Mistaken (and Expensive) Assumptions

If a recent University of Washington study is to be believed, reforming Ohio’s education system could cost from $1.2 to $2.4 billion more annually--a 16 to 31 percent increase in state P-12 education spending. And that’s just the state’s share (47 percent of current funding). “Education Policy and Finance for Ohio: Investments to Improve Student Performance” (still in draft form here), produced by researchers from the university’s Human Services Policy Center (HSPC), was presented to policymakers, legislators and committee members last week (see here). No doubt the price tag sent shivers down more than a few spines.

The eye-popping figures stem largely from four different scenarios aimed at changing the form of Ohio’s education system, as well as two troubling (and depressingly familiar) assumptions: 1) that more money will produce greater student performance, and 2) that Ohio’s current funding is being efficiently administered and spent.

Among other measures, the study calls for higher teacher pay (a $30,000 per year base salary and four percent annual raises); smaller student to teacher ratios (25:1 on average for middle and high schools, and even lower for elementary and low-income students); an extended school year or year-round schooling for low-income students; and expanded early learning opportunities--including voluntary all-day kindergarten and a beefed-up Early Learning Initiative (ELI) program. Fully implemented, these scenarios could increase average statewide per-pupil costs from $9,300 to over $12,000.

None of these measures is without its merits (indeed, some are worth serious consideration). Yet absent from the study’s findings are well-defined benchmarks that tie new spending to improved student outcomes. For instance, assuming four percent annual teacher raises, without attaching such added dollars to measurable results and performance, does little to ensure that more money will result in higher quality instruction or improved academic achievement. Lower student-to-teacher ratios are a favorite of teacher unions, but experience from other states shows they offer only tenuous guarantees of better academic performance. Increasing the time students spend at school (a useful tactic--as charter models like KIPP have shown), without evaluating and adjusting instructional practices for maximum effectiveness, may simply provide students with more substandard instruction. And offering expanded early learning opportunities to children without providing a standards - and outcomes-based framework for quality providers (see here) may not yield the higher rates of school readiness so desperately needed.

Just as worrisome is the study’s inherent assumption that Ohio’s current education system is being efficiently managed--and thus requires more money. As the ACHIEVE study (see here and here) noted, the lack of transparency and data about spending, particularly at the school district level, raise legitimate questions about both the cost of a high-quality education and the efficiency of Ohio’s education system as a whole. (A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also gave Ohio’s education system low marks for its “return on investment”--see here.) Under several of the scenarios put forth by HSPC, schools serving predominantly low-income students would receive increased funding. A laudable idea, to be sure. Yet these extra resources may not reach their target if districts continue to allot funding to schools based on teacher pay schedules and tenure rather than on the actual needs of students. And none of HSPC’s specifications are aimed at greater efficiency and transparency. In contrast, a well-planned weighted student funding system (see here) would fund children and their educational needs directly, and minimize district central offices by empowering principals with instructional and fiscal autonomy.

Accepting this study’s mistaken assumptions would infuse gobs more money into the current system with little account for how it’s spent. No surprise that the study’s inputs-based approach has teacher unions, traditional district groups, and school funding amendment supporters smiling. “We welcome the kind of work the University of Washington study has done and believe this is the type of discussion that is needed in the state,” said Jim Betts, spokesman for the Campaign for Ohio’s Future, which is gathering signatures for the ill-conceived constitutional amendment (see here). 

Let’s hope that policymakers eschew this path and embrace the more comprehensive--and rigorously benchmarked--vision espoused by McKinsey and Company in its recent report for ACHIEVE. Sound education reform requires a healthy balance of both form and substance--tethered to clear goals and measurable outcomes. Neglecting the latter, “Education Policy and Finance for Ohio” is mostly form, little substance, and one heck of a price tag.

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July 11, 2006
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