic growth is as related to regional service quality as it is to regional tax environment.

In any case, here’s a sampling of a) literature that links directly tax limits and school quality factors, b) literature on perceptions of Prop 2 1/2 in Massachusetts and finally, c) some bullet points from a non-peer reviewed report on Prop 2 1/2 from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (often characterized as “left-leaning”). Note that the first several articles here are from highly respected peer reviewed academic journals – Journal of Public Economics, National Tax Journal.

David N. Figlio


National Tax Journal  Vol 51 no. 1 (March 1998) pp. 55-70

I use a comprehensive panel of school districts from Oregon and Washington, with annual data from before and after Oregon imposed its limitation in 1990. Controlling for unobserved heterogeneity, I find that Oregon student-teacher ratios have increased significantly as a result of the state’s tax limitation.

David M. Cutlera ,*, Douglas W. Elmendorfb, Richard Zeckhauserc

Restraining the Leviathan: property tax limitation in Massachusetts

Journal of Public Economics 71 (1999) 313–334

Proposition 2 ½, a ballot initiative passed in Massachusetts in 1980, sharply reduced local property taxes. We examine why voters supported Proposition 2 ½, using data on votes for the Proposition and for overrides of it a decade later. We find two reasons for the Proposition’s support: people perceived agency losses from the difficulty of monitoring government, and people judged government to be inefficient because their tax burden was high. By the 1990s, people either regretted the severity of the Proposition’s constraints or felt that its mission was accomplished.

David N. Figlioa and Kim S. Rueben

Tax limits and the qualifications of new teachers

Journal of Public Economics Volume 80, Issue 1, April 2001, Pages 49-71

This paper examines the impact of local tax limits on new teacher quality. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics we find that tax limits systematically reduce the average quality of education majors, as well as new public school teachers in states that have passed these limits. The average relative test scores of education majors in tax limit states declined by ten percent as compared to the relative test scores of education majors in states that did not pass limits. This relationship is strengthened if we control for school finance equalization reforms or examine tax limits passed in two different periods.

Downes and Figlio working paper:


In this paper, we find compelling evidence that the imposition of tax or expenditure limits on local governments in a state results in a significant reduction in mean student performance on standardized tests of mathematics skills.

Phil Oliff and Iris J. Lav



  • A tax cap won’t make government services cost less. A cap does not prevent employee health insurance costs, special education costs, or other costs beyond localities’ control from rising much faster than the cap allows. Nor does it hold down the cost of heating buildings, buying gas for police and fire vehicles, and operating schools buses when the world price of oil is skyrocketing. When these things occur, as they have in Massachusetts, other services have to be cut to fit total expenditures under the cap.
  • Claims that caps will produce large savings through “efficiencies” are overblown. There are fewer efficiencies to realize from squeezing down revenues than cap proponents generally suggest. One person’s “efficiency savings,” such as the elimination of a police or fire station, may represent the loss of a critical service for another person. Ultimately, a property tax cap is highly likely to lead to reductions in basic community services and a deterioration in the quality of life in many communities — particularly in communities that cannot routinely override it.
  • Tax caps can be particularly harmful if adopted during a weak economy. Proposition 2½ took effect during a period of extraordinary economic growth — the “Massachusetts Miracle.” State revenues were rising, which allowed the state to boost aid to compensate for constrained property taxes, and construction was expanding, which allowed communities to raise their property tax revenue by more than 2.5 percent per year. If a state were to adopt a property tax cap during an economic slowdown or a period of weak state revenue growth, a major sustained infusion of state aid would not be possible and property tax revenue growth would be more constrained. As a result, schools and other services dependent on the property tax would have to be cut much more severely than in Massachusetts.
  • State aid can’t be relied upon to fill the gap. Even when state policymakers fully intend to expand state aid to fill local funding gaps created by a cap, a recession or fiscal crisis will usually derail this plan. State aid to localities in Massachusetts has fluctuated greatly with the business cycle and with state policy decisions. In any other state that might implement a cap, local government and school budgets are likely to become more volatile.
  • Changes in school enrollment can have a big impact. The adoption of Proposition 2 ½ coincided with a decline in Massachusetts’ K-12 enrollment, allowing schools to operate with less revenue. If another state adopted a property tax cap during a period of steady or rising enrollment, it would be forced to impose much more extensive cutbacks in teachers, classes, and programs than those seen in Massachusetts.
  • Without effectively targeted state aid, low-income communities will fall even further behind. Massachusetts has a highly targeted system of aiding local governments. The influx of state aid seems to have shielded low-income communities somewhat from Proposition 2 ½’s tendency to exacerbate differences in services between high- and low-income communities. But when state aid has receded as a result of economic downturns or state policy decisions, the poorest communities have had to make the largest budget cuts. In states that do not have a system of school aid that is targeted as effectively as Massachusetts’, students in low-income communities are likely to fall increasingly behind students in schools that have greater resources.
  • Wealthier communities will override a tax cap more frequently than poorer ones. This has contributed to a growing spending gap between local governments in high-income communities and all other communities, despite Massachusetts’ progressive system of state aid. This is likely to occur in other states that implement a cap.

NJ Budget Referenda Snapshots

The media seems to be making much of the relatively low pass rate of school district budgets this week – 41%. Being a data geek, my first instinctive question was whether this low pass rate really was out of line with expectations given the current economic conditions. The media has generally described the “expected” pass rate as 75% by saying that 75% of budgets typically pass in a given year. My quick glance at the data suggested that this assumption alone is not necessarily true, and also that pass rates fluctuate quite a bit, and do so in predictable ways.  Here’s a quick look based on the historical data I could easily acquire. First, the trend over time in NJ unemployment and NJ school budget pass rates.

Not surprisingly, using unemployment as a general indicator of economic climate and likely predictor of voter sentiment on tax and budget issues, when unemployment goes up – and especially when it peaks – budget pass rates tend to go down quite a bit. And, when unemployment goes down, budget pass rates get very high.

This second graph shows just how strong this relationship is for the past 13 years (post 1998 Abbott reforms):

So, basically, NJ school budget votes seem to fluctuate very much in sync with unemployment over the past decade (as a broad economic indicator). This relationship does erode somewhat during periods in the early 1990s and certain time periods in the 1980s.

In most cases, the outlier years can likely be traced to significant changes to the distribution of state aid to schools. For example. In the early 1990s while unemployment was high, there are a few years where budget pass rates were also high, likely because of the infusion of aid. The 2009 results may, in part, relate to the implementation of the new school finance formula SFRA – which distributed more aid across middle-wealth districts – many of which had great difficulty passing budgets in the past.

In 2009, budgets passed at a very high rate – out of line with expectations. Unemployment was already climbing but most budgets still passed.  In 2006, budget pass rates were below expectations despite a reasonably good economy. Excluding the 2009 result, the correlation between unemployment and pass rates in the years available was nearly .85 (negative, because when one goes up, the other goes down). Further, the 2010 result falls right near the trendline. That is, the 2010 result is entirely expected given the current economic climate – regardless of political rhetoric.

This final graph addresses a separate issue and one that is common in school budget referenda – school budgets are simply more likely to pass in more affluent communities where residents have the additional resources to spend. School budgets may also be more likely to pass in communities where the state picks up a larger share of total school costs, reducing the burden on local property taxes. In New Jersey, this results in a “squeeze on the middle.” I’ve made this graph using NJ’s District Factor Group classification system which roughly rates districts based on wealth/income factors also correlated with education levels, etc. DFG A tend to be poor, urban (smaller and larger city) districts and DFG J tend to be very affluent, generally small, suburban districts. The chart shows that pass rates were by far the highest in the most affluent districts in the state, and somewhat higher than average in the poorest districts. As, expected, the middle got squeezed.

Nice follow-up by NJ.com: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/04/shooting_down_school_budgets_nj.html

Cartel Recap

This is an old post which I have moved forward in time on my blog because of the national release of this absurd film.

For series of posts on this topic, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/the-cartel-movie-schlockumentary/

Okay… so a few people meandering through my posts over time have sought some synthesis of my gripes about Bob Bowdon’s Cartel Movie. First of all, here’s a link to a pretty good review of the film which I just found yesterday: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/10/the_cartel_movie_review_docume.html

  • The divisive, emotional and complicated debate now raging over powerful public teachers unions and “school choice” — a catchphrase that encompasses support for vouchers, charter schools and a variety of other reforms — could use a comprehensive sorting-out by a diligent observer. Bob Bowdon’s smarmy diatribe isn’t it.
  • In taking to task the sorry state of our public schools, former New Jersey TV personality Bob Bowdon employs the three R’s of bad filmmaking: righteousness, revilement and redundancy.

And these glowing reviews accept as a given, Bowdon’s “statistical” argument validating the crisis of schooling in New Jersey.

Here’s my own synopsis of the arguments behind the film – the Crisis that necessitates the Solution.

The Crisis (Bowdon’s Crisis)

There’s a crisis in education in America and more specifically in New Jersey. Quite simply, every country in the world is handing us a beating as a nation and as a state, despite the massive amount of money we are throwing down the rat-hole of our public education system.

Bowdon’s evidence of a crisis:

Bowdon complains of our lagging national performance by making comparisons of international assessments such as PISA to other countries (critique of the relevance of PISA here). Here, Bowdon twists the argument to specifically blame states like New Jersey, which are not only a part of this substandard American education system, but are emblematic of it, by spending obscene amounts of money for these failures. Okay… so here’s the basic logic:

  • Our national average test scores are bad compared to other countries
  • New Jersey spends a lot on schools, and is part of this terrible national system
  • Therefore, spending is bad, our schools are terrible nationally, and New Jersey is even worse

But, as I discuss here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/vacuous_bowdon/

New Jersey actually performs very well even on international comparisons, in a legitimate, rigorous statistical analysis by the American Institutes for Research (http://www.air.org/files/International_Benchmarks1.pdf) And, our national average is only as low as it is because of our many very low spending states that have chosen to throw their public education systems under the bus. Can’t blame New Jersey’s high spending for Louisiana and Mississippi’s low performance Bob. (some useful comparisons on this more recent post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/common-standards-and-the-capacity-to-achieve-them/)

In an effort to further the argument that New Jersey schools in particular are an abomination, Bowdon points out how New Jersey is by a long shot (okay, I’m exaggerating his point here), first in the nation (if not the world) in spending on schools. Yet, if you correct NJ graduation rates to count only those kids who pass the NJ state tests, we’re only 24th on graduation rate. Yep, mediocre at best for all that money. Down the rat-hole. Clearly, the kids who graduate high school in all those other states, like Tennessee for example, must be able to pass the NJ state tests. Oh wait, they don’t take the NJ tests, do they? Another really dumb comparison Bob (a comparison originally generated by E3, but in the context of a broader critique of graduation rates).

This new report (as well as an older version) shows that the NJ tests aren’t really the least rigorous tests out there: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2010456.asp. Not great. But not the worst either. Yes, if we’re going to have tests, we should expect kids to pass them. No excuses there. But the graduation rate comparison is still completely bogus. I address this topic in greater detail here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/more-cartel-garbage-bowdon-still-an-idiot/. Oh, and by the way, as I point out in that same post, NJ is in good company on per pupil spending, rarely actually topping the list.

The icing on the cake is the analysis Bowdon originally presented as part of his “Facts and Figures” to support his “crisis” case . This still stands as the absolute dumbest analysis I have seen or read pretty much anywhere in my years working in education policy research (okay, this one comes close: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/should-think-tanks-be-licenced-to-think-and-when-should-a-license-be-revoked/) . Here, Bob Bowdon explains his brilliant revelation that states which spend more on their schools have lower SAT scores – so spending more lowers SAT scores… or at least those states that do spend more simply waste it so badly that SAT scores go down… for some reason. I tackle this outright stupidity in my first post on the topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/idiot-of-week-award-the-cartel-check-this-out/ (While Bowdon has removed much of this completely ridiculous content from the movie site, the logic of his current site content remains the same, and these absurd comments/arguments represent the level of Bowdon’s thinking at the time the movie was initially released. I saved copies of the original SAT graphs. They make great teaching examples of deeply flawed reasoning!)

The solution to the crisis that may not exist:

Okay, so if Bowdon can’t concoct his crisis, there’s really no need for a solution to it. You know, it might not actually be that hard to do a reasonable run through some real numbers to point out some serious problems, inequities and inadequacies in our education system as a nation and in New Jersey schools. They are certainly far from perfect. But, Bowdon can’t seem to string together even one set of legitimate, well argued facts to make such a case. So, I could stop here. By Bowdon’s absurd evidence, no crisis actually exists, therefore, no need for solution. But of course, Bob has one:

The only possible two solutions – Charter schools and Vouchers to private schools – with emphasis on the former. Everyone knows that money doesn’t solve education problems, Charters and Vouchers do (only if they’re well funded, though). Now, let me qualify here that I am a fan of charter schools having been a founding member of the special interest group on charter school research of the American Education Research Association and having written research articles which find favorable results for charter schools regarding academic quality of teachers (http://epx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/20/5/752) . I’m also a fan of private schools, having taught in one of NYC’s most elite independent day schools and having written on private school finances (http://www.epicpolicy.org/files/PB-Baker-PvtFinance.pdf) . But sadly, my actual knowledge of Charters and Private schools makes it harder, not easier to accept Bowdon’s poorly conceived arguments.

On Charters: Bowdon points to a few specific charter schools that are doing very well compared to other schools. Great. Some schools do better than others. I’m good with that. But, Bowdon seems to argue that because these few schools are good, all charters are good – certainly better than any traditional public school. Therefore, it is an outrage that the state of NJ won’t simply throw the doors wide open to more charters to accommodate the tear filled rooms of parents awaiting their chance at the opportunity to send their kids to one of the many outstanding charter schools. Here’s the glitch in this logic. I explain here (link below) that the average performance of Charter schools is statistically no different from the average performance of poor traditional public schools in NJ. Yes, some are better and many, many are much worse. The chances that a student in a charter is not in a low performing school are only marginally (very marginally) better than for students in the poorest (comparably poor) traditional public schools. While some charter school research shows strong positive results, the balance of that research shows a break-even, on average (see my post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/a-few-quick-nj-charter-school-facts-figures/) and NJ charters are no different.

For updated and more extensive analysis of NJ charter schools, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/new-jersey-charter-schools/

Convincing inner city families that Charter schools will save their children simply because they are charter schools and therefore they must be better than traditional public schools is disingenuous at best. I have no problem whatsoever arguing that parents should have the option to choose a “better” school and should be provided reasonable information to aid them in choosing a legitimately better option for their children. Information is the ultimate equalizer here. Contributing to and/or concocting misinformation – creating a “market for lemons” by distorting information – when the stakes are this high – merely to advance a political agenda and build reputation as a supposed “documentary” film producer is morally repugnant.

Finally, on the private school voucher side of the argument: Like I said, I’m a big fan of private schools and I’ve seen what money can buy in the best of private schools. By the way, I report here on the actual per pupil spending of private schools by the affiliation of those schools (https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/private-school-spending/). When it comes to private schools, like Charter schools or traditional public schools, you get what you pay for, and the average per pupil spending (not tuition, but actual spending) in private independent day schools in New Jersey hovered around $25,000 to over $30,000 in 2007. Urban Catholic school per pupil spending is on par with Charter spending, and only conservative religious schools spend much less. Note that Catholic schools, like Charter schools are struggling these days to operate at such low expense (around $12k per pupil). Providing vouchers at levels similar to charter funding would ensure that the only choices available to parents would be financially struggling Catholic schools or conservative religious schools. There would be no religious neutrality in the options available. Private independent schools would remain well out of reach. Double the voucher level and you might get somewhere, but demand for slots would likely far outpace supply (see for a fun paper on price elasticity and private school attendance: http://www.nber.org/~dynarski/w15461.pdf). Under-subsidized vouchers are a cruel hoax, like distorting information on the true variance in charter school quality.

There are other potential forms of choice here, which are noticeably absent in Bowdon’s arguments (unless I’m missing something). Hey, look at my graph of school performance by DFG in my charter school post:  https://schoolfinance101.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/updated-charter-rel-performance.jpg Wouldn’t it be nice to provide open enrollment choice options for kids from the urban core to attend the high performing affluent suburban schools? Why should we only let them choose from the relatively average, under-resourced charter or religious private schools? Seems a little unfair, don’t you think? Seems a little disingenuous to argue that choice will solve our problems as long as we only let the poor minority children in the urban core attend start-up charter schools in church basements and other makeshift rental properties (since the slots in the elite, high performing charters are taken) and low tuition, low spending exclusively religious private schools. You wouldn’t want to include all of those higher performing traditional public schools a few NJ transit stops away.


So, here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Even if there is a crisis, Bowdon provides no legitimate evidence of one, and in fact, provides laughable claims that make it hard to take him seriously at all;
  2. Since there is no validated crisis, there is no need for a solution, but Bowdon offers one anyway;
  • Instead of attending NJ’s dreadful traditional public schools, students should flock to NJ’s outstanding charter schools, which, it turns out, have average performance the same as the poorest NJ traditional public schools, or
  • NJ children should be provided vouchers at levels that will allow them only to select from cash strapped urban religious private schools.

Seems reasonable enough. Ill-conceived? Intellectually vacuous? Schlockumentary? I must stop myself.

As a professor of school finance who lives every day immersed in national and state databases on school funding and student outcomes and who has advised many national organizations on the development of indicator systems for comparing schools/districts and states, Bowdon’s presentation of “shocking statistics” is quite honestly the most offensive, absurd and amateur presentation I have ever witnessed – regardless of political angle.


Teacher Salaries in NJ and NY Counties

Here’s some more statistical fuel for the fire on the question of whether New Jersey teacher salaries are “spiraling out of control.” Here are comparisons of projected New Jersey and New York teacher salaries based on statistical models of the actual teacher level salary data for individual teachers in these counties in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York State.

Fitting a statistical model of salaries to teacher experience, year, and degree level allows me to project salaries of comparable teachers in the same year and to project the average annual salary growth. I am then also able to hold year and degree level constant and map the changes in salary that are associated with changes in experience levels.

Here it is:

First, here is the location of the counties in question – with background shading of poverty rates. Each county includes some very affluent areas, but also some higher poverty school districts.

The first graph shows that Westchester County, NY teacher salaries are well above those of nearby New Jersey counties, and on average, Westchester salaries have increased more in recent years. Rockland County, NY salaries for teachers with a BA surpass the highest of the New Jersey counties in the figure by 2007, because Rockland salaries are also growing faster than NJ county salaries. Bergen County teachers, immediately adjacent to Rockland and closest to Westchester, fall well below those counties and have grown, on average, more slowly.

New Jersey school districts place less premium on holding advanced degrees. The second figure shows that the gap between NY teachers and NJ teachers is actually slightly larger for teachers who hold a masters degree. Here, both southern NY state counties are higher and growing faster than all three northeastern NJ counties.

The next two graphs map out the returns to years of experience for the NJ and NY counties. Only in one zone of experience (around 20 years) do teacher salaries in NY counties surpass those of the average similar teacher with a BA in Rockland County, NY. On the front end and back end, Rockland teachers beat out all three NJ counties in the graph. Westchester teachers far surpass all others in the graph. One issue of concern that I see here is that New Jersey teachers during the early-mid career stage seem to fall well behind. New Jersey salary schedules tend to sag during this period (5 to 10 years), but NY salaries continue with relatively linear growth. NJ salaries then bump up quickly around step 13 to 15 in many districts. I’m not convinced that this makes sense in terms of recruiting and retaining the best possible teachers.

Again, because the masters bump is smaller in NJ, when one maps the returns to experience for a teacher with an MA in these counties, NJ teachers fall further behind.

RECAP: So, lets recap this new information with my various previous posts on the question of the supposed exorbitant growth of New Jersey teacher salaries –

1) Over a nearly 20 year period, New Jersey teacher salaries relative to New Jersey non-teacher salaries of workers at the same age and degree level and based on an hourly wage comparison, have fallen further and  further behind over time. Teacher salaries sit at about 80% (for MA or BA) of non-teacher salaries in NJ, in same labor market at same age. Further, related research from Corcoran and Mishel suggests that it is highly unlikely that the total difference between teacher and non-teacher benefits closes much if any of this gap.

…overall K-12 teacher compensation was 27.5% greater than teacher wages alone, while overall professional compensation was 23.5% greater than professional wages. These differences in benefit shares translate into a benefits “bias”of 2.8 percentage points in 2006.

2) The total cost of certified elementary and secondary education employees as a share of the total state expenditure (current), has declined over a 10 year period from 1997 through 2007.  That is, certified teachers and administrators in elementary and secondary public schools in New Jersey have not, by way of salary increases, posed an increased burden on the state budget. Not at least as far as my most reasonable estimates would suggest.

3) In addition, analyses of financial statements as well as analyses of personnel data indicate that administrative shares have remained remarkably stable over time and are by no means disproportionately higher in New Jersey’s large, urban and Abbott districts.

Given these findings, I would have a difficult time arguing that the New Jersey “tax burden,” which is also not highest in the nation is caused by either or both New Jersey teacher and bloated administrative salaries growing out of control.  I would also have a hard time making the argument to teachers that their evil, greedy administrators have been hoarding the goods to the disadvantage of the teachers. I wrote very early on about school administrator compensation.





Here’s a more extreme portrayal:



Ed Trust Getting Loopy Again

Education Trust has released another BIG statement about an issue that I would argue is a minor distraction – at best. At worst, this issue becomes a major policy distraction, diverting attention from far more significant equity concerns.


Education Trust’s summary bullet points for their new report are as follows:

  • Federal law permits hidden funding gaps to persist between high-poverty schools and more affluent counterparts 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.
  • By closing loopholes in the comparability provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress could promote funding equity within school district budgets.
  • The report is grounded in this premise:

    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. District budgeting policies frequently favor schools with the fewest low-income students. This undercuts the aim of Title I and robs poor children of funds intended to help them.

    The layers of problems with this premise and Education Trust’s major conclusions are downright baffling. I am not suggesting that we should not be concerned with inequities that might occur between schools within districts, inappropriately as a function of district budgeting practices or teacher assignment practices. These are a concern. They are just not the major equity concern du jour. And further, while Title I funding might be leveraged better to correct this concern, the role of Title I funding in improving equity overall across states is minimal.

    Issue 1 – Ed Trust’s misguided perception that states have solved between-district inequities, leaving within-district inequities as the primary policy concern

    On this particular point, here is an abstract of a forthcoming peer-reviewed article and analysis which I have written (with Kevin Welner) on this topic:

    Two interlocking claims are being increasingly made around school finance: that states have largely met their obligations to resolve disparities between local public school districts and that the bulk of remaining disparities are those that persist within school districts. These local decisions are described as irrational and unfair school district practices in the allocation of resources between individual district schools. In this article, we accept the basic contention of within-district inequities. But we offer a critique of the empirical basis for the claims that within-district gaps are the dominant form of persistent disparities in school finance, finding that claims to this effect are largely based on one or a handful of deeply flawed analyses. Next, we present an empirical analysis, using national data, of 16-year trends (1990 to 2005) and recent patterns (2005 to 2007) of between-district disparities, finding that state efforts to resolve between-district disparities are generally incomplete and inadequate and that in some states, between-district disparities have actually increased over time.

    Education Trust chooses anecdotal comparisons between New York City schools in order to make their case that within-district funding disparities are the problem du jour.  Without a doubt, within district disparities persist in New York City schools, some unexplainable and many that should be remedied. I’m all for fixing illogical disparities.

    The use of New York City anecdotes to illustrate supposed major national policy concerns, in this case by authors Daria Hall and Natasha Ushomirsky piggy-backs on similar “shock” comparisons used in op-eds by Marguerite Roza – an author cited by the Hall/Ushomirsky brief. We are led to believe that this is an example of one of the greatest equity problems facing schoolchildren in the entire NY metropolitan area – if not the nation as  a whole. After all, the state of NY has done its job to fix between district disparities. Right? It’s the city that’s not pulling its weight?

    Here’s one fun example, from our forthcoming article:

    Following a state high court decision in New York mandating increased funding to New York City schools, Roza and Hill (2005) opined: “So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York [City] spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.” That is, the state has fixed its end of the system enough.

    This statement by Roza and Hill is even more problematic when one dissects it more carefully. What they are saying is that the average of per pupil spending in suburban districts is only $4,000 greater than spending per pupil in New York City but that the difference between maximum and minimum spending across schools in New York City is about $10,000 per pupil. Note the rather misleading apples-and-oranges issue. They are comparing the average in one case to the extremes in another.

    In fact, among downstate suburban[1] New York State districts, the range of between-district differences in 2005 was an astounding $50,000 per pupil (between the small, wealthy Bridgehampton district at $69,772 and Franklin Square at $13,979). In that same year, New York City as a district spent $16,616 per pupil, while nine downstate suburban districts spent more than $26,616 (that is, more than $10,000 beyond the average for New York City). Pocantico Hills and Greenburgh, both in Westchester County (the comparison County used by Roza and Hill), spent over $30,000 per pupil in 2005.[2] These numbers dwarf even the purported $10,000 range within New York City (a range that we agree is presumptively problematic); our conclusion based on this cursory analysis is that the bigger problem likely remains the between-district disparity in funding.

    The bottom line regarding this first claim is that much of the “research” to which the new Ed Trust brief points as validating within-district disparities being the greatest problem of our day, and states largely fulfilling their objectives to improve equity, is misguided, shoddy or both. Between district disparities remain a major concern and vary widely across states.

    Issue 2: Ed Trust’s strange misperception that rich and poor kids actually attend the same school districts, such that between district inequity even could be the major equity concern du jour

    Yes, there are cases where lower poverty schools exist in generally higher poverty school districts. But as I have pointed out in other posts, for the most part, low poverty schools exist in some districts and high poverty schools in other districts. The same is true of minority student concentrations. When we start talking about leveraging Title  I aid to FIX equity problems within districts we are largely talking about redistributing resources across schools which have from 60% to 80% or higher low income children, while ignoring all of the surrounding school districts which have 0% to 60% low income kids. Here are just a few examples of the clustering of high poverty schools within districts.

    First, Chicago Public Schools. Here’s a map of the higher and lower poverty and higher and lower minority concentration schools in Chicago Public Schools and surroundings. Yes, there are some lower poverty schools in Chicago and perhaps a few (very few) with fewer minority children. But, on average reshuffling Chicago public schools resources means reshuffling them from poor to really poor schools or black to Hispanic schools, or back.

    Here are the school enrollments – weighted by number enrolled – expressed as a frequency distribution by low income student concentrations:

    You see, the vast majority of CPS kids are in high poverty schools and the majority of kids in schools outside of CPS but in the same metro area, are in low poverty schools. It’s really that simple. Yeah… there’s variation in CPS. But the greater variation is between CPS and surroundings.

    Here’s Newark, NJ:

    And here’s the frequency distribution:

    The assumption implicit in the Education Trust reports, including this brief, that higher and lower poverty schools are distributed (evenly?) across districts, that states have solved the between-district equity problem, and now districts are the ones that need to step up, seems a bit off base. No. Actually, it’s just WRONG.  On average, high poverty schools exist in high poverty districts and low poverty schools in low poverty districts. In some very large districts like NYC or CPS you can find examples of lower poverty schools in the presence of higher poverty ones. But this is not the norm.

    Issue 3: Education Trust’s untested and misguided assumption that Title I funding provides major leverage for improving school funding equity

    I don’t want to totally downplay the role of Title I funding here. It is important and quite significant for some school districts. But, the effects of Title I funding on equity – especially cross-district equity within states, are relatively small. In a forthcoming report, we lay out a methodology we use for estimating the extent to which states drive more funding (cumulative state and local revenues) to higher poverty school districts. Kevin Welner and I use a similar method in the paper cited above. I will provide a link to that paper when it is posted.

    In these graphs, I estimate a model of the relationship between state and local revenue and school district poverty rates, controlling for a variety of other cost factors (see Baker/Welner article). In a second version of the models I include Title I funding. As you can see, if a state is already providing an upward tilt (progressive with respect to poverty) to their funding, Title I modestly bumps up that tilt. But, for states with a downward tilt (regressive with respect to poverty) Title I aid doesn’t even bring it back to flat.

    Quite honestly, if there’s a loophole associated with Title I funding, it’s that states like New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania (and Arizona) have been able to use Title I aid to provide a small slice of support to poor urban and small city districts that the states themselves have chosen to neglect entirely. Now, Pennsylvania has started to make some progress on this front. But, Illinois has actually slid backwards over time, and New York made little progress following the court ruling noted above.

    In closing, I do concur with Education Trust that we should be concerned with inequities that arise for a variety of reasons across schools within large school districts.  But, overemphasizing this point creates a major distraction from the more significant disparities that persist. Actually prefacing the argument with the claim that these disparities are less important or unimportant – as this Education Trust report does – is very problematic and unfounded.

    Suggesting that Title I funding and the “comparabiltiy loophole” are the panacea for the most significant persistent disparities is just…well… LOOPY!