Research, Schmresearch – CAP’s misguided analysis… AGAIN!

Posted on May 31, 2010



Center for American Progress has just released a new report titled Comparable, Schmomperable which argues that within-district disparities are the major equity problem of the day. As I have noted previously, I agree that within-district inequities in schooling resources including teacher quality are a concern – A major concern.

However, to ignore and brush aside disparities between districts is absurd.

The schmreport author Reagan Miller argues:

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.

Sculpted they were? By litigation? With the consistent (they “tend to”) and persistent effect of resolving the vast majority of between-district funding disparities? Interestingly, the Schmreport author Reagan Miller cites these claims to a book by Eric Hanushek and Al Lindseth which had as its singular objective to argue that school funding litigation and school finance reform are invariably ineffective.  A critique of the book’s arguments and review of school finance litigation and its effects can be found here.

Co-author Kevin Welner and I provide a smack-down of the Center for American Progress (and Education Trust) argument that between-district inequities are a thing of the past – solved by years of litigation – here:

  • Baker, B. D., & Welner, K. G. (2010). “Premature celebrations: The persistence of interdistrict funding disparities” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(9). Retrieved [date] from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/718

In the new Schmreport, CAP’s Reagan Miller seems to take the rhetoric to a new level. The  recent Education Trust “Loophole” report took a similar approach, making similar arguments, but I found the language and disturbingly thin research base in the new CAP report particularly troublesome.  Also, the inference that school finance reforms addressing between-district disparities have been ineffective (by way of citing Hanushek and Lindseth as the primary source chronicling state school finance reforms) but that leveraging Title I funding to force school districts to resolve internal disparities is the final frontier of reform seems a bit odd. If between district disparities and state school finance reform don’t matter (as per Hanushek and Lindseth), should we really care about within district disparities? Certainly we should care about both.

After declaring that state funding formulas “tend to” fix those little between-district funding equity problems, the report goes on to point out that New Jersey has achieved a strong positive relationship between state and local revenues and child poverty across districts and does acknowledge that other states have not – using Connecticut as an example. Strangely, while Connecticut’s funding distribution is problematic, it is not one of those strongly “regressive” states. [There are plenty of those. There are also those states which essentially spend nothing! and those where fewer than 80% of school aged children even use the public school system. We call those states RttT winners.] Rather, Connecticut suffers a strange randomness in school funding across districts. The report goes on to point out that even if Connecticut were to preemptively (before the pending case goes to trial) solve between-district funding problems, within-district funding problems could thwart any chance of actually solving the state’s equity problems. At the very least, if you’re going to make a claim about a state, take a few minutes to check that the data on that state you pick is at least somewhat consistent with your claim. This brief, flyover section of the report revealed to me a peculiar disregard for precision or accuracy.

I discuss the sorting of children across districts in Connecticut here, pointing out that between district concerns are by far the dominant issue in that state, merely as a function of the patterns of student segregation across districts (not between them!)

After brushing aside the possibility that between-district disparities remain a major concern, the CAP Schmresearch Schmreport goes on to say:

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

Indeed… scandalous, but those disparities between school districts in states like Illinois could never reach the height of scandalous? I also found no citation to the hundred year old studies that document these disparities, but now I’m just being picky.

The Schmresearch Schmreport also argues in its introduction that:

“empirical literature documenting the extent of within-district inequity is astonishingly thin.”

Yet, as Kevin Welner and I point out, there is actually quite a large volume of research on within-district disparities in schooling resources, including within-district disparities in teaching quality, and some of it – much of the “research” relied on by CAP to construct their argument is empirically problematic (to be kind). There is also a significant body of good empirical research on the topic, notably absent in the Schmresearch Schmreport. (the report cites a few – very few – good studies on teacher quality distribution)

Without a doubt, there exist some truly problematic – perhaps even scandalous disparities in resources across schools within school districts. It is quite possible that Title I funding could be better leveraged to encourage districts to do a better job at improving equity across schools within districts. But it is completely irresponsible and outright ignorant to suggest that between district disparities have already been largely resolved.

Further, it is completely unnecessary to frame the argument in this way, unless CAP has a political motive to blame districts not states and to argue that no more money is actually needed (forcing districts to re-arrange deck chairs without solving between district disparities can be a ‘revenue neutral’ solution. It’s not much of a real solution though). And yes, states can do a better job of providing data systems that allow more precise tracking of within district inequities. But, I should note that many already do a much better job than Reagan Miller suggests. A wealth of information can be found in statewide personnel data systems which link individual teachers to schools.

This is not an either/or issue. It’s not about solving within-district disparities because between-district disparities are solved – been there, done that. Wrong.  Both are persistent problems, more in some places than others, and it’s worth the time and effort to figure out how to leverage all available policy options to figure out how to fix both within and between-district disparities.