Biddle me this? (or Flunkout Nation)

Posted on October 30, 2010



While I suspect few people have read or seen this post by RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation, I felt that it was worth mentioning because it presents such egregiously flawed logic coupled with flat-out factually incorrect and unsubstantiated claims. Sadly, this is what we have come to all too often in the current education reform debate. And this isn’t really about RiShawn Biddle as an individual or his blog and tweets, but rather about the propensity to argue important and complex issues in such crude terms and with so little knowledge or understanding of context and history.

In a recent post, Biddle argues that the NAACP is and has been heading up a misguided public policy agenda on behalf of black America (my characterization – perhaps not right on target). Biddle argues that Jealous should a) admit that arguments for more funding and more equal funding are wrong and have proven to fail and b) that instead, Jealous should embrace charter schools as a solution.

Now, this is a strange dichotomy to begin with – either fair and adequate funding or charter schools. It seems from a charter advocacy approach that one would also want fair and adequate funding including substantial funding targeted to high need areas. That is, both, not either/or.

That logical point aside, Biddle then goes on to make his bold points to Jealous with the most absurd claims I’ve read, in well, about a week.

Here’s how Biddle explains the failures of legal challenges over school funding:

The NAACP has taken the wrong approach on school reform for far too long. The continuing dropout factory status of Newark, Kansas City, Mo., and other cities that have benefited from funding equity suits is clear evidence that this approach doesn’t spur any kind of reform.

I’ll set aside the equally absurd claims about integration that follow in the next sentence. But, let’s take a quick look at this claim.

First of all, Kansas City, Mo. never really benefited from a case over school funding. Rather, Kansas City, Mo. – this supposed poster child for failed school funding reform – saw a short term boost in funding while under court ordered desegregation. Funding litigation concurrent (1993) with the desegregation litigation had negligible effect on KCMSD funding. Later funding challenges in Missouri were found in favor of the state, producing no benefit to Kansas City, Missouri. In fact, from about 1995 to present, KCMSD funding has generally slid backwards.

Preston Green and I document the disconnect between desegregation litigation in Kansas City and claims of school funding failures in this article: Urban Legends, Desegregation and School Finance: Did Kansas City Really Prove That Money Doesn’t Matter? (which appeared in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law). Among other things, we note:

Critics cite the statistics the KCMSD spent more than $11,000 per pupil and that $2 billion were spent on the desegregation plan as evidence of exorbitant spending. When taken out of context, these numbers appear huge. However, our analysis reveals that the KCMSD was a very high spending district for no more than five years, or the time in which one cohort of children is able to progress through five grade levels in the district. Further, when adjusted for student needs, the KCMSD’s funding dropped below the metropolitan area average by 1998. This is hardly enough time to erase the generational poverty of the KCMSD or alter the residential structure and demographics of a school district that had been designed to be racially segregated until the 1960s.

Biddle also points to Newark, NJ as providing evidence of the failures of school finance reforms. Yet, New Jersey is among those states we discuss here as having some (albeit limited due to data quality) evidentiary basis for the positive effects of state school finance reforms, including court ordered reforms. In School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell?, Kevin Welner and I discuss the many flawed claims about the dreadful failures of attempts to improve equity and adequacy of school funding. We also point out how the Kansas City case does not even fit into this category. Regarding the general, popular claims of the failures of funding reforms, Kevin Welner and I review the basis for those claims and conclude:

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.

We also review more rigorous peer-reviewed studies and find, on balance, that those studies show positive effects of school finance reforms, both in terms of improving equity in student outcomes and in terms of improving the overall level of student outcomes.

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.

And now for the truly ironic part of Biddle’s claim. So, Biddle’s argument to Jealous is that Jealous should drop all this funding equity and integration crap from NAACP’s past, and focus on charters – expanding access to charters. After all, if Kansas City, Missouri had not wasted all that time arguing in court over money and chasing more equitable funding and instead had spent its time pursuing an aggressive strategy of increasing numbers of charter schools, kids in Kansas City – especially poor, minority kids – would have much better educational opportunities!!!!

Biddle argues (regarding NAACP):

It must embrace the charter school movement: After all, charters have been the leading source of improving access to high quality education for urban black and Latino communities, who would otherwise be forced to attend the dropout factories in their neighborhoods. The success of charter school operators such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools — all of which educate mostly-minority students — can be replicated throughout the nation.

I wouldn’t have even written this response (to a post not really worthy of response) had it not been for the fact that I addressed this very topic the other day. As funding for KCMSD was receding as the district moved toward unitary status, what did happen in KCMSD? The massive expansion of charter schools! Here’s what I wrote the other day, upon release of a very interesting report from Kauffman Foundation regarding educational opportunity in Kansas City and the role of charter schools:

Kansas City is #4 on charter market share, according to the National Alliance report, and rose to that position much earlier in the charter proliferation era than other cities. As a result, by reformy logic, Kansas City should be a hotbed for educational opportunity for school-aged children – after years of previously throwing money down the drain in the Kansas City Missouri Public School District (many of these claims actually being Urban Legend).

In Kansas City, the reality of charter expansion has clashed substantially with the reformy ideology. Arthur Benson in a recent Kansas City Star Op Ed, noted:

Charters have subtle means for selecting or de-selecting students to fit their school’s model. The Kansas City School District keeps its doors open to non-English speakers and all those kids sent back from the charter schools. In spite of those hurdles, Kansas City district schools across the board out-perform charter schools. That is not saying much. We have until recently failed 80 percent of our kids, but most charters fail more.

I was initially curious about Benson’s (a district board member and attorney) claims that charters have done so poorly in Kansas City. Could it really be that the massive expansion of charter schools in Kansas City has done little to improve and may have aided in the erosion of high quality educational opportunities for Kansas City children?

The recent Kauffman Foundation report draws some similar conclusions, and Kauffman Foundation has generally been an advocate for charter schools. The report classifies district and charter schools into groups by performance, with level 4 being the lowest, and level 1 being the only acceptable group.

  • Level I- A school that met or exceeded the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level II- A school that scored between 75 and 99 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level III– A school that scored between 50 and 74 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level IV– A school that scored below 50 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication

Among other things, the report found that charter operators had avoided opening schools in the neediest neighborhoods. Rather, they set up shop in lower need neighborhoods, potentially exacerbating disparities in opportunities across the city’s zip codes. The report recommended:

A strategy for charter school growth should be developed by Kansas City education leaders. Charter schools should only be approved by DESE if they can demonstrate how they intend to fill a geographic need or a specific void in the communities they intend to serve.

Regarding charter performance more generally, the report noted:

In many communities charter schools are a model that increases students’ access to better public schools, but the majority of charter school students (5,490 or 64.7 percent) are in a Level IV school. Many of Kansas City’s charters have existed for 10 years and are still not able to reach even half of state standard.

Now, I’m not sure I accept their premise that in many communities this actually works – and that it just went awry for some strange reason in Kansas City. That said, the reality in Kansas City, by the authors own acknowledgment is in sharp contrast with the reality the authors believe exists in other cities.

One implication (not tested directly) of this report is that the massive charter school expansion that occurred in Kansas City may have done little or nothing to improve the overall availability or distribution of educational opportunities for children in that city and may have actually made things worse.

So, Mr. Biddle, I urge you to do a little reading. Check a few facts and consider your arguments carefully. Your current arguments FLUNK at even the most basic level.

More importantly, others who come across such bombastic claims like those argued by Biddle should scrutinize those claims carefully. Heck, I hope you scrutinize the stuff in my own posts carefully too. I try to shoot for a reasonably high level of rigor and factual accuracy in these posts and do what I can to cite my claims to respectable sources. Biddle’s blog to Benjamin Jealous is, to me, an example of the worst form of ill-conceived, factually incorrect, contorted reform logic out there. Sadly, there’s way too much of it.

READINGS

Baker, B.D., Welner, K. (2011) School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell? Teachers College Record 113 (11) p. –

Green, P.C., Baker, B.D. (2006) Urban Legends, Desegregation and School Finance: Did Kansas City really prove that money doesn’t matter? Michigan Journal of Race and Law 12 (1) 57-105