School Finance

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up...

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America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford...

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During your pre-Turkey trot out of town, you might have missed the big news about the federal School Improvement Grants program. Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog, which generously called the results a “mixed picture,” put it this way:

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year, the department said Thursday.

Even Arne Duncan himself could muster only faint praise for the schools, acknowledging their “incremental progress.”

Andy Smarick, a long-time SIG skeptic, showed a great deal of holiday cheer in not shouting, “I told you so.” But neither was he shy in stating the obvious, labeling the results “disappointing but completely predictable.” He went a bit further in a Washington Post quote, arguing that “you can’t help but look at the results and be discouraged . . . . We didn’t spend $5 billion of taxpayer money for incremental change.”

And lest you say, “Hey, it’s only money,” pause a moment on that. Five billion dollars. Enough to control Malaria. Enough to implement Core Knowledge in every single elementary school in the country. Enough to keep 2,000 Catholic schools alive. 

And instead, we poured the money into...

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released Financing the Education of High-Need Students, a policy brief that focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money, while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Learn more...

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In its release of SIG data, the U.S. Department of Education only provided comparisons between SIG schools and statewide averages. As I mentioned in Friday’s post, that’s not exactly a revealing comparison since SIG schools are, by definition, extremely low-performing and have much more room for improvement than the average school in the state.

Since Secretary Duncan visited New Jersey for the data release, we decided to do a quick New Jersey analysis of our own—something we thought might be edifying. We compared the performance of SIG schools to the performance of schools that applied for SIG (and were eligible) but didn’t receive awards. In other words, we compared schools that were similarly low performing at the start, while one set received the intervention and the other did not. We looked at math scores and focused on schools with an eighth grade (high schools take a much different test in New Jersey).

As you can see, at least based on a quick analysis of one state’s data, it’s hard to make the case that this massive program had a transformative influence on the state’s most troubled schools. There’s just not all that much difference in the changes between schools that were SIG-eligible but lost and schools that were SIG-eligible and won. And we certainly don’t see any major turnarounds.

The Department’s research arm is going to do a more sophisticated analysis along...

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School districts face an enormous financial burden when it comes to educating our highest-need students. Financing the Education of High-Need Students focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost
  4. ...

There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cares deeply about disadvantaged kids. He deserves our admiration and respect for bringing a renewed sense of urgency to addressing America’s persistently failing schools.

His devotion to the hope of school turnarounds is rooted in very real and very painful experiences. When he closed a number of underperforming schools during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, many displaced students were moved into similarly low-performing schools, and worse, inadvertently exposed to gang violence.

I’m certain this heartrending episode influenced him profoundly. I’m sure he committed himself to finding a better way to help boys and girls assigned to schools that weren’t working. I sincerely commend him for that sentiment and the passion behind it.

But this sentiment and passion also blinded him and his team.

Hence the tragedy of SIG.

Mountains of studies had clearly demonstrated over many years that the success rate of school-turnaround efforts was miniscule. The research showed that regardless of the intervention used or the amount of money spent, persistently low-performing schools stubbornly remained that way.

I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn’t done its homework or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past. I suspect the latter was the primary culprit.

Slogans like “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” followed by a history-changing election, didn’t exactly infuse early Obama administration officials with...

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Last month, USA Today reported that officials in the Brevard County Schools had broken Florida state law—on purpose. Their offense? Placing more kids in classrooms than Florida’s Class Size Reduction statute allows. Officials had done the math and decided that complying with state policy would cost more than the penalty they’d pay for adding a handful of students to each classroom. The estimated fines totaled roughly $170,000, which paled in comparison to the cost of the teachers that the district would have to hire to comply with the size-limiting mandate.

Yet it’s unclear how Brevard chose to allocate these additional students. Did administrators give every teacher more students in equal shares? Did they apportion shares to seasoned veterans or, more likely, to seniority-deprived new teachers? Maybe they drew straws?

But what if Brevard officials had chosen another option? What if they had assigned the “extra” students to their most effective teachers, leaving fewer pupils in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the scenario that this empirical paper models. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and the weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters. We know, for instance, that parents say they would opt for larger classes taught by excellent teachers, rather than smaller classes with instructors of unknown ability. In a study last year for the Fordham Institute, the FDR Group found that a whopping...

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The sharp-shooters edition

Michelle and Dara discuss class sizes, the new Youth CareerConnect program, and why the DOJ is backing away from its attack on Louisana’s school-voucher program. Amber gets wonky with cross-district effects on teacher-bargaining contracts.

Amber's Research Minute

My End of the Bargain: Are There Cross-District Effects in Teacher Contract Provisions?, by Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery, and Roddy Theobald, CEDR Working Paper 2012-2.2 (Seattle, WA: Center for Education Data and Research, 2012).

Emily Ayscue Hassel

Fordham released a paper by Michael Hansen projecting the impact on student learning if excellent eighth-grade teachers—those in the top 25 percent—were responsible for six or twelve more students per class.  He found that moving six students per class to the most effective eighth-grade science and math teachers would have an impact equivalent to removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers.

We imagine many teachers and parents reading that finding will still fret over the idea of increasing class sizes that much, even with great teachers.  So here’s some good news: Schools can give a lot more than six more students access to excellent teachers without actually raising class sizes.  And they can pay great teachers—or even all teachers—more by doing so.

The key is shifting to new school models that extend the reach of excellent teachers wisely.  At Public Impact, we’ve published many such models on the website www.OpportunityCulture.org, and we’ve honed them via our work with teams of teachers and administrators now implementing them in schools.

Sure, one way to extend the reach of excellent teachers is to simply increase their class sizes.  But none of the pilot schools’ design teams—which include teachers—have chosen this route alone. None have increased class sizes above national averages. Instead, all the school design teams so far have chosen team-based models that leave effective class sizes on par or smaller. (By “effective class size,” we mean the number of students actually with a teacher at one...

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