School Finance

This afternoon, Sec. Duncan announced the winners of RTTT-D. The results are quite surprising.* Though the official announcement is noticeably devoid of both specifics and overarching themes, four things jump out immediately.

While some of the nation’s largest urban districts made the 61-member finalist list, virtually none of them won.

The first is that while some of the nation’s largest urban districts made the 61-member finalist list, virtually none of them won: Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Nashville, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all came up short. (Miami is the lone representative of big-city school systems.)

This is a bit puzzling because large districts generally fare well in these grant competitions. They have more central-office staff to task with grant-writing, they can more easily raise private funds, and so on.

It is conspicuous that they got boxed out.

Some might argue that, assuming scale is among our considerations, their exclusion from the winner’s circle is lamentable. They serve many students, so the types of changes envisioned by this grant would have touched more kids had these big urbans won.

The counter argument, of course, is that city districts get plenty of money and attention as is, so no one should cry them a river for losing. Moreover, if the lessons of these grants are ultimately disseminated widely and adopted elsewhere, the same kind of scale can be accomplished, though over a longer period of time.

Smaller districts, consortia, and charters did quite well.

The second thought...

This policy brief by Nathan Levenson, Managing Director at the District Management Council and former superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools, offers informed advice to school districts seeking to provide a well-rounded, quality education to all children in a time of strained budgets. Levenson recommends three strategies:

1.     Prioritize both achievement and cost-efficiency.

Allocating scarce resources effectively means funding what works and obtaining ample information before making funding decisions, including information about what drives achievement—and drives  it cost-effectively.

2.     Make staffing decisions based on student needs, not adult preferences.

Districts should establish guidelines for what constitutes a full and fair workload for staff members, then staff accordingly. This may include “trading down” to less-expensive services of equivalent quality,  considering alternatives to maintaining class sizes, and closely monitoring insurance eligibility.

3.     Manage special education spending for better outcomes and greater cost-effectiveness.

How money is spent matters more than how much is spent; that’s true for special education, too. Districts can reduce their special-education costs by ensuring that all children read at grade level; hiring a few behaviorists in lieu of many paraprofessionals; and staffing according to service hours, rather than numbers of students served.

To learn more, download and read the full policy brief....

Bayou blues

Checker and Education Sector’s John Chubb discuss expanding the school day, dismal graduation rates, and Louisiana confusion. Amber depresses us with a report on record-high unemployment among young people.

Amber's Research Minute

Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity by The Annie E. Casey Foundation - Download PDF

This new study by Brookings’s Matt Chingos makes its way through the labyrinth of state budgets for standardized assessments, and it is the first time we’ve ever seen anything coherent and reasonably comprehensive on this part of the K-12 spending universe. Chingos focuses on the costs of contracts between states and test-making vendors, which comprise about 85 percent of total assessment costs. Across the forty-five states for which data were available, $669 million was spent annually on standardized assessments for grades three through nine. That’s about $27 per pupil on average, but this figure varies widely: A child in D.C. costs $114 to assess; in New York, that same child would cost just $7. Some of the variance is due to state size. He estimates that states with about 100,000 students in grades three-nine (e.g., Maine or Hawaii) spend about $13 more per pupil on assessment than states in the million-pupil range, such as Illinois. From these data, Chingos concludes that all states would enjoy some savings by joining or creating assessment consortia—whether PARCC or SBAC for ELA and math or another smaller grouping for other subjects. Much speculation surrounds the in-development Common Core assessments; the new design is likely to cost more, though it’s difficult to estimate how much at present. (We’ve also weighed in on this topic.) Chingos shows that new (and hopefully better) assessments could be rolled out at about the same cost to states, provided they pool resources and eke out quantity gains.



Eric Hanushek, Marguerite Roza, and Frederick Hess provided Ohio’s lawmakers today with ideas for helping the Buckeye State retool its school funding system. StudentsFirst, an education reform organization, recruited these leading experts to Ohio and arranged meetings with both the House and the Senate finance committees. Ohio’s Governor John Kasich has promised to address school funding in his 2013 biennial budget proposal.

Hanushek, who testified in person (Hess and Roza joined by videoconference), led off the conversation with these lawmakers. He enumerated five principles of a strong school finance and accountability system. (These are described in more detail in his publication, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools.) These principles include:

1. Establishing a set of standards, assessments, and accountability for schools that are strong and transparent.

2. Empowering local districts to allocate funds in ways that meet the needs of their students. State lawmakers shouldn’t dictate, Hanushek insisted, how districts spend their funds.

3. Rewarding successful schools and not directing additional funds to failing schools. State lawmakers need to resist the impulse to distribute more funds to failing districts, as it may incentivize failure.

4. Providing funding for innovation and evaluation. The state should fund innovative educational practices and programs, but any innovative program funded by the state should also be rigorously evaluated. Importantly, Hanushek emphasized that evaluation of innovative programs needs to be done at the inception of the program, not after the program has been implemented.


The Louisiana Constitution allows lawmakers more freedom to design public education than its school boards and teacher unions would have us believe. So it’s no surprise that what is “public” today includes a largely charter school system in New Orleans, four publicly funded private-school-choice programs, a recovery school district, and the emergence of online charter schools.

The consolation for the families who opted for school choice is that this was always going to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court

That’s why it was frustrating to see a state judge declare late Friday that Louisiana’s newest and largest voucher program is illegal because it diverts “vital public dollars” to private schools. According to Judge Timothy Kelley, the state was wrong to fund its new voucher program by the same revenue stream that provides a “minimum foundation” to its public elementary and secondary schools.

That was the same argument put forward by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association when they sued to abolish the voucher program, which presently serves nearly 5,000 children in 113 private schools.

But what is the difference between privately operated charter schools and private schools accepting voucher-bearing students if each are held to account to parents and taxpayers?

Students receiving the Louisiana voucher have to take the same standardized tests as those administered at public schools, and the schools they attend can be ejected from the program if they consistently show poor performance—just like charter schools. But Judge Kelley clumsily asserts...

We’re choosy

Mike and Adam celebrate school-choice victories in New Jersey and Race to the Top and worry about the battles ahead. Amber ponders state-mandated special-ed enrollment targets.

Amber's Research Minute

New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by CRPE - Download PDF

Generous pensions—one of the main “perks” of public-sector employment—come at a steep price: After years of can-kicking, state pensions face funding shortfalls that total in the trillions. Yet many are hesitant to restructure them. Among the reasons cited is the backlash expected from teachers facing a loss or diminution of their long-established defined-benefit (DB) pension plans. This new study by Dan Goldhaber and colleagues suggests, however, that teachers may be more receptive to new pension structures than previously thought (echoing findings from a New York poll conducted earlier this year). Researchers analyzed teachers’ pension preferences using data from Washington State over two time periods during which educators could opt for a DB or hybrid plan (which combines a DB and an employee-funded defined-contribution [DC] plan). During both periods, the majority of teachers—both new and experienced—opted for the hybrid plan. (Only teachers over age fifty-five preferred the traditional DB option.) The researchers then examined the association between choice of pension program and teacher effectiveness, measured by value-added. Compellingly, teachers choosing the hybrid plan were 2 to 3 percent of a standard deviation more effective than those opting for the DB plan. This is equivalent to the difference between a teacher with one or two years of experience and a novice—and hints that the composition of the teacher workforce (and its overall quality) is likely to be influenced by pension structures. The political will to revamp teacher-pension plans remains buried. This study provides a shovel with which we may start...

The new teachers contract in Newark has caused widespread celebration. It has earned praise from New Jersey’s governor and education commissioner, Newark’s mayor and superintendent, local and national labor leaders and many others. There seems to be a consensus that a new day has dawned for public education in this troubled city.

If state leaders are willing to seize the opportunity, this may be a turning point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

The history of urban school improvement efforts, however, suggests that we might temper our enthusiasm. The side of the road is littered with much-ballyhooed but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to fix failing inner-city schools.

Yet if state leaders are willing to seize the opportunity, this may be a turning point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

The new contract is an enormous improvement over its predecessors. It reforms compensation by prioritizing effectiveness instead of seniority. It speeds the implementation of improved evaluations and enables change in the lowest-performing schools. It allows for greater school-level decision-making and removes bureaucratic barriers to reform.

The district will now be better positioned to attract and retain the best educators. District leaders will have the flexibility to make decisions that meet kids’ needs. New Jersey residents will have greater confidence that state, local and philanthropic funding will be spent in the right ways.

Accordingly, the agreement has spawned a remarkable degree of strange-bedfellow harmony, bringing together management and labor, left and right. Local union president Joseph Del...

When I get a call from a reporter on a Friday, it typically means that a government agency is trying to dump bad news.  When I get a call from a reporter on the Friday before Thanksgiving week, I know that a government agency is trying to dump really bad news.

The feds spent several BILLION dollars and got terribly disappointing results—but, tragically, the results are predictable to anyone familiar with the history of “turnarounds.”

And so it is with the U.S. Department of Education’s quiet release of results from the first year of the massive School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. (See Alyson Klein’s Ed Week coverage.)

The headline is simple: The feds spent several BILLION dollars and got terribly disappointing results—but, tragically, the results are predictable to anyone familiar with the history of “turnarounds.”

Almost three years ago, in an article for Education Next called “The Turnaround Fallacy”, I detailed how and why previous turnaround efforts failed so consistently and predicted that future efforts would amount to the same. Chapter 4 of my new book, The Urban School System of the Future, extends that argument with even more evidence.

It’s not just me. Tom Loveless’s 2009 Brown Center Report showed the dramatic failure of turnaround efforts over 20 years, and David Stuit’s remarkable and devastating 2010 study powerfully reinforced these findings.

Now the Department, doing its job, is trying to paint the new data as a good-news story. But that clearly...