Logic and Facts, not Democracy, be Damned!

Thanks to good ol’ Mike Petrilli, much of this week’s education policy debate has centered on the relevance of local school boards and the age old tug-of-war between state and local authority over the operation and financing of local public school districts. Much of the debate has been framed in terms of “democracy,” and much of it has been rather fun and interesting to watch.  That is, until Mike and the crew at Fordham decided to let Bob Bowdon (of Cartel fame) join in the conversation, and inject his usual bizarre understanding of the world as we know it.

This time, jumping in where Petrilli had left off, Bowdon opined about how teachers unions and their advocates repeatedly cry for respecting democracy while consistently thwarting democratic efforts through legal action. The layers of absurdity in Bowdon’s  logic are truly astounding, and perhaps best illustrated by walking through one of the examples he chooses.

Here’s how Bob Bowdon explains the Georgia charter school governance and finance decision of May 2011:

When the elected legislature in Georgia authorized the state’s chartering of schools, the Georgia Association of Educators union wasn’t so happy with the voice of the people. They later filed a brief in support of a lawsuit to strike down the law — and that suit prevailed. Democracy be damned.


So, according to Bob Bowdon, the way this really ambiguously referenced case played out was that the Georgia legislature acting entirely on the will of the good Georgians that elected them, passed a law establishing a statewide commission to oversee the operation and distribution of funding to charter schools. The state teachers union got pissed simply because they don’t like charter schools. The teachers union filed a brief with a sympathetic liberal activist court, which then, under no authority at all… merely being responsive the gripes of the teacher’s union, struck down the charter law. A major blow against democracy. Democracy be damned!

Okay. Let’s take a closer look at what actually happened.  One reasonable summary can be found here: http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=238715, see also: http://www.earlycountynews.com/news/2011-05-18/Front_Page/Court_ruling_leaves_charter_schools_in_limbo.html

First, let’s acknowledge that Georgia, like other states has a) elected state officials – the legislature – who pass laws, such as the charter school law they had passed which would allow a state commission to redirect county funding (county and area district tax revenues) to charter schools established within their boundaries [by way of reducing state aid in a equal amount], b) county and area boards of education charged with establishing and maintaining public schools within their limits, and c) a State Constitution which outlines these responsibilities (http://www.sos.ga.gov/elections/GAConstitution.pdf, bottom of Page 60). That’s kind of how stuff works in U.S. States.

The County board of education in Gwinnett County, GA was not thrilled when they were informed they would be required to transfer significant funds to charter schools established under the legislatively granted authority of the state commission. The county board of Gwinnett County (joined by many others to follow) challenged in court that the legislature violated the constitution by granting authority to this state commission to redistribute county tax revenues – and more specifically – to establish and maintain schools (that would draw on such tax revenues).  So, one level of elected officials – county officials – challenged that another level of elected officials – the state legislature – had interfered with their explicitly stated constitutional authority. And the court mediated this dispute (uh… ‘cuz that’s what courts do), finding in favor of the elected officials whose authority to establish and maintain schools was clearly articulated in the constitution?

How in the hell is that a case of “democracy be damned?”  How is this a case of a union thwarting the “voice of the people.” Quite honestly, these are among the most bizarre, warped distortions of reality I’ve seen in a damn long time.

That makes about as much sense as the rest of the arguments in the Cartel movie, or in the graphs at the end of this post!


Note: Another fun twist here is that apparently, in Georgia, judges are elected (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2841). Democracy be damned I tell you! How can these elected officials overturn the will of the people as expressed by the elected legislature, when challenged in court by elected county officials?

Cartel Recap

This is an old post which I have moved forward in time on my blog because of the national release of this absurd film.

For series of posts on this topic, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/the-cartel-movie-schlockumentary/

Okay… so a few people meandering through my posts over time have sought some synthesis of my gripes about Bob Bowdon’s Cartel Movie. First of all, here’s a link to a pretty good review of the film which I just found yesterday: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/10/the_cartel_movie_review_docume.html

  • The divisive, emotional and complicated debate now raging over powerful public teachers unions and “school choice” — a catchphrase that encompasses support for vouchers, charter schools and a variety of other reforms — could use a comprehensive sorting-out by a diligent observer. Bob Bowdon’s smarmy diatribe isn’t it.
  • In taking to task the sorry state of our public schools, former New Jersey TV personality Bob Bowdon employs the three R’s of bad filmmaking: righteousness, revilement and redundancy.

And these glowing reviews accept as a given, Bowdon’s “statistical” argument validating the crisis of schooling in New Jersey.

Here’s my own synopsis of the arguments behind the film – the Crisis that necessitates the Solution.

The Crisis (Bowdon’s Crisis)

There’s a crisis in education in America and more specifically in New Jersey. Quite simply, every country in the world is handing us a beating as a nation and as a state, despite the massive amount of money we are throwing down the rat-hole of our public education system.

Bowdon’s evidence of a crisis:

Bowdon complains of our lagging national performance by making comparisons of international assessments such as PISA to other countries (critique of the relevance of PISA here). Here, Bowdon twists the argument to specifically blame states like New Jersey, which are not only a part of this substandard American education system, but are emblematic of it, by spending obscene amounts of money for these failures. Okay… so here’s the basic logic:

  • Our national average test scores are bad compared to other countries
  • New Jersey spends a lot on schools, and is part of this terrible national system
  • Therefore, spending is bad, our schools are terrible nationally, and New Jersey is even worse

But, as I discuss here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/vacuous_bowdon/

New Jersey actually performs very well even on international comparisons, in a legitimate, rigorous statistical analysis by the American Institutes for Research (http://www.air.org/files/International_Benchmarks1.pdf) And, our national average is only as low as it is because of our many very low spending states that have chosen to throw their public education systems under the bus. Can’t blame New Jersey’s high spending for Louisiana and Mississippi’s low performance Bob. (some useful comparisons on this more recent post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/common-standards-and-the-capacity-to-achieve-them/)

In an effort to further the argument that New Jersey schools in particular are an abomination, Bowdon points out how New Jersey is by a long shot (okay, I’m exaggerating his point here), first in the nation (if not the world) in spending on schools. Yet, if you correct NJ graduation rates to count only those kids who pass the NJ state tests, we’re only 24th on graduation rate. Yep, mediocre at best for all that money. Down the rat-hole. Clearly, the kids who graduate high school in all those other states, like Tennessee for example, must be able to pass the NJ state tests. Oh wait, they don’t take the NJ tests, do they? Another really dumb comparison Bob (a comparison originally generated by E3, but in the context of a broader critique of graduation rates).

This new report (as well as an older version) shows that the NJ tests aren’t really the least rigorous tests out there: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2010456.asp. Not great. But not the worst either. Yes, if we’re going to have tests, we should expect kids to pass them. No excuses there. But the graduation rate comparison is still completely bogus. I address this topic in greater detail here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/more-cartel-garbage-bowdon-still-an-idiot/. Oh, and by the way, as I point out in that same post, NJ is in good company on per pupil spending, rarely actually topping the list.

The icing on the cake is the analysis Bowdon originally presented as part of his “Facts and Figures” to support his “crisis” case . This still stands as the absolute dumbest analysis I have seen or read pretty much anywhere in my years working in education policy research (okay, this one comes close: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/should-think-tanks-be-licenced-to-think-and-when-should-a-license-be-revoked/) . Here, Bob Bowdon explains his brilliant revelation that states which spend more on their schools have lower SAT scores – so spending more lowers SAT scores… or at least those states that do spend more simply waste it so badly that SAT scores go down… for some reason. I tackle this outright stupidity in my first post on the topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/idiot-of-week-award-the-cartel-check-this-out/ (While Bowdon has removed much of this completely ridiculous content from the movie site, the logic of his current site content remains the same, and these absurd comments/arguments represent the level of Bowdon’s thinking at the time the movie was initially released. I saved copies of the original SAT graphs. They make great teaching examples of deeply flawed reasoning!)

The solution to the crisis that may not exist:

Okay, so if Bowdon can’t concoct his crisis, there’s really no need for a solution to it. You know, it might not actually be that hard to do a reasonable run through some real numbers to point out some serious problems, inequities and inadequacies in our education system as a nation and in New Jersey schools. They are certainly far from perfect. But, Bowdon can’t seem to string together even one set of legitimate, well argued facts to make such a case. So, I could stop here. By Bowdon’s absurd evidence, no crisis actually exists, therefore, no need for solution. But of course, Bob has one:

The only possible two solutions – Charter schools and Vouchers to private schools – with emphasis on the former. Everyone knows that money doesn’t solve education problems, Charters and Vouchers do (only if they’re well funded, though). Now, let me qualify here that I am a fan of charter schools having been a founding member of the special interest group on charter school research of the American Education Research Association and having written research articles which find favorable results for charter schools regarding academic quality of teachers (http://epx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/20/5/752) . I’m also a fan of private schools, having taught in one of NYC’s most elite independent day schools and having written on private school finances (http://www.epicpolicy.org/files/PB-Baker-PvtFinance.pdf) . But sadly, my actual knowledge of Charters and Private schools makes it harder, not easier to accept Bowdon’s poorly conceived arguments.

On Charters: Bowdon points to a few specific charter schools that are doing very well compared to other schools. Great. Some schools do better than others. I’m good with that. But, Bowdon seems to argue that because these few schools are good, all charters are good – certainly better than any traditional public school. Therefore, it is an outrage that the state of NJ won’t simply throw the doors wide open to more charters to accommodate the tear filled rooms of parents awaiting their chance at the opportunity to send their kids to one of the many outstanding charter schools. Here’s the glitch in this logic. I explain here (link below) that the average performance of Charter schools is statistically no different from the average performance of poor traditional public schools in NJ. Yes, some are better and many, many are much worse. The chances that a student in a charter is not in a low performing school are only marginally (very marginally) better than for students in the poorest (comparably poor) traditional public schools. While some charter school research shows strong positive results, the balance of that research shows a break-even, on average (see my post: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/a-few-quick-nj-charter-school-facts-figures/) and NJ charters are no different.

For updated and more extensive analysis of NJ charter schools, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/category/new-jersey-charter-schools/

Convincing inner city families that Charter schools will save their children simply because they are charter schools and therefore they must be better than traditional public schools is disingenuous at best. I have no problem whatsoever arguing that parents should have the option to choose a “better” school and should be provided reasonable information to aid them in choosing a legitimately better option for their children. Information is the ultimate equalizer here. Contributing to and/or concocting misinformation – creating a “market for lemons” by distorting information – when the stakes are this high – merely to advance a political agenda and build reputation as a supposed “documentary” film producer is morally repugnant.

Finally, on the private school voucher side of the argument: Like I said, I’m a big fan of private schools and I’ve seen what money can buy in the best of private schools. By the way, I report here on the actual per pupil spending of private schools by the affiliation of those schools (https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/private-school-spending/). When it comes to private schools, like Charter schools or traditional public schools, you get what you pay for, and the average per pupil spending (not tuition, but actual spending) in private independent day schools in New Jersey hovered around $25,000 to over $30,000 in 2007. Urban Catholic school per pupil spending is on par with Charter spending, and only conservative religious schools spend much less. Note that Catholic schools, like Charter schools are struggling these days to operate at such low expense (around $12k per pupil). Providing vouchers at levels similar to charter funding would ensure that the only choices available to parents would be financially struggling Catholic schools or conservative religious schools. There would be no religious neutrality in the options available. Private independent schools would remain well out of reach. Double the voucher level and you might get somewhere, but demand for slots would likely far outpace supply (see for a fun paper on price elasticity and private school attendance: http://www.nber.org/~dynarski/w15461.pdf). Under-subsidized vouchers are a cruel hoax, like distorting information on the true variance in charter school quality.

There are other potential forms of choice here, which are noticeably absent in Bowdon’s arguments (unless I’m missing something). Hey, look at my graph of school performance by DFG in my charter school post:  https://schoolfinance101.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/updated-charter-rel-performance.jpg Wouldn’t it be nice to provide open enrollment choice options for kids from the urban core to attend the high performing affluent suburban schools? Why should we only let them choose from the relatively average, under-resourced charter or religious private schools? Seems a little unfair, don’t you think? Seems a little disingenuous to argue that choice will solve our problems as long as we only let the poor minority children in the urban core attend start-up charter schools in church basements and other makeshift rental properties (since the slots in the elite, high performing charters are taken) and low tuition, low spending exclusively religious private schools. You wouldn’t want to include all of those higher performing traditional public schools a few NJ transit stops away.


So, here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Even if there is a crisis, Bowdon provides no legitimate evidence of one, and in fact, provides laughable claims that make it hard to take him seriously at all;
  2. Since there is no validated crisis, there is no need for a solution, but Bowdon offers one anyway;
  • Instead of attending NJ’s dreadful traditional public schools, students should flock to NJ’s outstanding charter schools, which, it turns out, have average performance the same as the poorest NJ traditional public schools, or
  • NJ children should be provided vouchers at levels that will allow them only to select from cash strapped urban religious private schools.

Seems reasonable enough. Ill-conceived? Intellectually vacuous? Schlockumentary? I must stop myself.

As a professor of school finance who lives every day immersed in national and state databases on school funding and student outcomes and who has advised many national organizations on the development of indicator systems for comparing schools/districts and states, Bowdon’s presentation of “shocking statistics” is quite honestly the most offensive, absurd and amateur presentation I have ever witnessed – regardless of political angle.


The Real NJ Graduation Scam?

Bob Bowdon, of Cartel fame and E-3 make the claim that New Jersey’s poor urban districts are scamming the public and taxpayers by having overstated graduation rates. About half of poor district kids pass the HSPA test, but 85% graduate. Their brilliant solution to this problem, as I’ve noted previously, is to give kids the choice to attend charters – on the argument that charters are less likely to do such scamming?  So, here are some fun numbers.

First, the percent proficient or higher on HSPA MATH Assessments by district factor group for 2008:


So, what we have here is that Charters (DFG R) actually had the lowest rate of kids proficient or higher on HSPA (matching my graph on previous posts, but lower here because only math is included). Yep, even lower than the poorest urban publics (DFG A). Yes, this is an average – among general ed test-takers – and averages conceal the highs… but they similarly conceal the lows.

Now, here are graduation rates for the schools by DFG:


Wait one second. How can charters have a 97% graduation rate if only about half of the kids pass HSPA? Where’s the scam here? I thought you said that the differential between HSPA proficiency and graduation rates was supposed to be indicative of a scam? And that charters were the solution to the scam? But where is that differential bigger? Charters are lower on HSPA proficiency by a few points and are 12% higher on graduation rate? Now I’m really confused.

Okay – I’m not trying to pick on charter schools here. You guys are mostly working your butts off for a great cause, and quite honestly I don’t hear these completely absurd arguments coming from the charter leaders and teachers themselves. But the supposed “advocacy” out there on your behalf is deeply problematic. Quite honestly, if someone was out there advertising so poorly for my cause, I’d be a little concerned… or perhaps outraged.

Note to Non-Jersey readers about my casual use of Jersey terminology – DFG. In New Jersey, district factor groups or DFGs are a classification scheme that has been used for decades to characterize socio-economic features of public school districts. DFG A districts are generally poor urban districts, but many NJ poor urban districts are relatively small in total enrollment (a cluster of poor urban neighborhoods segregated from their more affluent neighbors). DFG I and J districts are affluent suburban districts. Charters are labeled “R.”

NJ School Funding Suburban Taxpayer Scam?

I hate wasting so much time countering completely absurd claims, like those that spill out on the E3 Cartel commercials. This is a short reply this time. At the end of one of the commercials, the spokesperson slips in the claim that not only are we wasting a ton of money on our low graduation rates in poor urban schools (I discuss this claim here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/cartel-recap/), but this whole inefficient mess is a “suburban taxpayer scam.” Yep, suburbanites (like myself) are being dreadfully over-taxed and our hard earned money is being thrown down the rat-hole. We don’t get any of it back.

A simple question to answer here is whether the property tax effort in suburban communities (however we are supposed to define suburban?)  is that much greater than in “urban” communities. An appropriate way to measure this is by calculating the percent of income paid in property taxes.

Here’s a quick snapshot of tax effort in Essex County by income level and in Monmouth county by income level. These data are taken from http://www.nj.com/news/bythenumbers/, and the data are generally from 2005. Most “Abbott” funding to school districts had scaled up between 1998 and 2005.

Essex Tax Effort

Hmmm… no systematic pattern here. Yep, some pretty big differences, but no systematic pattern between poorer and wealthier communities.

Monmouth Tax Effort

As it turns out, tax effort in Monmouth declines systematically as homeowner income increases. Perhaps this is the “urban tax scam” not suburban one?

Yes, the property tax bill in an affluent suburban community is larger – because it is the tax bill on a more expensive home!  (should I really have to say that?) Yes, low property value, low income communities receive higher rates of state subsidy through the state aid formula for schools. That’s generally how aid equalization formulas work. And yes, New Jersey’s aid is targeted to higher need districts, above and beyond typical equalization (but only since 1998-2003).

Let’s get this straight. If the idea of the funding formula was to send back to communities and school districts exactly the amount submitted to state coffers from residents of those communities – then why the heck would we be collecting it to begin with? This would be a particularly foolish exercise since it costs money to process the tax revenues and send them back. That’s how taxes work – whether collected at the municipal level, providing benefit to the people across the street whose house may be valued (taxable value) less than yours, and tax bill may be proportionately less, or across the state. For those who don’t quite understand this, I recommend the Schoolhouse Rock tune about the Taxman. Pretty good stuff!

In a previous post, I also explain how local media in NJ has distorted comparisons of New Jersey property taxes with other states – https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/should-nj-really-try-to-be-like-de-md-mo-ga-wa/

More Cartel Garbage! Bowdon still vacuous!

See updated post on this topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/cartel-recap/


Bob Bowdon is once again proving his numerical wizardry with ads for his schlockumentary The Cartel (which I refuse to see because I will likely blow my top in the middle of it, correcting every damn wrong and misguided supposed fact spewed in the film’s narration). There’s a commercial out for the Cartel Movie which lists about 2 or 3 supposed “facts” about New Jersey schools and how they compare to schools in other states – on funding and on graduation rates. 2 or 3 numbers in the commercial, and you’d think Bowdon could get at least one right… or interpret at least one in a way that is not completely misguided schlock. We’re not talkin’ any high level of manipulation here… but rather… at the same childish, buffoon-ish level as previous Bowdon brilliance (the claim that higher state spending lowers SAT scores… Yeah… you go Bob! Awesome. Cool. Freakin’ amazing! https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/idiot-of-week-award-the-cartel-check-this-out/ )  Okay, so what am I complaining about this time?

The claim in the commercial goes… New Jersey is the highest spending state in the nation when it comes to schools… and, even though the NJDOE claims that we are tops in graduation rates, if you count only those kids who actually pass the high school graduation exam we’re really 24th. Yep, we spend all that (first, by a long shot, apparently) and all we can get is 24th in graduation rate.

First of all, graduation rates aren’t particularly a great statistic for comparing across states because graduation is highly dependent not only on varied state standards but varied local rigor. That is partly the (missed) point of the commercial. But the commercial goes on to imply that NJ is necessarily softer on grads than other states. Thus, we must correct those distorted NJ grad rates by the numbers who actually pass the state test… and then and only then… compare against all those rigorous states that really whoop NJ  %$$. Now, if we were going to “correct” New Jersey graduation rates to represent only those kids who can pass the NJ exam, the only legitimate way to compare against other states would be against the same standard – the ability of kids in other states to pass the NJ graduation test. Fun idea… but I don’t think other states are giving the NJ tests.

Hey… you know what… there is actually a report out there (by the gov’t agency charged with doing such analyses) that shows how states’ individual tests compare to specific cut points on the NAEP test (the one national standard assessment)… and thus to each other. But you’d have to do research… reading… actual numbers to find such a crazy thing. You wouldn’t want that kind of thing to taint the “facts” in a “documentary.” Here it is for future reference.


This particular report shows the NAEP score that would be associated with scoring proficient or higher on each state’s tests. So, for NJ, a proficient student on 8th grade reading would be expected to score 250 on NAEP 8th grade reading (the national test). The standard was higher (NAEP score associated with proficiency on state test) in about 13 states, but a heck of a lot lower in many states (lower in 19). NJ’s position was similar for 8th grade math. So, the state assessments in NJ fall near the upper portion of the pack among states, though certainly not near the top. Sadly there is no direct comparison of which I am immediately aware for the HS tests.

But, in NJ and many other states, these tests really don’t mean a whole lot to individual children, whether the test is rigorous or not. Yes… if we wish for anyone to take these tests seriously and if they are good and rigorous tests, we should expect kids to pass them to graduate. And we should do what we can to compensate for inequities in the preparation of high school students to succeed on the tests. But this has little or no bearing on state-to-state comparisons of graduation rates and is no excuse for Bowdon’s contorted reasoning (putting a generous spin on it).

As I have pointed out in previous posts (https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/vacuous_bowdon/) , when it comes to NAEP assessments, NJ students do very well, in spite of, or perhaps in part because of our funding levels and distribution of that funding. NAEP is the tool we have for making state by state comparisons, of students on average and by subgroups. Also in my previous post (above), I show how New Jersey compares with countries based on an analysis linking NAEP and international assessment scores.

Here’s a tool for comparing state NAEP scores.  Have fun! http://www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/

Other groups produce indices such as “college readiness” indices, and NJ does very well on these (http://www.edequality.com/content/map/ ), though I’m not fully confident in the rigor of such reports and measures.

Oh… and on that funding thing, when comparing total state and local revenues per pupil by state, without any adjustment for regional cost variation or other factors, NJ actually falls behind NY and VT, and barely ahead of WY based on my own run of the district level Census Fiscal Survey for 2006-07 (most recent year: http://www.census.gov/govs/www/school07doc.html ). After cost adjustment NJ drops lower (cost adj. here: http://www.nces.ed.gov/edfin/adjustments.asp ). So, even using the “bad” version (unadjusted) of the numbers, NJ is not #1. NJ was #1 in Current Expenditures per Pupil (including expenditure of federal dollars) in 2005 with no adjustments for regional cost variation, but fell behind Vermont and Wyoming and in a dead heat with New York and Maine in that year when cost adjustment is applied (the NCES Comparable Wage Index).

The point is that NJ is not the undisputed, year-after-year #1 and does not stand out as this huge outlier on public school spending as Bowdon’s grossly distorted and completely a-contextual references would have one believe. NJ does indeed stand out as a state that has put substantial additional funds into large urban, high poverty districts as a function of years of litigation. But, most rigorous accounts (actual research, with real statistics) find positive effects of the infusion of resources on student outcomes (see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/real-info-re-nj-and-abbott-districts/ as just one example)

Table 1 and Table 2 of this report on school finances provide some perspective on school funding from the most recent NCES summary of the most recent Census fiscal survey (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009338.pdf).

Here are a few related resources which discuss dropout and graduation rates, based on reasonable (albeit still problematic) approaches for measuring such things and comparing across states.

NCES Freshman Graduation Rates


Report on Dropout and Graduation Rates


Yeah. I know I’m talking to the wall here. Don’t let data and reasonable analysis get in the way. That’s just too geeky. Wouldn’t want a good number or some relevant context to taint the message of a “documentary.”


The Intellectually Vacuous Bob Bowdon’s “Cartel”

See updated post on this topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/cartel-recap/

===== Old post

Had a busy week, so I haven’t posted, but saw a new report yesterday which relates nicely back to the shallow logic of Bob Bowdon’s intellectually vacuous Cartel movie.

The Cartel movie is based on the premise that (a) public schools nationally are failing, (b) public schools in the US spend a ton of money to achieve little, (c) New Jersey is the perfect example of a state which spends a ton of money and fails. All of this, of course, occurs because of a self-interested, self-indulgent cartel of teachers unions and greedy bureaucrats (here’s how their salaries stack up to those “real world” “private sector” workers in NJ). I’ll avoid this latter piece for now, and take a closer look at the logic of points “a” through “c.”

Bowdon cherry picks some national average results from the PISA international assessment of 15 year old students to show that the US compared poorly on math in 2003 and worse in 2006. Of course, any national averages in the U.S. combine the performance of children in states that have largely thrown their public schooling system under the bus  – like Louisiana and Mississippi among others – with those that have done quite well like Massachusetts and New Jersey (indeed it is somewhat unfair to compare directly LA and MS to MA and NJ).

As I have shown in recent posts, there does exist at least some relationship between state aggregate spending (controlling for a variety of factors) and national assessment performance – albeit a relationship heavily entangled with socioeconomic conditions and adult population education levels in states.

Further, as I have also explained previously, an extensive body of research on the effects of school finance reforms including infusion of new resources into poor schools, shows significant positive effects.

A new study out this month from the American Institutes for Research seeks to make more appropriate statistical comparisons of student math performance on another international assessment – TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study). The authors construct a statistical cross-walk between NAEP state assessment scores and TIMSS scores which can be used for international comparisons.  From this analysis, the authors are able to evaluate where individual states stack up against countries participating in TIMSS. This is important because of the variance in state level performance and differences in state policies, fiscal effort and students served.

For starters, on international comparisons, the US on average scored just below the mean for OECD (organization for economic cooperation and development) countries at the 4th and 8th grade level (we do lag from 4th to 8th, an issue of concern). At both 4th and 8th grade on math, the US average is well above the international mean for all TIMSS participants. Now, we may wish to do better – and should. AIR assigns grades to the score ranges for each country and points out that we don’t perform at the levels we should. But this is far from the absurd, apocalyptic (and simply irresponsibly misguided) view presented by Bowdon.

But wait, Bowdon’s premise is that states like New Jersey are the perfect example of inefficiency – spending so much yet producing these terrible national averages. Certainly, New Jersey can’t be blamed for the national average – which carries with it the baggage of states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

How does New Jersey compare to the OECD average? New Jersey ranks 3rd among states on 4th grade math with 25 states beating the OECD average performance. Not bad for Jersey, along with Massachusetts and Minnesota! Louisiana, Alabama, New Mexico, California and Mississippi carry up the bottom end of the rankings, falling below the OECD mean, but above the overall international mean. That is, even Mississippi and Louisiana beat the international mean.

New Jersey drops a little on 8th grade math (consistent with other NAEP based analyses of NJ), but still does well, coming in 6th among the 27 states which perform above the OECD mean. Again, even Louisiana and Mississippi exceed the international mean, but well below the OECD mean.

I am by no means arguing for complacency  – saying – hey – that’s good enough. Rather, my point here is to re-emphasize that the US has a wide variety of education systems in place across states – some which spend a great deal and in fact perform very well, even in international comparisons. New Jersey is among them. We also in this country have some states that have seriously neglected their education systems, spent little, and shifted large shares of (primarily upper class) children in private schooling (schools that spend more, not less than the public schools in those states) where their performance goes unmeasured in these international and even state by state comparisons (in fact, these may be the children who do well in those states, but we don’t know). WHAT THESE STATES HAVE DONE IS A NATIONAL CONCERN!

It is foolish stretch of logic to blame New Jersey’s high spending (and the Cartel that demanded it) for the poor national average performance on select international comparisons. Yes, New Jersey spends on education, and in fact, New Jersey does quite well with that spending compared to other states and on international comparisons.

Certainly, spending alone is not the solution. But little is added to the debate by producing bombastic, misguided, poorly conceived and irresponsible slick-production rhetoric posing as documentary.

Idiot of the Week (year) Award… The Cartel… Check this out!

See updated post on this topic: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/cartel-recap/


Okay… so I’m curious about The Cartel movie that documents the failures of New Jersey’s public education system… and the high costs of those failures. One might construct a reasonable statistical case for some of the problems facing New Jersey schools… but not documentary filmmaker Bob Bowdon in “The Cartel.” I’ve not seen it yet…. but their page on Facts and Figures here, includes some of the dumbest assertions I think I’ve seen in a long time:


Go to the bottom of the page where this complete moron attempts to argue that states which spend more on education have lower SAT scores… that spending more leads to lower SAT scores.





He kept this statement “With spending as high as $483,000 per classroom (confirmed by NJ Education Department records), New Jersey students fare only slightly better than the national average in reading and math, and rank 37th in average SAT scores.” On his “The Deal” page…

In fact, there may be a connection… that is… states that spend more which happen to be in the northeast, happen to have higher SAT participation rates… because northeastern colleges and universities use the SAT. 82% of New Jersey students take the SAT.  This figure is 9% in Alabama and 4% in Mississippi, and students taking the SAT in those states tend to be the select few interested in attending competitive northeastern colleges.  So, we’re comparing the top 4% of Mississippi students to the 82% of NJ students. Anyway… that absurdity aside, here’s a better picture of how the relationship between state spending on schools relates to state average outcomes. The following four graphs show the relationship between predicted basic state and local revenue per pupil (controlling for sparsity, econ. of scale, state poverty rates, ELL children and regional wage variation) and National Assessment of Educational Progress 2007 scores. Actually, somewhat to my own surprise there is a reasonably positive relationship here. THAT SAID… I DO NOT ASSUME  THIS TO BE A SIMPLE DIRECT CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP. There are many potentially interesting underlying stories that might be told here about regional differences in income, adult population education levels, tax policy structures, etc.

Anyway… for me… this foolishness has reduced significantly any interest I may have had in actually seeing the movie.  Ignorant… juvenile… silly… I’m not even sure how to classify this attempt at a “brilliant revelation” from a scatterplot (FYI – I used to teach my 7th graders how to do this stuff… and draw appropriate inferences…not this kind of crap.)

I was initially pleased to see that the “facts and figures” page on the site actually had links to reasonable facts and figures and reports… rather than making them up off the cuff…(a topic I’ve written about with regard to teacher salaries, administrative salaries, Abbott spending and many other related topics – https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/notes-from-a-school-finance-curmudgeon/).

Here’s the relationship between SAT participation rates and SAT combined scores.


By the way… this graph I previously posted compares teacher salaries other professions holding similar degree levels, at similar age, over time in NJ. And these are hourly wage comparisons. Interestingly, teachers have fallen further and further behind over time.



And here’s where NJ actually stands on corrected spending measures and standardized outcomes: