Why I’m not crying for Louisiana and Colorado

Many of the “reformers” out there are whining and fist-thumping about the surprise omission of Louisiana and Colorado as Race to the Top Winners. After all, Louisiana has been a heavy favorite from the outset of RttT, and Colorado… well Colorado took the amazingly bold leap of adopting legislation to mandate that a majority of teacher evaluation be based on value-added test scores. That’s got to count for something. Heck, these two states should have gotten the whole thing? Here’s Tom Vander Ark’s take on this huge surprise loss: http://edreformer.com/2010/08/co-la-surprise-losers/

Now here’s why I find it somewhat of a relief that these two states did not find themselves in the winners’ circle (not that I can identify a great deal of logic to support those who did… but…).

I’ve written numerous times about Louisiana’s public education system, and that state’s support or lack-thereof for providing a decent quality education for the children of Louisiana.


Here’s an excerpt from that previous post:

Let’s take a look at Louisiana’s education system. Yes, their system needs help, but the reality is that Louisiana politicians have never attempted to help their own system. In fact they’ve thrown it under the bus and now they want an award? Here’s the rundown:

  • 3rd lowest (behind Delaware & South Dakota) % of gross state product spent on elementary and secondary schools (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007)
  • 2nd lowest percent of 6 to 16 year old children attending the public system at about 80% (tied with Hawaii, behind Delaware) (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007). The national average is about 87%.
  • 2nd largest (behind Mississippi) racial gap between % white in private schools (82%) and % white in public schools (52%) (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007).  The national average is a 13% difference in whiteness, compared to 30% in Louisiana.
  • 3rd largest income gap between publicly and privately schooled children at about a 2 to 1 ratio. (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007)
  • 4th highest percent of teachers who attended non-competitive or less competitive (bottom 2 categories) undergraduate colleges based on Barrons’ ratings (NCES Schools and Staffing Survey of 2003-04). Almost half of Louisiana teachers attended less or non-competitive colleges, compared to 24% nationally.
  • Negative relationship between per pupil state and local revenues and district poverty rates, after controlling for regional wage variation, economies of scale, population density (poor get less).
  • 46th (of 52) on NAEP 8th Grade Math in 2009. 38th of 41 in 2000. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/
  • 49th (of 52) on NAEP 4th Grade Math in 2009. 35th of 42 in 2000.

So, this is a state where 20% abandon the public system and 82% of those who leave are white and have income twice that of those left in the public system, half of whom are non-white. While the racial gap is large in Mississippi, a much smaller share of Mississippi children abandon the public system and Mississippi is average on the percent of GSP allocated to public education. Mississippi simply lacks the capacity to do better. Louisiana doesn’t even try. And they deserve and award?

Quite honestly, I hadn’t really thought much about Colorado’s chances until today. I was certainly aware of their finalist status and aware of the reform crowd support for their new teacher evaluation legislation. But I hadn’t really reviewed their “indicators.” Here’s my summary of Colorado from earlier today:

Using 2007-08 data, Colorado ranks:

  • 45th in effort (% gross state product spent on schools)
  • 39th in funding level overall
  • 32nd in funding fairness (has a system whereby higher poverty districts have systematically less state and local revenue per pupil than lower poverty districts)

Yes, better than Louisiana, but nothin’ to brag about. And yes, both are marginally better than Round 1 winner Tennessee… but nearly every other state in the nation is.

So, where do these two states fit into those scatterplots I posted earlier today which identified Round 1 and Round 2 winners? Here they are – First, fiscal effort and overall spending level. Both states are very low effort states, and both are relatively low spending states.

And next, effort and funding fairness – or the extent to which funding is allocated in greater amounts to districts with greater needs.

In both cases, Louisiana and Colorado fall toward the lower left hand corner of the plot. Both are very low fiscal effort states. They have the capacity to provide more support for public education – BUT DON’T! Both states are also “regressive” – allocating systematically less funding per pupil to higher need districts, with Louisiana close to a flat distribution. And both are generally low spending despite their capacity to do better.

Improving state data systems – linking those data to teacher preparation institutions in order to impose sanctions on those institutions – banning teachers from obtaining tenure until they can achieve 3 consecutive years of positive value-added scores (error rates alone and year to year fluctuations may make this a low probability event) – and expanding charter schools are not likely to dig these states out of their current position. Doing so will require far greater investment than RttT could ever provide, especially in the case of Louisiana.  In fact, dramatically increasing job risk and career instability for individuals interested in entering teaching without also increasing the reward is likely to have significant negative effects. Unfortunately, it is about as likely that losing RttT will cause these states to reconsider their shortsighted reform agendas as it is that reading this blog post will get them to reconsider the persistent deprivation of their public education systems.

Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

14 thoughts on “Why I’m not crying for Louisiana and Colorado

  1. This is a very enlightening post! Serves to my point on my most recent blog post http://bit.ly/atsOS5 about where the lack of funds and the political will from the states. There is no way that the small RTTT funds going to do anything to truly do what even they claim is reform. Don’t worry though, the cycle of blame will be put on the states/districts once they get done maligning the teachers.

  2. Best quote on the results from a “reformy loser” comes from Governor Bill Ritter (quoted in EdNews Colorado): “There were these two judges who just consistently marked us down,” said Ritter, whose irritation was evident. “We’d be in the money if we’d had just judges one, two and five.”

    “Lucky” for him that you exposed the sad realities of how CO supports its schools. Otherwise, he’d be the most embarrassing thing going today.

  3. Hi Bruce,

    Implicit in your analysis is that more money = better schools. Yet as a country we have increased spending on public education at a rate that outstrips inflation, but our international results show we are falling behind. While I would never argue that we couldn’t use more money for public education, or that a state like Colorado shouldn’t be investing more in its children’s future, money alone is not a panacea to our problems.

    If you consider a state like NJ and its Abbott districts, who have per pupil levels over $20,000 annually, yet achievement results are markedly and habitually poor – clearly there is more to consider than purely per pupil funding. I’m sure that fact is not lost on you. Taking more money and pushing it through the same systems in the same ways has proven to yield less than satisfying results.

    An equally interesting hypothesis for you to consider is that Louisiana and Colorado are relatively MORE innovative states because they are LESS well funded. That is, they cannot rely on cash to prop up ineffective systems so they change practices and innovate in attempts to be more efficient and effective. For example, Colorado has 7 districts who have fully implemented or are piloting performance compensation systems. Rather than engage in the endless debate of whether or not this is the right approach, I bring it up to illustrate that districts in that state (without incentive or state statute) are choosing to be more strategic about how they use their cash as opposed to dumping it into a step and lane system.

    I appreciate your thoughtful writing and ideas. We are better through an honest and respectful exchange of ideas.

    Jason Glass

    1. While there is certainly more to consider than per pupil funding – decent per pupil funding is a necessary underlying condition. Further, your characterizing of Abbott districts in New Jersey is guided by urban legend, not reality. See the first article posted here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/research-in-progress/ Out of context numbers like $20,000 (which has very different value in Newark than New Mexico) are unhelpful, at best. Yes, New Jersey has driven more funding into its high poverty, urban core districts than many other states, and New Jersey has seen some return for that relatively short term investment. But, the funding was only really scaled up from 1998 to 2003, then leveled off. More is explained in the article at the link above.

      In fact generally, school finance reforms have shown positive effects, as reviewed in that article, forthcoming in Teachers College Record. Clearly money alone will not solve everything. But again, it is the necessary underlying condition.

      I don’t believe the hypothesis that Louisiana or Colorado are more innovative to begin with, no less more innovative as a function of having less money. I do believe that politicians in most states will opt for what appear to be revenue neutral “reforms” over additional investment, and in some states will look for ways to cut funding while still claiming innovation – or even claiming that cutting spurs innovation. That is, they have to come up with some way to argue that they are improving public education while cutting funding, even if there is little or no basis for the policy solutions they propose. While this may lead to local public school districts trying some new things, it is unlikely to lead to significant improvements to efficiency. The research on the long run effects of tax and expenditure limits on public school quality (outcomes) provides some insights in this regard.

    2. By the way, if you look here: http://www.air.org/files/International_Benchmarks1.pdf

      You’ll see that states in the US like Mass and NJ which have invested in their public education systems (and admittedly, which have higher income and more educated adults) perform very well on international comparisons – beating out most OECD countries. Our nation as a whole has done poorly because of the states like Louisiana and Tennessee that drag it down – and there are many. Further, international comparisons of spending as typically reported are deeply flawed because they fail to consider the vast differences in the range of costs covered and/or services provided (like health care coverage costs incurred by US schools, but not by schools in some other countries, or other activities that are more a part of community services than schools in other countries).

  4. Unfortunately, it is about as likely that losing RttT will cause these states to reconsider their shortsighted reform agendas as it is that reading this blog post will get them to reconsider the persistent deprivation of their public education systems.

    Then it really doesn’t matter that they “lost,” does it? They’re short a few bucks they would otherwise have had, but in the face of the general economic conditions they have to deal with, that’s inconsequential. States were duped into the silly “competition.” Hopefully, they learned something. The experience should kill the Obama administration’s “blueprint” for the reauthorization of ESEA.

  5. This is mostly worthless in terms of analysis. Out of 50 states, there will always be some states in the bottom 10 in terms of money spent, qualifications of teachers, NAEP scores, etc. Most of what you’re saying boils down to gosh golly gee, Louisiana is poorer than most other states.

    And spending more on education isn’t a good thing anyway, not necessarily — it’s often a sign of inefficiency. There’s no reason to treat spending more on something as a linear sign of political quality. The US spends more on defense than any other country — does that make us number one, or does it just mean that we’re spending way too much to reward political donors?

    1. In fact, what I am showing above is that Louisiana is NOT simply poorer, but that Louisiana spends less of its capacity (spending as a share of gross state product). Mississippi is simply poorer as I explain in a previous link above. I also explain in the article mentioned in my comment above that school finance reforms have been shown to make a difference in educational quality – as one would expect. And, I point out in another comment above that it is unlikely that states can squeeze their education systems into greater efficiency through severe fiscal deprivation. A substantial body of research on tax and expenditure limits and school quality generally refutes this assumption. As I’ve said above, spending isn’t everything, but it is a necessary underlying condition. Also note that on international comparisons in the link I provide above, some U.S. states perform quite well. Please read more carefully next time before you spout off meaningless rhetoric and tangential, baseless arguments.

  6. “Louisiana spends less of its capacity (spending as a share of gross state product).”

    But so what? What’s the magic number that Louisiana is somehow failing to hit?

    Moreover, I think you ought to admit that it hardly makes sense to criticize Louisiana both for 1) having lots of kids in private schools, and for 2) spending less on public education in terms of gross figures. Guess what, they’re not having to use public school spending for all those private school kids!

    As for your first link: you claim that there’s a “modest relationship” between spending and NAEP achievement, but you couldn’t have deliberately designed a scatterplot that looks more perfectly random. And anyway, it’s not very sophisticated (social-science-wise) to act as if raw correlations would mean anything.

  7. 1) in fact, a sizable body of literature links public school quality and private school enrollment. Their high private school enrollment rate, coupled with the racial differences and income differences in private versus public school enrollment are highly relevant and related to their failure to provide a reasonable quality public schooling system.

    2) spending less as a share of fiscal capacity is relevant, when you have a system that is a) failing to serve significant portions of children and b) serving poorly those in the system.

    For anyone following this, I don’t have a graph above that shows the relationship between spending level and NAEP. That’s where the modest relationship exists. Here’s a link to an example of that relationship: https://schoolfinance101.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/slide5.jpg (r-squared=.23, or correlation of about .48) The relationship in the link above to which Mr. Doe refers is from an earlier analysis, showing a similar pattern. (https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/public-schooling-in-louisiana-and-mississippi/)

    The graph above (in this post) shows spending effort and NAEP, not spending level. I discuss effort in this post because it is more within the control of the state, and where Louisiana fails to do its part.

    Spending level is more strongly associated with NAEP, but obviously tangled up with many other factors also associated with NAEP. That relationship is indeed a simple correlation which doesn’t hold a lot of social science evidence value. This is a blog. This is merely illustrative. Hence the reason I point to more rigorous peer reviewed literature on the topic (Baker and Welner article).

    While there is no “magic” number Louisiana should be shooting for, the state is under-utilizing its capacity, is under-serving its population, and doing poorly for those left behind in their public system. That suggests that the “magic number” is something more than the state is currently providing.

  8. Just for fun, here’s a link to regression output for a simple model of state spending and student outcomes:

    The model tests whether mean NAEP scores are associated with differences in spending level, after controlling for differences in poverty, total population of 6 to 16 year olds and share in public schools.

    To partially overcome the relationship between the spending measure and state poverty rates, I use an adjusted poverty measure produced in a census working paper (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/povmeas/papers/Geo-Adj-Pov-Thld8.pdf ) which corrects for the extent that poverty is overstated in southern and southwestern states and understated in northeastern states (corrects for problems in income thresholds for poverty).

    I also use a per pupil state and local revenue measure which is a predicted value at a fixed, constant poverty rate, controlling for regional wage variation, economies of scale and population density, all at the district level.

    The trick in any state level regression like this is to come up with the best possible, most comparable, measures of student characteristics and spending, and to use as few as possible since there are only 51 cases to deal with. This still isn’t something I’d ever try to use for academic publication – but it is illustrative.

    In short, the regression shows – rather crudely – that state and local revenue per pupil differences are associated with NAEP mean differences even after controlling for poverty differences across states.

  9. Further clarification on “coverage” and “effort.” One might argue that effort simply should go down if coverage goes down – since fewer kids are in the public system. One might try to argue that that’s a good thing – somehow appropriate ( why pay more for those left in the system simply because more opted out?). Twisted logic, indeed.

    On the one hand, this is a bit of a chicken-egg argument. You could get coverage to go down by reducing effort – depriving public schools and stimulating private school enrollments. Is that good public policy?

    The key here is not to forget the other related parts – spending on those left behind, who is left behind and their outcomes. All of that information is summarized in the original post above. It would be incredibly shortsighted to consider only “effort” and “coverage.” My critique of Louisiana public schooling goes much deeper than that.

    The problem with Louisiana (less so with Delaware) is that not only is their coverage and effort really low, but their spending level on those left in the system is low (and regressive), and of course, their outcomes are low. Louisiana is clearly not doing better on behalf of those left in the system as a result of large numbers opting out. Louisiana is both relying on large opt out rates and slacking on effort and funding – and achieving expectedly low outcomes – for those left in the system. Lot’s of moving parts here to follow… but Louisiana in particular is simultaneously doing poorly on all of them.

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