Jay Greene (Inadvertently?) Argues for a 23% Funding Increase for Texas Schools

Posted on January 24, 2012

I was intrigued by this post from Jay Greene today, in which he points out that public schools can learn from charter schools and perhaps can implement some of their successes. Specifically, Greene is referring to KIPP-like “no excuses” charter schools as a model, and their strategies for improving outcomes including much extended school time (longer day/year).  As the basis for his argument, Greene refers specifically to Roland Fryer’s updated analysis of Houston’s Apollo 20 schools – which are – in effect, models of no excuses charters applied in the traditional public district.  Greene opines:

Traditional public schools can get results like a KIPP school without having to actually become KIPP schools.  They just have to imitate a few of the key features employed by KIPP and other successful charter schools.  This is incredibly encouraging news.

Greene does acknowledge that pesky little issue of potentially higher costs, but seems to go along with Fryer’s downplaying of the additional costs, given the amazing benefits.

Cost is another barrier to bringing this reform strategy to scale, but he notes that the marginal cost is only $1,837 per student and the rate of return on that investment would be roughly 20%. (emphasis added)

Those of you who read Jay’s work regularly probably realize that he’s not generally one to argue that more money matters, at all, for improving public schools.  After all, here’s the intro to a synopsis of his book on Education Myths:

How can we fix our floundering public schools? The conventional wisdom says that schools need a lot more money, that poor and immigrant children can’t do as well as most other American kids, that high-stakes tests just produce “teaching to the test,” and that vouchers do little to help students while undermining our democracy. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Alternatively, what if Jay Greene is wrong and he just realized it – without even realizing it?  Perhaps he’s turning over a new leaf here. Perhaps he’s accepting that a little extra funding, if used on simple things like small group tutoring and additional time can help. Heck, if it’s such a small amount of money – ONLY $1,837 per pupil – we can likely find that somewhere already squandered in school budgets.

Really, what’s an additional $1,837 per Houston middle school student anyway? Let’s wrap some context around that number. Well, it’s about 23% higher than the average 2010 current operating expenditure per middle school pupil in Houston Independent School District (based on school site current operating expenditure data for Houston ISD, which can be downloaded here: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/aeis/2010/DownloadData.html)

Now, in Houston ISD alone, there are about 36,000 middle schoolers, with somewhat under 4,000 (3,657) in 5 Apollo 20 Middle Schools (applying this list of middle schools – Attucks, Dowling, Fondren, Key, and Ryan – to the TEA school site data on enrollments). So let’s say we want to add about $2,000 per pupil to the budgets of the other middle schools serving about 32,000 pupils. Oh, that’s about $64 million.

Of course, it’s quite likely that the an additional 23% funding could also do some good toward expanding school time, providing intensive tutoring and other no excuses strategies in elementary and secondary schools as well. Houston Elementary schools serve over 100,000 kids and high schools nearly 50,000 kids. Rounding it off at an additional $2k per 150,000 kids, and well, we’re talking about a substantial increase in expenditure for Houston ISD.

Even if one can hypothetically re-allocate about 3 to 5% of existing funding toward these strategies, we’re still looking at approximately 18 to 20% increase in funding required to round out the programs/services.

Personally, I’m glad to see Jay Greene come around to this realization that a substantial infusion of additional funding, used wisely might lead to substantial improvement in traditional public schools.

Jay also points out that he has some concern that when scaling up these strategies, that sufficient supply of high quality teachers will be readily available. Fryer’s analysis doesn’t provide much insight into the competitive wages for the “no excuses” charter school teacher. Actually, Fryer’s analysis doesn’t even provide any real documentation of the $1,837 figure[1], but I’ll set that aside for now, since I’ve complained about Fryer’s hap-hazard, back of the napkin cost analyses in nearly every one of his other papers on a previous blog post.

Here’s a brief preview from ongoing research of the competitive wage structure of KIPP and other charter school teachers in Houston, and teachers in Houston ISD. These comparisons are based on a wage model using teacher level data in which I estimate the base salary of full time teachers as a function of degree levels and experience levels for teachers in each type charter school listed and in Houston ISD. I then project teacher salaries holding other factors constant.

Not surprisingly, KIPP in particular pays a significant premium for their teachers (with Harmony schools as a stark contrast, but see this story for additional context). Perhaps wages matter here, and that certainly needs to figure into the future scalability of these strategies, if we truly expect to hold teacher quality at least constant (if not improve it over time).

Here’s how Houston KIPP middle school operating expenditures per pupil stack up against Houston ISD middle schools (by special ed population share – which happens to be the most consistent predictor of school site spending differences, along with grade level served).

Paying teachers more to recruit and retain high quality candidates, and to find candidates willing to work more hours and days? Offering more time by extending school days and school years? Providing small group tutoring? This kind of stuff appears to make sense. And, it costs money. And if this stuff matters, then money matters. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Welcome aboard Jay. Perhaps money really does (or at least can) matter after all!

[1] The average difference in current operating expenditure per pupil between the five Apollo middle schools and all other Houston ISD schools (all grades) in 2010 appears to be about $1,839, surprisingly close to Fryer’s undocumented estimate.  But, the average difference between Apollo middle schools and Houston ISD middle schools was $2,392.

Posted in: Charter Schools