School Finance

On November 5th, Colorado voters head to the polls to decide whether they want to substantially raise their taxes to better fund schools (and, separately, to regulate their newly legal pot—but more on that some other time). The plan, known as Amendment 66, is spearheaded by State Senator Mike Johnston (D) and funded by a coalition of teacher unions and others. It would raise income taxes by $950 million by ditching the state's flat tax of 4.63 percent. In its place would be a system with two rates: 5 percent for incomes at or below $75,000 per year and 5.9 percent for incomes above $75,000.

Passage of the amendment would green-light a previously passed and wide-ranging bill, also led by Johnston, designed to revamp the existing school-funding formula and divvy up the new money, if taxpayers decide to provide it. The bill has some ideas that, by themselves, should be fairly popular. For example, it lifts caps on preschool and Kindergarten enrollment, moves away from an easy-to-manipulate, single enrollment-count day, and refreshes the funding formula to weight for poverty and ELL status, among other factors. But, to many others, the cost to taxpayers seems outrageously high.

Supporters and opponents are sharply at odds when it comes to what this proposal might mean and, of course, whether it should pass. But those on both sides feel certain of one thing: The final result is sure to be a nail biter. Here’s a breakdown of five factors that could make the...

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The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental choice, but they are concerned about the credit-worthiness of school districts. The latest Moody’s report shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with...

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Dear Deborah,

We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That's public education's raison d'etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders—to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group ...

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better...

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which...

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law...

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we...

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the charter-district SPED gap.

The Common Core State Standards will soon be driving instruction in forty-five states and the District of Columbia.

While the standards are high quality, getting their implementation right is a real challenge—and it won't be free, a serious concern given the tight budgets of many districts and states.
But while critics have warned of a hefty price tag, the reality is more complicated.

Yes, some states may end up spending a lot of money. But there are also opportunities for significant savings if states, districts and schools use this occasion to rethink their approach to test administration, instructional materials and training for teachers. The key is that states have options, and implementation doesn't need to look (or cost) the same everywhere.

States could approach implementation in myriad ways. Here are three:

• One, stick to "Business as usual" and use traditional tools like textbooks, paper tests, and in-person training. These tools are very familiar in today's education system, but they can come with reasonably high price tags.
• Two, go with only the "bare bones" of what's necessary: Experiment with open-source materials, computerized assessments, and online professional development in ways that provide the bare bones of more traditional, in-person approaches. This could save major coin, but could require more technology investment and capacity for some states.
• Or, three, find a middle ground through "balanced implementation" of both strategies, which offers some of the benefits—and downsides—of each model.

But how much money are we talking? Take Florida: 

If Florida sticks to business as usual, it could spend $780 million implementing the Common Core. Under the bare bones approach, the tab could be only $183 million. A blend of the two? $318 million.

But that's the total cost; don't forget states are already spending billions of dollars each year on textbooks, tests, curricula, and other expenses. Look at it that way and the sticker shock wears off: The estimated net cost of putting the Common Core in place in the Sunshine State, for example, ranges from $530 million to roughly $67 million less than what we estimate that they are spending now. 

Each implementation approach has its merits—and drawbacks—but states and districts do have options for smartly adopting the Common Core without breaking the bank. Further, they could use this opportunity to create efficiencies via cross-state collaborations and other innovations.

To learn more, download "Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?"

Shut it down!

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the charter-district SPED gap.

Amber's Research Minute

Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools,” by Marcus Winters, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, September 2013.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” The government will eventually reopen, but here’s hoping that the DOJ lawsuit goes away permanently.

Reviewing the latest misguided barnburner by former Fordham trustee (and current rabble-rouser) Diane Ravitch, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern has penned a scathing but fair rebuke. He points out that her newfound “educational romanticism”—characterized by her suggestion that all children read poetry and be freed from the demands of knowledge-rich curricula—does not just contradict her life’s work but is also terribly short-sighted, especially for low-income children: “If they’re not taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades,” Stern writes, “they’re doomed to fall further behind. They will never be able to read Walden or understand poetry.” He labels her bottomless blog a “propaganda hub for the national anti-corporate-reform coalition” with “all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster”; he faults her book for its “pie-in-the-sky” solutions;...

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Dear Deborah,

I’m glad you brought up the topic of democracy. In future posts, I plan to explore the habits and attributes we hope to inculcate in our youthful, budding citizens, including a commitment to self-sufficiency. But today let’s continue the conversation about democratic governance of our public schools.

You and I have more in common than we might want to concede, in that we share a somewhat cynical view of politics. Namely, we see most political actors and institutions as acting out of self-interest. You, and many other liberals, are obsessed with “the rich,” worrying that they will buy elections and...

Thanks to the tireless work of school-choice advocates and wise policymakers, millions of U.S. children and their parents now have education options that were not available to them a few short years ago. But the choice picture is sorely incomplete. Consider:

  • Nine states do not allow charter schools.
  • Only ten states and the District of Columbia have school-voucher programs, and five of these confine their vouchers to children with disabilities.
  • Just eleven states offer scholarship tax credits for attendance at private schools.
  • Many states still make it difficult or even impossible to take advantage of public school choice.

Meanwhile,

  • The Republican Party, which
  • ...

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is...

Does school accountability boost students’ long-term prospects? That’s the question this new study by David Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks seeks to answer by examining the impact of accountability pressure in the Texas public high schools in the 1990s. (Jennings, you might recall, once assumed the moniker “Eduwonkette.”) Most agree that the series of tough policies that the Lone Star State instituted during this era, whereby school performance on state tests was made public and tied to various awards and sanctions, was the foundation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The system had several components: 1)...

We all know the story: the team that's always way back in the standings employs a brilliant new strategy to try to close the gap between itself and the wealthy powerhouses. The strategy works, but only briefly, as the well-off teams quickly steal the winning strategies to maintain their advantage. No, this isn’t the plot of Moneyball; rather, it’s the plot of Rick Hess and Max Eden’s case study of Douglas County, Colorado. This sprawling, affluent suburb south of Denver has employed reforms typically found in low-income and urban settings. Specifically, the all-reformer, all-conservative school board created a voucher program, adopted a new curriculum,...

Politics aside, the fate of the Common Core begins and ends with implementation. Particularly during this initial transition, it is critical that educators have sufficient support and guidance to successfully teach these standards. Unfortunately, much existing information focuses on content rather than instructional strategy, leaving educators baffled as to how to navigate the shift to Common Core in their own classrooms. Enter the Achievement Network (ANet), a nonprofit serving low-income schools. (Check out Education Next for great background.) Released as part of a collection of Common Core resources published by the Aspen Institute, this paper was informed by...

Dara Zeehandelaar, author of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets, explains teachers pensions and the difference between defined benefits and defined contribution plans that states offer teachers.

In this week’s podcast, Dara and Brickman tackle Amanda Ripley’s condemnation of the athlete-centric culture in America’s high schools. They also take on GOP governors’ wobbliness on Common Core and the morally bankrupt Philadelphia teacher union. Amber holds us all accountable.

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is no time to go wobbly!” On the brighter side, earlier today, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 85–21 to adopt a resolution authorizing funding for Common Core implementation.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted Philadelphia’s teacher union for dragging its feet on Governor Corbett’s proposal to bail out the failing district, which—if accepted—would be conditional on the elimination of teacher seniority rights and basing future pay increases on achievement-based teacher evaluations. (For more on the roots of Philadelphia schools’ sticky financial situation, see Paying the Pension Price in Philadelphia.) In this week’s podcast, Dara urges Philly’s teacher union, and unions everywhere, to take a more active role in pushing teacher quality....

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High school sports and other misadventures

In this week’s podcast, Dara and Brickman tackle Amanda Ripley’s condemnation of the athlete-centric culture in America’s high schools. They also take on GOP governors’ wobbliness on Common Core and the morally bankrupt Philadelphia teacher union. Amber holds us all accountable.

Amber's Research Minute

School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings,” by David J. Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks, NBER Working Paper No. 19444 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2013)

Unfunded liabilities accrued from teacher retirement costs have burdened states and districts to the tune of at least $390 billion (and perhaps as high as one trillion dollars). That amount is projected to swell in the next decade if states do not implement reforms. We’ve said this before, as have many, many others.

Our home state of Ohio deserves some credit, then, for doing the fiscally responsible thing by passing Senate Bills 341 and 342 a year ago. This legislation plugged the pension system’s leaky holes. Unfortunately, it put the financial burden on the back of the state’s new (and future) teachers, creating a situation just as untenable.

According to Ohio Pension Reform in Cleveland: New Teachers Beware, state-level retirement reforms will allow the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) to spend less on retirement costs in 2020 (in constant dollars) than it does today.

That part’s good. What’s not so good is that new teachers must now pay for the retirement benefits of senior and retired teachers (without themselves reaping those same benefits).

The retirement changes made in Ohio require new teachers to pay more than their contribution will be worth thirty years hence. In effect, they are being taxed to pay for the debt created by paying for the benefits promised to prior cohorts (an unfair situation that they had no hand in creating). This is grossly unfair, and could disincentive teachers from choosing—let alone staying in—the profession.

A...

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Jason Bedrick at Cato is out with Cracking the Books, a new evaluation of the extent to which states are being transparent on education spending. The study scores each state zero through one hundred and assigns a letter grade based on four categories: how each state presents data on per-pupil expenditures, total expenditures, salary data, and the extent to which the data is easily accessible to the public.

At the low end of the transparency spectrum is Alaska, which doesn't even provide per-pupil data and has little in the way of publicly accessible information at all. On the other hand, New Mexico—the top-rated state—provided extremely detailed information, much of which is included on their thorough and well-organized New Mexico Sunshine Portal.

Cato rightly highlights the need for this type of data by noting, “Contrary to the common perception, public school spending has risen dramatically over the past 40 years, even after adjusting for inflation. Over the same time period, student performance on standardized tests has remained essentially flat.” From this data, policymakers can draw a number of conclusions about how states might improve.

The primary issue is how little data is reported by states, period. Cato found large numbers of states not reporting key information, including capital expenditures and employee salaries, while forty-one states did not provide any information about employee benefits. All states should see to it that they provide at least this basic information. The second issue really comes from a perception that the vast majority...

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