Pork Hunting 101: Shredding the Pork


I love a good pulled pork sandwich. In fact, it’s one of my favorite foods. And the best damn pork sandwich I can think of is the Hog Heaven at Oklahoma Joe’s in the side of a freakin’ gas station in Kansas City, Kansas. I expect that this statement will perhaps be the most controversial statement I’ve made on this blog thus far.  Really… it’s awesome… and one of the few things I really miss about being in Kansas City.

That aside, I’ve been blogging lately about a different kind of PORK – school finance pork.  I started this pork campaign with a posting on state aid in New York after the announcement of Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget and education cuts. Despite large amounts of aid still being allocated to some of the wealthiest school districts in the nation, the good democratic Governor of New York decided it was somehow most appropriate to largely protect that aid, and instead slam the highest need, large urban, mid-sized city and poor rural districts in the state.

This post provides a primer on finding pork in state school finance formulas. It’s a two part process that begins with screening for pork, and then involves more intensive investigative research.

What is School Finance Pork? School finance pork is state aid that is currently being allocated to districts that otherwise don’t really need that aid. In this case, need is defined in terms of the needs of the students to be served AND in terms of the ability of the local public school districts and its residents and property owners to pay the cost of those services. In overly simple terms, some local public school districts can easily pay for the full cost of their needed educational programs and services on their own and with much less effort (tax effort) than others. Allocating state aid to these districts while depriving others with greater student needs and the inability to meet those needs is inexcusable. Cutting aid to needier communities who are unable to replace those lost revenues, while retaining aid to the wealthy is inexcusable. That’s PORK. And like other political pork-barrel spending, it exists because state legislators negotiate for state aid formulas that bring something home to their own districts.

How do legislators generate PORK? Pork can be generated by at least two different approaches. In the first approach, legislators actually try to manipulate the general state aid formula to find ways to argue that it’s actually more expensive to educate kids in wealthier communities, or alternatively that its cheaper to educate kids in poor communities. If legislators can raise the foundation funding targets to wealthy communities they can increase the likelihood that they can drive state support to those districts. Seems a bit of a stretch, but it’s been done by many. A second “within the formula” approach to generating pork is to adopt “minimum state aid” and/or hold harmless aid provisions that guarantee that no matter how wealthy a district is, that the state will still pick up X% of its formula funding. That is, the state will cover X% even if the district can raise double what it needs with very little tax effort. Another type of pork is Outside the Formula pork. It can be tricky (though not impossible) for legislators to sufficiently manipulate a state aid formula to provide more aid to wealthier districts. It’s relatively easy for state legislators to adopt outside the formula aid programs that allocate aid in very different ways – like flat allocations per pupil across all districts, regardless of local wealth, or even like New York’s property tax relief targeted to wealthier communities.

How do we screen for Pork? Here, I provide a few examples of screening for pork, using a national data set – the U.S. Census Bureau’s Fiscal Survey of Local Governments. As we stated in our Is School Funding Fair? A bare minimum goal of a state school finance formula would be to achieve a FLAT relationship between poverty and state and local revenue per pupil. Ideally, state school finance formulas would result in additional resources targeted to higher poverty districts – that is – systematically higher state and local revenue per pupil in higher poverty districts. One can take and state’s school finance data – here from 2007-08 – and make a graph of the a) local revenue per pupil, b) state aid per pupil and c) total revenue per pupil across districts by poverty. Here’s Texas:

I’ve dropped very small districts because they tend to scatter the pattern for a variety of legitimate cost related reasons.  Blue circles represent the state and local revenue per pupil, which on average in Texas has a slight downward slope. Red triangles are the local revenue. Clearly, the lower poverty districts are raising quite a bit in local revenue but the higher poverty districts aren’t raising much. On average the state aid in green squares is being allocated in inverse proportion to the local revenue… but not that aggresively. For example, if we look way to the upper left…. we’ve got some red triangles – local revenue per pupil – above $10,000 per pupil. That is, some of these very low poverty districts are able to raise on their own, over $10k per pupil. But look at the trajectory of the state aid allotments – those districts are still getting a significant amount of state aid – enough to still raise their totals even higher as pointed out by yellow arrows. Would it not make more sense for this aid to be allocated to the districts at the far right hand side of the picture? Amazingly, the state aid distribution slope in Texas is quite gradual – to be kind. It would appear to include significant “flat” distributions of either or both minimum aid and/or outside the formula aid which goes to lower poverty and/or higher wealth districts the expense of higher need, lower wealth districts. THAT’s PORK!

Here’s New York, when using the same data set:

And here’s Pennsylvania:

In Pennsylvania, minimum aid provisions and flat distribution of Special Education aid are partly to blame.

And here’s Illinois:

Illinois also has minimum aid provisions in the form of alternative formulas for districts otherwise too wealthy to receive aid through the primary foundation formula. And Illinois allocates numerous categorical aids outside the formula in ways that reinforce the aggregate disparities.

So, here are four states and in each one, total state and local revenue per pupil is slightly to significantly lower per pupil in higher poverty than in lower poverty districts. And in each state, the state aid is distributed in ways that guarantee the provision of at least some – sometimes significant – aid per pupil to districts that on their own are raising and spending significantly more money per pupil than their much higher need counterparts.

How do we identify the source of the Pork? This part is a bit harder, and requires much more detailed investigation of the state school finance formulas and of the “runs” of state aid programs. I hope to get a chance to provide more information on pork finding at a later point. But for those interested in exploring these issues on their own, there are two sources of information that are critical to the search – a) the documentation that  explains the calculations behind the allocation of state aid and b) much more importantly, what are called the “runs” of state aid allocations to local public school districts that are used by legislators to negotiate changes to the aid formula and/or the distribution of cuts. It’s that time of year – legislative session season. And legislators are interested to see which pieces of the aid formula will bring home pork, or how cuts will affect their districts. If you’re as warped as I am about this stuff… and actually really like digging through these numbers… contact your state legislators and find out who to get in touch with in order to get an electronic spreadsheet run of the various district by district state aid allocations. And be sure to get other basic district data, including wealth measures (property wealth and income) and enrollment characteristics (Total enrollments and student needs).  Play around with graphs of aid (divided by pupils – per pupil aid) with respect to wealth and need measures – and look for those aid programs in particular that appear to allocate systematically more aid to districts that are otherwise less needy. Feel free to e-mail me spreadsheets of those runs. If I get a chance, I’ll see what pork I can find!

Cheers.

And here’s to Pork!

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5 Comments

  1. It’s well known how fed. and state funds are actually distributed to NY school districts. NYC DOE gets 39%; Long Island districts get 16% and the rest of the NYS districts divvy up the rest – according to deals worked out by the NYS Legislature every year. There is no formula, nor group of formulae, which actually determine how these monies are doled out by NYSED other than the above and “the above” has to do with State legislators’ political muscle. In fact, on the witness stand, under oath, former NYSED Com’r. Richard Mills actually claimed he didn’t understand the varied aid formulas used to distribute monies to NY districts … because there really aren’t any. The NYS school funding “method” is so out-of-the-closet that it’s written about in the papers with some frequency.

    This is one reason why NYSED’s various databases which include student information are not reliable. They frequently have wildly varying and contradictory numbers. When asked to reconcile the differences, NYSED’s folks shuck, jive and then just tell you they can’t. Different databases are used to create (a/k/a concoct) reports to various US DOE program offices which are then used as documentation for the per capita allocations NYSED and NY districts get from US DOE funds.

    If you think I’m kidding, try talking to the US DOE Regional OIG folks some time. And … oh! NYSED’s position is that districts “own” all of their data – student-related; financial; you name it. NYSED does not and will not exercise the legal authority it clearly possesses to require districts to clean up their reported numbers. Never has; never will. NYSED’s job, according to NYSED, is just to process the numbers districts send it.

    1. That is indeed the old formula that was supposed to have gone away when the foundation aid formula was adopted, post CFE… but as in any state school finance system… they managed to preserve the pork. See my previous post on the specifics of New York – This one here uses particularly crude data on New York. The other actually uses the Governor’s state aid runs for 2011-12. Of course, the student enrollment information there are the enrollments related specifically to the funding formulas. At some point, I plan to do a post on the various types of enrollment measures/figures used in school funding analysis, and how the various ways in which count pupils mess with analyses as much if not more than the various ways we count the dollars. So, in any dollar per pupil calculation, we’re messing with both numerator and denominator. Lot’s of room to screw with the numbers.

  2. In NY, you can’t just look at State Aid runs. NYSED plays w/how it allocates fed. grant funds to make up any “deficits” in State Aid and other funding programs. Read this US DOE Regional OIG audit of how NYSED mishandled its Reading First grant money – it’s a classic example of NYSED’s largesse: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/auditreports/a02g0002.pdf. What is unfortunate, of course, is that US DOE’s program office never did a thing about this reasonably appalling situation.

    Back in the late ’90’s, NYSED replied to a scathing NYS Comptroller Carl McCall audit by stating outright, in writing, that it was not its place to tell any LEA how to spend its money. So when it gives a LEA a federal sub-grant, the LEA is pretty much free to spend it as it wishes. To see how the NYC DOE misused the RF grant which NYSED should not have given it in the first place, see this NYC Comptroller audit report: http://www.comptroller.nyc.gov/bureaus/audit/PDF_FILES/FK09_079A.pdf. My sources tell me that the reason the NYC DOE didn’t provide documentation for such a large proportion of its RF-related purchases, as described in the report, is because the money was used for grossly improper items and Tweed figured it was better to produce no documentation than document what it really did with the money. Needless to say, although this audit was formally presented to the relevant US DOE offices, nothing was ever done about it. Tch, Tch!

    NYSED and the NYC DOE are currently hysterical about a draft audit report from the NYS Comptroller re the NYC DOE’s reported high school student “discharges.” Yearly, the NYC DOE actually reports that 20% of all its high school students move out of NYC and enroll in a non-NYC LEA. It’s closer to 40% for kids w/disabilities from The Big Apple. (If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!) The NYS Comptroller, from what I hear, is negotiating with Tweed, which wants the audit waay toned down. What it will show is that a significant percentage of NYC DOE reported enrollment and attendance at the high school level is really a “ghost” student population, i.e., kids who dropped out long ago but were kept on schools’ books (and on NYC’s books and NYSED’s books) to keep the per capita funds flowing in. Then when convenient, they get “discharged,” allegedly to LEAs elsewhere in NYS. Since NYSED does not require that any LEA student data be independently audited and verified by actual head-count sampling, no matter what databases and runs you use for NYS LEAs enrollment, fact is, you’ll be getting GIGO, at best. (Sorry!)

    What it all means is that what the NY Legislature negotiates re the split on federal and State money for districts is what they get, enrollment and attendance notwithstanding.

    1. We could go on for days on this stuff. I fully understand that the aid runs don’t tell the deeper dirty details. My point is that when the official aid runs look bad… and in this case… look really bad… that’s still the best possible light on the situation. So, if the official data are ugly, the reality is likely worse. If the official data reveal substantial distribution of PORK – political tradeoff funding for certain districts, then the sum of actual political tradeoff funding – PORK – is likely much greater. The official data can provide preliminary insights – screening.

      Clearly, the allocation of federal aid – especially in these stimulus years – has added a whole new dimension to the gaming. It is all very frustrating, and requires taking multiple angles at the data.

  3. What I object to the most is that when funds are distributed on a PORK basis, you can never really tell how they’re spent. My sources tell me that when the NYC DOE got its pre-negotiated RF sub-grant, a bunch of private and parochial schools in NYC got phone calls from Tweed telling them that they were getting RF money … and that it had to be spent on furniture. Now, furniture was absolutely not an allowable RF program expenditure, which is why the NYC Comptroller’s audit of how this sub-grant was handled reported no documentation for most of the OTPS expenditures. I imagine Tweed figured it was better to have “no” documentation than to have documentation showing new couches. Needless to say, no full report was ever made available re how successful, or unsuccessful, the NYC DOE’s RF program was. I understand that it was a total flop, btw.

    Perhaps I’m naive, but if you can’t tell how funds for a program were actually spent, how can you ever make an educated judgment as to whether the program was effective or not? Judgments about “efficient” are, of course, totally out of the question. So what this PORK distribution system does is insure that effectiveness, efficiency and accountability are honored in the breach. ARRA’s effects? Perhaps positive ones … for the NYC furniture distribution industry.

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