Inexcusable Inequalities! This is NOT the post funding equity era!

I’ve heard it over and over again from reformy pundits. Funding equity? Been there done that. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s all about teacher quality! (which of course has little or nothing to do with funding equity?).  The bottom line is that equitable and adequate financing of schools is a NECESSARY UNDERLYING CONDITION FOR EVERYTHING ELSE!

I’m sick of hearing, from pundits who’ve never run a number themselves and have merely passed along copies of the meaningless NCES Table showing national average spending in high poverty districts slightly greater than that for lower poverty ones. 

I’m sick of the various iterations of the “we’ve tripled spending and gotten nothing for it” argument and accompanying bogus graphs.  And further, the implication put forward by pundits that these graphs and table taken together mean that we’ve put our effort into the finance side for kids in low-income schools, but it’s their damn lazy overpaid teachers who just aren’t cutting it.

I’m intrigued by those pundits who would point out that perhaps outcomes of low-income children have improved over the past few decades and that the improvement is entirely attributable to increased accountability measures (when the same pundits have argued previously that the massive increases in funding led to no improvement. Perhaps there has been improvement, and perhaps there has been some increase in funding on average… and perhaps that’s the connection? More insights on achievement gap closure and shifting resources here!).

I’m also sick of those who would so absurdly argue that districts serving low-income and minority children really have more than enough money to deliver good programs, but they’ve squandered it all on useless stuff like cheerleading and ceramics.

Anyway, the goal of this post is  to point out some of the inexcusable inequalities that persist in K-12 education, inequalities that have real consequences for kids. Let’s take a look, for example, at two states that have persistently large achievement gaps between low-income and non-low income students – Illinois and Connecticut. These two states have somewhat different patterns of overall funding disparity, but suffice it to say, both states have their winners and losers, and the differences between them are ugly and unacceptable.

Let’s start with Connecticut. Below is a graph of Connecticut school district “need and cost adjusted current spending per pupil” and standardized test outcomes on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). Expenditures are adjusted for differences on labor market competitive wages and for shares of children qualifying for free or reduced price lunch and for children with limited English language proficiency (based on estimates reported here). I’ve used essentially the same methods I discussed in this previous post.

What we see here is that resources – after adjustment for needs and costs – vary widely. Heck, they vary quite substantially even without these adjustments! What we also see is that we’ve got some really high flyers, like Weston, New Canaan and Westport, and we’ve got some that, well, are a bit behind in both equitable resources and outcomes (Bridgeport and New Britain in particular). To be blunt, THIS MATTERS!  Yeah.. okay, reformy pundits are saying, but they really have enough anyway. Why put anything else into those rat-holes.

Let’s break it down a bit further. Here are the characteristics of a few of the most advantaged and most disadvantaged districts in the above figure.

But of course, all we need to do is reshuffle the deck chairs  in Bridgeport and New Britain – fire their bottom 5% – heck let’s go for 20% teachers – pay the new ones based on test scores… and all will be fixed! Those deficits in average salaries might be a bit problematic. And even the nominal (no adjustments) spending figures fall well short of their advantaged neighbors. But bring on those reformy fixes, and throw in some funding cuts while you’re at it!

I’m sure… absolutely sure that the only reason those salaries are low is because they’ve wasted too much money on administrators and reducing class size… which we all know doesn’t accomplish anything???? But wait, here are the elementary class sizes?

Well, there goes that ridiculous reformy assumption. Class sizes are actually larger in these higher need districts! and Salaries lower. Damn cheerleading costs! Killing us! Perhaps it’s even going into  junk like band and art which are obviously a waste of time and money on these kids!

Well, here are the staffing structures of the schools, with staffing positions reported per 100 pupils.

Hmmm… disadvantaged districts have far fewer total positions per child, and if we click and blow up the graph, we can see some striking discrepancies! Those high need districts have far more special education and bilingual education teachers (squeezing out other options, from their smaller pot!). Those high need districts have only about half the access to teachers in physical education assignments or art, much less access to Band (little or none to Orchestra), and significantly less access to math teachers!

But, okay… this Connecticut thing is a freakin’ anomaly, right?  These kind of disparities – savage inequalities – are surely a thing of the past. This is, after all, THE POST-FUNDING EQUITY ERA? Been there and done that!

Let’s do the same walk through for a few Illinois districts. First, here are the graphs of need and cost adjusted (based on a cost model used in my previous post and related working paper) operating expenditures and outcomes –

For unified K-12 districts

For High School districts

Here are the basic stats on these districts

In this case, imagine trying to recruit and retain teachers of comparable quality in JS Morton to those in New Trier at $20k less on average, or in Aurora East compared to Barrington, at nearly $20k less. Ahh…you say… Baker… you’re making way too much of the funding issue. First, we know their wasting it all on small class size and cheerleading. Second, Baker… you’re missing the point that if we fire the bad teachers and pay the good teachers based on student test scores, those New Trier teachers will be banging down the door to get into J S Morton! That’s real reform dammit! And we know it works (even though we don’t have an ounce of freakin’ evidence to that effect!).

Clearly, if schools in Aurora East and JS Morton are slated for closure under NCLB (I’ve not checked this actually), it’s not because of poverty. It’s not for lack of resources… Clearly it’s their lazy, overpaid teachers who refuse to pull all-nighters with their kids to beat those odds????? To get those kids into calculus and trig classes presently filled with empty seats (and their own overpaid under-worked teachers!)

So, here’s what the staffing ratios look like.

First, those advantaged districts just have a lot more teacher assignments (position assignments) than the disadvantaged ones. And they especially have far more assignments in advanced math, advanced science, Library/Media, Art and music. There’s not a whole lot of squandering on extras going on in JS Morton and Aurora East. Like CT though, the disadvantaged districts do have bilingual education and special education teachers!  The staffing disparities are baffling – Savage in fact!

In fact, I must be making this stuff up right. After all, THIS IS THE POST-FUNDING DISPARITY ERA? This kind of stuff is just pulled from the chapters of an old Kozol book!  Teachers matter. Not funding. We all know that (except perhaps the various researchers who’ve actually explored the relationship between school funding reforms and student outcomes, only to find that it does matter).

Clearly, this matters. These funding disparities are substantial. And while these examples are selected from the extremes of the distributions, these districts have plenty of company at the extremes, and these districts fall along a clearly patterned continuum. And, with enough data and enough space, I could keep going and going here. CT and IL are not unique – though IL is clearly among the worst in the nation. New York anyone?

Utica is quite possibly one of the most financially screwed local public school districts in the nation (Poughkeepsie isn’t far behind)!

Arguably, there are entire states – like Tennessee and Arizona that are approaching (if they’ve not already surpassed) the conditions of districts like Utica, JS Morton, Bridgeport or New Britain.

Until we take these disparities seriously and stop counting on miracles and superman to give us a free ride, we’re not likely to make real progress on the “Scarsdale-Harlem” achievement gap.

Treating teachers like crap, cutting state funding, basing teacher salaries on student test scores will do nothing to correct these disparities, and will likely only make them worse. Nor can we expect to close the gap by simply replacing the current underfunded schools with comparably underfunded schools under new management (or simply paying parents of kids in these districts a discount rate to just go somewhere else, and never follow up on the kids). This reformy goo is a dangerous distraction from the real issues!






15 thoughts on “Inexcusable Inequalities! This is NOT the post funding equity era!

  1. I used to be a teacher at JS Morton, and my experiences there are a large part of the reason I went back to school to get a PhD in Educational Policy (and to study finance disparity). The gifted and dedicated teachers in that district would appreciate this post.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. When taking statistical snapshots from 10,000 feet above, I’m never quite sure if I’ve nailed it with regard to local context, at least in districts I don’t know personally (I know the CT districts).

  2. Bruce,
    I couldn’t agree more with your well documented points. Proper school funding is the foundation on which all education is built and if the foundation is unsound, so will be the structure above it! It is difficult to fathom why people can so readily grasp this concept when it is applied to their house or business edifice but see no connection to our school system. Proper funding and management is essential. Thanks.
    Steve Coffin

  3. Nice to see you ramp up the urgency of this issue. Sometimes researchers seem a bit timid about policy recommendations. I understand that this is often the responsible thing to do, but sometimes such silence seems irresponsible.

  4. I’ve just started reading your site and following it on my RSS reader. I love it and you give me so much fodder for arguments. I do have one question regarding the accuracy of comparing average salaries in advantaged vs disadvantaged districts–to what extent do you think that teacher attrition in the disadvantaged schools, that is the fact that teachers start there at low salaries and move to “better” districts before moving up the pay scale, contributes to the disparities in average salaries?

    1. It is possible that some of the difference in average salary is a function of difference in average experience. That said, the average salary does represent the average price being paid for each teacher in these districts, given their quantity of teachers. For the poorer districts to retain more experienced and more expensive teachers they’d have to cut back on quantity of teachers to balance. And they already have much lower teacher quantity than their more affluent peers.

  5. Bruce,
    You may have written about this before, but what befuddles me are the charter/choice folks who jump on the “it’s not the money, stupid” bandwagon and yet seem to pay no attention to how much per-pupil $$$ most charter/choice schools spend.

    I hesitate to say it (because I don’t want it to be true), but it’s always about the money!

  6. Sara,

    Actually, my current research interests and agenda lie at the intersection of the relative adequacy, depth and breadth of elem-sec curriculum, and pathway efficiency in higher ed (working with Scott Thomas and Christopher Morphew – old friends).
    On the one hand, we are trying to re-frame how policymakers view higher ed system production & efficiency, away from this crude notion of calculating net costs of faculty members w/o any regard for production (Texas A&M model) and toward evaluating resources as consumed by students as they navigate pathways to degree completion – some more efficiently than others – and varying by their backgrounds and preparation (as you well know!).
    On the other hand, K-12 educational adequacy is increasingly evaluated in terms of production of minimally adequate tested outcomes in a handful of core subjects, mainly basic level stuff. “Efficient” k12 systems are assumed (and statistically modeled) to be those that achieve those outcomes at lower expense (all else equal). But, it is highly likely that those appearing most efficient in production of K-12 outcomes are actually doing a poor job a preparing graduates to navigate college. We could, for example, characterize the typical course offerings, participation rates and staffing configurations for districts that fall in the more and less “efficient” zones of the above scatterplots, and evaluate the progress of their graduates (assuming we have a rich enough cost model – else we’re just capturing omitted variables bias). Thus, the relative adequacy and efficiency of K-12 systems must be better linked to successful and efficient navigation of undergraduate pathways. Or, so we argue. Just completed a project for a large research university testing out the methods. Fun stuff!

    Keep in touch!


  7. Thank You Bruce. I advocate for at-risk schools in NYC. For the last year the amount of data confusion is mind numbing. I read what I think is sound data and it’s debunked by the opposition (DOE, Charters, Policy Makers, etc.) which is then re-debunked again; it makes all of us trying to translate data to parents feel insane.

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