Saturday, March 26, 2011

Panic in the Education Lifeboat Leads to Tossing Some Overboard

House and Senate are confronting a statewide financial crunch. Huge increases in the health care budget, the banking crisis and recession, combined with a decision that the state will not look to new revenues, has led the House and Senate to inflict significant financial pain on K-12 education. State mandated special education expenditures are slated to grow significantly during the next biennium , but the House and Senate are proposing not to fund these increases, leaving local districts with significant unfunded but mandated special education costs ($700 million per year). Last year, the State increased local districts contributions to state employee pensions, but provided no additional revenue to cover those shortfalls. Although employee pay and benefit increases moderated some in the last biennium, any increase in employee compensation had to come from cuts, because the state formula increase was zero in the last biennium. Across the State, districts made significant, often unprecedented cuts, to cover the shortfalls in education funding.

The Education Community has begun to act like a group of mariners in a lifeboat running out of fresh water. Instead of working together to fight for the education of all children, instead of insisting that the legislature perform its constitutional duty to educate all children, many panicked educators and their advocates are beginning to whisper to their legislators "save us, throw other districts over the lifeboat." There is good reason for panic. Anoka, the State's largest District cut about 70 teachers last year along with 47 staff, and it is scheduled to cut more in the coming year. Lakeville, which just provided a generous settlement to its employees, has suddenly been thrust into a downward fiscal spiral caused by declining enrollment. Districts all over the state are looking at unacceptable cuts that will inflict deep and lasting damage to Minnesota's educational infrastructure.

Some Districts have convinced local legislators to provide them a temporary boost with special earmarks, exempting them from some of the pain. Here are some earmarks inserted into the House Omnibus bill.

District Earmark
Anoka Hennipen $4,200,000
Rosemount AV $3,800,000
South Washington $1,900,000
Rochester $1,100,000
Elk River $1,800,000
Lakeville $1,200,000

These districts rightly point out to their local legislators that their children will suffer tremendous and unacceptable cuts if they have to share the pain that the House and Senate have in mind. They have identified significant unfairness in state funding, by pointing to problems in the funding system that impact them. Legislators are being convinced to help out some districts by taking money away from others. One unfairness is being addressed by making other unfairness worse. All of this is done in the context of trying to convince legislators who come from districts "like us" that the children in districts who look like our kids are getting a raw deal financially as compared to school districts with children who are different from "our kids." The legislature has been convinced by districts who don't have high numbers of disabled children in their district to pull money away from special education funding, and to shift that money into regular education. As a result, some districts will benefit from a very small funding increase in the general formula, and other districts will pay for that increase with much larger special education deficits.

In almost every other year, educators would come together and tell the legislature that the education community believes that we must provide adequate funding to address the needs of all students, whether they live in our own communities, whether they look like our children, or whether the children are poor and powerless, or upper middle class. But this year, panic has set in on the education lifeboat, and some have decided that would be easier to pitch some kids overboard rather than to advocate that the legislature meet its constitutional responsibility to educate all children. When panic sets in on the lifeboat, dehydrated mariners resort to rationalizations as to why they need more water right now, and other mariners don't, and so on. In the face of this growing everyone for himself atmosphere, our board of education has written a letter to the education community urging that we work together. K-12 has a special standing in the Constitution. The authors of the Constitution foresaw a day when there would be pressure to rationalize in this way. They expected us to resist this temptation. We need to stand together and make sure that the children in all districts, regardless of what they look like, or whether their representatives are republicans, democrats, urban or rural, have the resources they need to succeed. Here is the text of our letter:
During this legislative session, some in the education community have argued that K-12 education must recognize that the State of Minnesota can no longer meet its responsibility to educate all children. During the financial crisis, some have begun to argue that educating students who live in poverty, students with disabilities, and refugees and students who come to Minnesota speaking no English is just too expensive. That has led to an effort in the legislature to support a massive revenue transfer from school districts with high rates of poverty and disabilities to school districts with much lower poverty and disabilities.

We are hearing that we can solve Minnesota's education problems by delinking compensatory funding from the formula. We are hearing that integration revenues are a waste of money because we haven't closed the achievement gap yet. We are hearing that the solution to the funding problem of smaller districts is to take money out of special education and put it on the formula. We are writing to express our belief that this approach is not worthy of the Minnesota education community.

The House Omnibus Education Bill funds an increase in the formula by taking money out of special education. School districts negatively impacted will not be able to cut special education. They will be required to take that money out of the formula. Already, in our District we transfer about $900 from each student in our district to cover the state mandate deficit, despite the fact that we have frozen total special education costs for four years. The cuts in special education will negate completely our formula increases, so that other districts with far smaller special education deficits will get a larger net increase. We don 't want to take money from those districts: we want all districts to have the resources that they need.

If we are to meet the State's Constitutional responsibility to educate all children, we need to make sure that public dollars are spent efficiently. But we cannot meet our responsibilities by defunding the programs that are necessary to close the achievement gap or to educate children with disabilities. We would urge those who represent the education community to come together and join in a common effort to provide appropriate relief on the formula and on categorical funding. Won't you join with us in fighting together for the education of all children in Minnesota by contacting your legislators and other legislative leaders? We cannot assure that all children thrive unless we provide adequate funding appropriate to educational need.

Monday, March 21, 2011

House Omnibus Ed Bill buys formula increase with Special Education Revenue Cuts

Here are some of the of the financial provisions of the House Omnibus Education Bill. Legislators like to increase the basic formula and pay for it by reducing funding for special education and other funds. Doing so makes it look like education is being held harmless or even provided more funding, even when the net result is negative. This is a long-standing device used often by both Republicans and Democrats alike. The key financial features:
  • Large cuts in special education revenue to pay for smaller total increases in regular education funding. Statewide, total cuts in special education funding to school districts of about $38 million. St. Cloud special education funding would be cut $73 for each student in the district (disabled or not). Across the state, cuts range from about $20 for each student in the district (whether disabled or not) --for districts with low special education student populations --to as high as $100 per student (disabled or not) --for districts with large special education populations. These revenue cuts are not accompanied by policy changes that allow spending reductions. Reductions must be made from regular education, out of the general funding formula, because cuts in special education are prohibited. For many districts, the result is to take away completely, the increase in the formula, and then some.
  • Major cuts in funding for Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Duluth is cut $132 per student, or about 1.1 million dollars, Minneapolis and St. Paul are cut about $14 million each.
  • Small basic revenue increases using some of the money "saved" by special education revenue cuts. The Bill would increase the basic formula allowance from $5,124 to $5,155 in fiscal year 2012, to $5,210 for fiscal year 2013, and $5,375 for fiscal years 2014 and later. Total cost to increase the basic formula is about $28 million in year 1. Thus, the entire cost of the general formula increase is paid for by special education cuts, with red ink to spare. Keep in mind that the cuts in special education are not accompanied by district expenditure cuts. State law still prohibits school districts from cutting their special education budgets, so the House Omnibus bill is a form of bait and switch. The losers are the districts with high special education populations and the highest special education deficits.
  • Some school districts large increases, some large decreases. The winners generally are the districts who serve the least special education students and the losers are the Twin Cities, Duluth, and districts with high special education populations.
  • St. Cloud total funding is cut $378,000. Elk River gets a $1.6 million increase; Lakeville $1.1 million increase.
  • Foley, Rocori, Sartell, get small net increases. Sauk Rapids gets a small net decrease.
  • Compensatory education revenue. The Bill would "delink: compensatory revenue from the basic formula allowance. The plan is to gradually phase out assistance to school districts with students with high needs so that over time, education money would move from districts with large high need student populations to those with smaller high need student populations.
Earmarks. Fifteen school districts, including Lakeville, Anoka, Rochester, and others get special earmarks of extra compensatory revenue ranging from one million to $4.2 million. Rationale is that these districts seem to have complained that the compensatory education formula doesn't work fairly for them. Special education formula doesn't work for us. Can we have an earmark too, please?

Jokes aside, one of the problems with using earmarks for selected school districts is that it can lead to allocating money based on political favoritism for particular legislators. Perhaps Anoka's legislator will trade some more money for the Anoka school district in return for a vote on gaming, or a football stadium. Under a formula system, at least legislators must provide funding based upon a transparent formula that is applied to all districts.

Integration Revenue. Big cuts in integration revenue for St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth. But school districts now free to use their integration revenue to improve learning, which is a good thing.

My prediction: Special education funding cuts and school district earmarks would render this legislation unconstitutional, if it were adopted.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Critical times for Education at the Capitol

We are on the brink of critical decisions for the future of public education in Minnesota. The decisions will be made by the three players in St. Paul, the Governor, the House and the Senate. Public education faces two great challenges this year. The first challenge is whether the legislature will provide the funding we need in education to do our job. The second challenge is whether a genuine reform agenda can pass the House, Senate and get signed by the Governor.

There are a number of Republicans, who are sponsoring reform initiatives that will genuinely improve public education. Some of these reforms are thoughtful and productive, and will make significant improvements in our ability to deliver quality public education for all children. Some of these reforms are thoughtless and destructive, and play to the Republican mindless base. But one can begin to see within some of the legislation that is advancing through the House and Senate a number of reforms that will help us do our job better.

At the same time, there is a battle raging in the two legislative bodies over whether to provide adequate categorical funding, as in the past, for students with special needs, for example students with disabilities, and students who are overcoming educational barriers. For example, the House omnibus bill proposes to cut support for special education significantly, without allowing school districts to reduce spending. Some legislators are seeking to reduce compensatory education over time in order to transfer revenue to school districts with fewer students with high educational needs. Others are proposing even more significant cuts in overall spending.

And then there are legislators proposing to give management temporary or more permanent cost controls that would restore balance between labor and management. The House omnibus education bill, for example, contains some modest bargaining reforms which prevent unions from striking to force school districts to increase compensation faster than the legislature increases funding. One of the reforms limits the period when bargaining can take place. Senate File 056 proposes a temporary two-year freeze in public employee compensation. Both of these provisions will be vigorously opposed by organized labor. Even though each of these provisions involve rather modest reforms, organized labor will try to paint them as if they were the same as the draconian proposals offered in some other states, such as Wisconsin.

The three major players will come together at the end and try to reconcile all of these proposals, and the final proposals will require concessions from both sides. The question is, what will each side hold firm on, and what will they be willing to give up on.

For those of us who are committed to putting children first, the great fear is that the Democrats -- Dayton and his team -- will put organized labor first above all else, and will refuse to make any concessions on management's ability to keep labor costs within reason. If they take that position, then it will strengthen the hand of those Republicans who will want something in return. They are likely to say, ok, if you won't make concessions on the cost control side, then you are going to have to make concessions on the revenue side. The consequence would be devastating for public education and for children, and ultimately for labor as well. It could leave us with, at the same time, greatly reduced revenues in the midst of a labor environment that imposes still ever rising unrestrained labor costs. I call this the lose-lose compromise scenario, in which Dayton digs in and refuses to make any concessions objected to by labor, and in return, Republicans dig in and take a hard line on revenues, and especially on revenues needed for districts with high rates of poverty. Out of this scenario will come financially crippled school districts, with skyrocketing labor costs, and the inability to deliver needed changes in the delivery of education.

The other great compromise would create a win win situation for children and for public education. That is the scenario where the Dayton administration demands adequate revenues for public education, using his veto pen to prevent crippling funding reductions, but agrees in return, to make needed concessions that will allow public school districts to control their costs and to implement the major reforms necessary to take a quantum leap forward in educational quality. This is the great test of the next two months, will it be win win or lose lose for children. Governor Dayton holds the keys, and I'm holding my breath that he puts children first.

Education Reform Talk: Is it real or hypocricy!

[This post was written before the House omnibus bill was publicized, but after the Committee Chair was reported as having proposed the elimination of integration funding....The newly posted House Bill does not eliminate integration funding and appears to provide significantly enhanced authority to school districts to use integration funding free of MDE bureaucrats. For those of us in the regional centers like St. Cloud, the impact on integration funding appears to be a step forward. For Minneapolis and St. Paul there appears to be a major financial reduction. The bill has lots of implications and it is too early to say that one understands all of them. It does appear to provide some reform elements that are positive, and some financial components that are negative, but its too early to tell. .....]

I was energized when Minnesota Republicans changed the name of the House Education Committee to the Education Reform Committee. We sure do need reform in the way we manage education in Minnesota. I even signed onto and testified in favor of Senate File 0056 which freezes public employee pay for two years. If the state would provide management the ability to deliver education the way that it needs to be delivered, and if the State would provide us with sufficient revenues and cost controls, I reasoned, we could really make some fantastic progress. But now, frankly, as I look at what legislators are actually doing, I begin to believe that neither reform nor closing the achievement gap is their paramount goal. One is beginning to be suspicious that the real goal is to keep taxes down at all cost, and to move money out of school districts where most democrats live and into school districts where most republicans live. I hope that I'm wrong, but its hard to explain what is beginning to happen any other way.

Two items in the news caught my eye this week. On March 16, the education media noted that after weeks of negotiations, the KIPP charter school network reached a 10-year agreement with the Baltimore Teachers Union today for how much it will pay its teachers for working extra-long hours. For more information, click here. KIPP had threatened it would close its two schools in Baltimore if it couldn't settle on a long-term contract with teachers. KIPP said, "we can't do our job unless we have the ability to deliver programs the way that work."

On March 18, an important Republican leader announced that it is time to cut revenue to public school districts serving students who are commonly referred to as part of the "achievement gap." He allegedly explained this proposal because we have failed to close the gap in Minnesota. See the Minn Post Article by clicking here. Since we have failed to close the gap, he reasoned, we should cut the funding that is designed to assist school districts in closing the gap. I have a lot of respect for the Republican legislative leaders, but:
This simplistic approach represents a complete abdication of the responsibility of the legislature to solve problems and provide school districts with the tools that they need to do their job.
It would be like saying, since we haven't cured cancer yet, let's cut off funding for cancer research. Since we haven't stopped terrorism, let's stop funding the war on terror. Responsible public servants are responsible to address major public needs, especially public education, with thoughtful, productive legislation. If we are dissatisfied with the progress that public education is making, its irresponsible to stop funding it: what we need to do is to implement the reforms that are needed to do the job as efficiently and effectively as we can. The problem is not that we are spending too much on the achievement gap: the problem is that both parties have encased the managers of schools in a straightjacket that prevents management from delivering instruction in the ways that work the best. In our school district, we had to crawl on our hands and knees to beg for permission to utilize integration revenue in ways that improve learning. We said, look, the best way to achieve integration is to assure that all students are succeeding. MDE bureaucrats said, "no, you have money for education, this is for something else." The solution to this problem is not cutting the funding: the solution is to allow us to use the funding to address the real educational needs that students have, by taking away stupid bureaucratic rules and legislative constraints.

At the same time that some Republican lawmakers were proposing to fix the achievement gap by defunding efforts to address the problem, several articles appeared regarding the highly regarded KIPP program. KIPP's Baltimore program was embroiled in a major dispute with its teachers union over management's insistence that it must maintain a longer school day in order to fulfill its mission to close the achievement gap at a price that KIPP could afford. KIPP has a significantly longer school day and a significantly longer school year. When the teachers union demanded that KIPP pay more than KIPP could afford to continue these initiatives, management said, we are going to close our school, unless we can continue both longer school day and summer school at a price that we can afford, because that's what we need to do to meet our objective. We exist to close the achievement gap. If we can't have the tools we need, we are going to close up shop.

Now in Minnesota, having this discussion would be a joke in public schools. The legislature and governor won't give us the funds to make a longer school day happen and the unions won't have serious discussions on lengthening the day or school year at a price that we can afford. You can't deliver a longer school day at the same price as the shorter school day. And, you can't afford to deliver a longer school day at the same hourly rate that you deliver the regular school day. There would have to be more money, but the additional time would have to be provided at a reasonable rate. In Minnesota, the legislative scheme is that school districts are deprived of the resources and the management powers to do their job, so we criticize them profusely, and then finally, we use that criticism as an excuse to cut their funding.

In Minnesota, the Republicans and Democrats are just kidding around when they say they want public education to close the achievement gap. It's just talk. The Republicans won't provide the funds necessary to do the job; and the democrats won't agree to give management the powers to implement reforms that work at a price that the public can afford to pay. The Democrats get to partner up with big labor. The Republicans get an excuse to cut funding and taxes.

School reformers like to tout KIPP as an example of how to close the achievement gap. But if the so-called reformers were really interested in using the KIPP experience, then they would give public school districts the powers to do what KIPP is trying to do. They would give us the revenues and the powers. The KIPP schools are commonly identified by reform advocates as showing the way to make great strides in educating students of poverty. KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 99 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 27,000 students. To put this into scale, there are just under 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. KIPP schools account for one-tenth of one percent of the schools in the United States. If we want to do what KIPP is doing on a larger scale we aren't going to get there by walking away from this problem and defunding the efforts. We are going to have to provide revenues, management powers, and then demand accountability. Accountability without management powers and adequate revenues is a recipe for failure.

All KIPP schools have special powers not afforded to regular public schools. They have enhanced management powers to organize the delivery of instruction, and they have sufficient resources to cover the cost of doing that. The sufficient resources issue is a combination of revenues and sufficient cost-control to implement the delivery of necessary program. There are too many republicans who believe that they can solve the deficiency of public schools by talking about reform and the starving them to death financially.

Going down that path may please the taxpayer's league, but the Constitution requires the legislature to provide for an efficient properly financed public education system. Any fool can cut the education budget. It takes statesmanship and deep thoughtful studied leadership to solve the problem. The solution lies in giving public schools the powers they need, the funding they need, and then demanding that they use those powers and finances to deliver the best possible education.

KIPP advocates tell us that they are on to something important and part of what they do is to manage schools differently with the special management powers that they have. These extra powers aren't a function of being charter schools. The lack of extra powers in regular public schools results from the abdication of legislative responsibility to give these powers to all public schools. Partly that abdication derives from the subservience of democrats to big labor. Partly, that abdication derives from the abject failure of Republicans to make the effort necessary to understand what works in education. They know how to cut taxes; they know how to criticize; but they haven't taken the responsibility yet to study what is actually working.
Every day, KIPP students across the nation are proving that demographics do not define destiny. Over 80 percent of our students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and 95 percent are African American or Latino. Nationally, more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-preparatory high schools, and over 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college.
KIPP schools depend upon special rules for teachers, students and parents. They do not accept students who refuse to follow the rules and rigorous demands. Parents must sign contracts agreeing to meet KIPP standards for parents. Teachers must agree to adhere to KIPP's high standards as well. All this is wonderful, isn't it. KIPP skeptics claim that KIPP is successful for the same reason that highly selective universities produce so many exceptional graduates. KIPP proponents say that this is not true. Be that as it may, there is broad consensus among school reformers that KIPP is onto something that other charter programs do not have.

And if you believe that it is the charter nature of KIPP, let us be clear that in Minnesota, the legislative auditor has found that charter schools are simply not superior, or indeed somewhat inferior, to regular Minnesota public schools in closing the achievement gap. As the Minneapolis Tribune reported:
As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.)
KIPP schools insist that students attend a longer school day than other children. They are implementing one of the critical findings that runs across all of the research about addressing the education achievement gap--we make up the gap by extra effort, extra classroom time, extra teaching, extra study. And the point I want to make is that extra school time requires two things: the ability of management to implement extra long days, and the ability of management to pay for that extra time.

We know what is required to address the achievement gap. There is no secret. The first thing is we need to give the managers of school districts the power to implement programs that work. We know what those programs are and how they need to be implemented. The legislators and the Governor need to get together and give us those powers. Giving management the powers we need to implement programs won't please the leadership of labor unions. But it will please the vast majority of teachers because the vast majority of teachers across the state are dedicated to doing what needs to be done so that children succeed.

One of the great hypocrisies in St. Paul is that Republicans criticize school districts for not implementing best practices, but when they have the majority in the legislature, they won't give us those powers, because either they lack the guts to do it, or because really they have a different agenda,
and that agenda does not involve giving public schools the powers we need to be effective. Republicans and Democrats need to get together and put children first and start by giving school districts the powers that we need, and then having done so, insist that we act effectively and decisively.

The second thing that is required to address the achievement gap is that school districts must have the resources to implement reforms. If we want longer school days, if we want summer school, if we want mentoring and tutoring, that comes with a price. Republicans who claim that they believe in reform, but who want to defund gap closing initiatives are engaging in hypocrisy. I fear that what they really mean is that they want to take money away from school districts where most people are democrats and move that money to school districts where most people are republicans. I wish and hope that I'm wrong. But if Republicans are really interested in education reform, they will stop efforts to cripple school districts financially, and instead give school districts the management powers and the revenues necessary to do our job right.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Senate File 0422 Creates Huge New Unfunded Mandate by Phasing Out Compensatory Revenue

Earlier this week, (click here), I began a discussion of the reasons that some students cost more than others to educate. As I was writing my second post in the series, I received a notification of a hearing later this week on a bill, Senate File 422, which would begin to roll-back compensatory funding as a proposed solution to the education funding crisis. Compensatory funding is the money that school districts receive to pay for Minnesota's No Child Left Behind mandate that all children must reach a high level of proficiency regardless of the obstacles that would otherwise interfere with their educational success. Compensatory funding derives from a longstanding recognition in this State that its more costly to educate children who come to school far behind, than it is to educate students who come to school ready to learn. Regrettably, Senate File 422 is basically just another proposal to defund a mandate, without repealing the mandate.

There are some legislators who believe that school districts who receive compensatory funding are rolling in extra money. But this is not true. Most of these districts are actually the most financially stressed districts in Minnesota, because they tend to be districts with very high special education deficits. In most cases, when you net these districts special education deficits against their compensatory funding, you find that the districts are still deep in the hole, when both state mandates (special education and no child left behind) are netted out together.

In short, most of these districts consume their compensatory education revenue to pay for the other great unfunded mandate, special education, leaving them with nothing to address the NCLB proficiency mandate that compensatory revenue is supposed to pay for. For example, Brainerd receives $3.5 million in compensatory funding, but it carries a $4.4 million special education deficit. Bloomington receives $5.5 million in compensatory funding but carries an $8 million special education deficit. Mankato receives $2.6 million in compensatory funding but has a $4.2 million special education deficit. Each of these districts, and many others like them, are buried in a sea of state mandated red ink, because the legislature underfunds the special education mandate, by $5.5 million in Bloomington. By $4.2 million in Mankato. By $8.6 million in St. Cloud.

You might expect that Senators who are concerned about unfunded mandates in public education would be proposing to do something about the projected $700 million per year under-funding of the special education mandate. But no, they are actually sponsoring legislation further to impoverish those very districts who suffer the most from the State's massive unfunded mandates. The plan in SF 422 is to defund a second state mandate, and bury these districts even further with unfunded mandates.

Now for those of you who think that the mandate that all students must be educated to high levels of proficiency has no cost consequences, I have to tell you that you are living in a dream world. Achieving success in Minnesota's proficiency mandate requires extra mentoring, extra remedial instruction, more summer school, and a variety of other reforms that have costs attached to them. You cannot get something for nothing. This proficiency mandate, completely well intentioned, is a huge undertaking. It cannot be accomplished for free. Senate File 422 takes these costs off the backs of the taxpayer, and puts them onto the backs of children by forcing school districts to reallocate resources away from traditional average students who are coming to school ready to learn. Its a tax on children to pay for a gigantic unfunded mandate.

In my first post, I quoted extensively from a report by the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation. The Foundation is an active proponent of school reform and has argued in favor of voucher funded private and parochial funding as a vehicle to close the achievement gap. The Foundation's 2006 report Fund the Child, argued persuasively that what ever delivery system we choose must recognize that meeting the national goal of educating all children to a high level of proficiency will require extra funding for those students who have high educational needs. The Foundation's report explains:

"Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"Then
In Minnesota, that extra funding is provided by the compensatory funding formula which seeks to provide additional funding based on the number of students who have high educational needs based on poverty, which is roughly (but not exactly) correlated with higher costs to reach the goal of universal proficiency.

The No Child Behind mandate in Minnesota, like other states, requires not merely that school districts meet higher levels of standards. It actually raises the standards, year after year. The chart below graphs the ever increasing proficiency standards adopted by Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively. Each year, the percentage of students who must meet the standards must increase, and each year, the required scores increase as well.



The proficiency standard in Minnesota requires all students to reach proficiency at a second year algebra level. How many of you genuinely believe that it is possible to get to the point where all students master second year algebra without substantially increased costs.

Frankly, I'm going to bet that a fair number of you never even took Algebra II, and a high percentage of you who did, couldn't meet the proficiency standard that Minnesota has demanded of all children. Minnesota's implementation of No Child Left Behind for mathematics not only demands that a significantly higher percentage of students perform at the proficient level in mathematics than ever before in history, it defines proficiency at significantly higher level than ever before. We are expecting students to perform proficiently at a second-year algebra level, when many of their parents were not even required to take or pass first year algebra. Trying to accomplish this at the same inflation adjusted price would be like trying to equip everyone with a private jet for the price of an automobile. If you are scoffing at that, just remember what algebra II consists of: factoring, elementary matrix algebra, solution of multiple linear equations, graphing of and solution of quadratic equations, inequalities, probability, and a whole lot more.

I want to be clear. There is evidence that we can do a much better job of educating more children at a very high level of mathematics. Some of the necessary changes require new teaching methods. Some of them require more classroom time. Some require more teachers who have strong subject matter backgrounds in mathematics in the earlier grades. And some require more mentoring, more parental support, more individual attention for students who are falling behind. Some of the necessary changes don't require more expense, but some require significantly greater expense, and the special help required for some students make those students more costly to educate than other students. If the State wants more students to perform proficiently, and that is the current requirement in Minnesota, then a much greater investment is going to be required for those students who would otherwise fall behind.

SF 422 is a really bad idea. Its more of the same from a legislature which has historically talked about eliminating unfunded mandates while actually doing the opposite.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Students Cost More to Educate than Others (2)

Yesterday, (click here for yesterday's post) I began a discussion of the reasons that some students cost more than others to educate. Some commenters responded by asserting that the extra cost should be the responsibility of parents, or that we shouldn't try to educate all students to a high level of proficiency. I've responded that leaving the additional responsibility to the private effort of parents is not the issue I'm exploring in this series.

The topic of this series is predicated on the mission that has been assigned to public schools today under existing law.
Public schools were assigned a different mission, back when I was in elementary and high school. The mission of public schools in those days was to offer classroom education to all students (well, most students, really) for a state mandated number of course hours, without state mandated results. That mission was radically changed with three major developments in the law of education. The first began in the Courts, with Brown vs. Board of Education, which required all States to provide equal opportunity to a free education and which ruled that equality of opportunity meant provision of that opportunity in the same public schools, not separate ones. Brown v. Board of Education, however did not mandate educational results. Nothing in Brown v. Board of Education forced local schools to educate all students to any particular level of proficiency or spend any particular amount of money on any student.

The second fundamental change was embodied in 1974 federal legislation, now embodied in IDEA, which requires every state and every school district to provide a Free and Appropriate Education for students with disabilities from ages 3 through age 21. Federal special education radically increased the cost of public education for a significant percentage of the school aged population and accounts today for roughly $1.7 billion in additional education expenditures per year in Minnesota alone, an obligation which is underfunded by about $500 million per year.

The third great change was embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. No Child Left Behind radically changed the obligation of public schools, from an opportunity based system -- in which public schools formerly were required to provided classroom learning opportunities, to an outcome based system, in which public schools are now required to educate all students to State mandated proficiency levels. These last two pieces of legislation, IDEA and NCLB, drastically changed the total cost of education in the United States, and moreover, introduced a new legal paradigm in public education that makes some children to be far more expensive to educate than others. I'm not arguing that NCLB is a bad thing: effectively implemented, these two laws likely will make a larger percentage of our population more productive, and reduce the number of adults in the future who lack sufficient skills to meet 21st century employment requirements. My point is that meeting these requirements increased dramatically the inflation adjusted overall cost of education, and required significantly higher expenditures for some students as compared to others.

I've been quoting the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation's 2006 Report, Fund the Child, because I find that skeptics are more willing to listen to the prestigious foundation which advocates a number of conservative reforms in education: "Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"
These three developments, Brown, IDEA and NCLB, encompassed a federal obligation to educate all children, regardless of race, creed, or disability to a high level of proficiency. If you are one of those people who thinks that we should go back to the 1940's when we educated just some of our nation's children, or to the 1960's, when we were obligated to offer educational opportunities, but not to assure proficiency, you are entitled to your opinion, but this series of posts is about the cost of educating children under currently existing law. Those of us who are elected to school boards are required to comply with today's law, and today's law gives us a mission that cannot be achieved without spending considerably more money than was spent back in the 1950's. Whenever I hear people rail against the fact that the cost of educating today's students is allegedly higher than the inflation adjusted cost of students back in the good old days, I have to say, you know what, you are right, for sure. But we've been tasked with a fundamentally different mission today. If you think that we can accomplish that expanded mission for the same inflation adjusted cost, then you are just plain fooling yourself. If you think that you can accomplish that objective by spending the same amount of money on all students, then you are mistaken.

I can't explore all of the reasons in one post. I want to mention today the impact of special education and the impact of the requirement that all students graduate to a high level of proficiency in mathematics.
The federal special education law accounts for a dramatic difference in cost per student. Roughly 125,000 students receive special education in Minnesota. The extra cost of special education for those students (excluding the regular education funding provided for those students) is about $1.7 billion or about $13,600 per student (plus regular education funding for those students). The average funding provided by the State and federal government combined for those 125,000 students is approximately $4,000 short for each student with disability here in Minnesota, on the average, but as I've explained on other occasions, that shortfall is unequally distributed from district to district. Some school districts are underfunded at a rate which is double that amount, and others considerably less.
Special education is just one example of why it costs more to educate some students than others. The failure to recognize and confront these additoinal costs is a measure of the level of denial that characterize the folks who claim to be educational policy experts and pundits.

No Child Behind mandated that school districts meet higher levels of standards each year through this decade, and into the next decade. In previous posts I've included the following chart that shows the different paths taken by Minnesota and Wisconsin, representing State committments to increase the level of student performancein math and reading. Let's look at the increasing level of expectations for mathematics alone here in Minnesota and for our neighoring state, Wisconsin. The score levels shown here are a measure of state required peformance levels, not of actual achievement levels experienced in either state.



How many of you genuinely believe that these two states could possibly acheive marked improvement in the percentage of students scoring at the state mandated algebra-II level of proficiency for the same cost, inflation adjusted? Come on now! Just by way of reminder, Minnesota's implementation of No Child Left Behind for mathematics not only demands that a significantly higher percentage of students perform at the proficient level in mathematics than ever before in history, it defines proficiency at significantly higher level than ever before. We are expecting students to perform proficiently at a second-year algebra level, when many of their parents were not even required to take or pass first year algebra. Trying to accomplish this at the same inflation adjusted price would be like trying to equip everyone with a private jet for the price of an automobile. If you are scoffing at that, just remember what algebra II consists of: factoring, elementary matrix algebra, solution of multiple linear equations, graphing of and solution of quadradic equtions, inequalities, probability, and a whole lot more.

I want to be clear. There is evidence that we can do a much better job of educating more children at a very high level of mathematics. Some of the necessary changes require new teaching methods. Some of them require more classroom time. Some require more teachers who have strong subject matter backgrounds in mathematics in the earlier grades. And some require more mentoring, more parental support, more individual attention for students who are falling behind. Some of the necessary changes don't require more expense, but some require significantly greater expense, and the special help required for some students make those students more costly to educate than other students. If the State wants more students to perform proficiently, and that is the current requirement in Minnesota, then a much greater investment is going to be required for those students who would otherwise fall behind.

Listen. The concepts required to attain proficiency in mathematics (by way of example) are like a pyramid of learning. The first layer of skills forms the foundation of the pyramid on which the rest of mathematics is built. If a student falls behind in the early grades, her mathematics understanding is built on a shaky foundation, and it becomes impossible to construct the rest of the pyramid. As a result, catching up in the later grades is virtually impossible without special help of some kind -- individualized instruction, mentoring, summer school, remedial instruction. When I was in school, our peers, many of them, fell behind and stayed behind. They explained that they hated math, or didn't plan to use it in the future, or lacked the aptitude. In high school, they took consumer math, or a repeat of junior high math, or just didn't take any high school math at all, to speak of. Many of our peers had the ability to do math, but somewhere along the way, they missed some of the critical foundational building blocks of mathematics, and it was just expected and understood that they were not going to be proficient at graduation. They were assigned to the non-proficient track, as it were. If you think that everybody was a superstar in math back in the golden days of your youth, you are living in never-never land. In Minnesota today, we expect everyone to graduate proficient in math, and we enforce those requirements by penalizing schools who fail to reach that objective. This requirement is one of the critical factors that cause some children to be more expensive than others to educate, and you can't wish that fact away with a magic wand.

I've mentioned two examples of why it costs more to educate some students than others in today's post, but there are many more examples and I'll discuss them in a future post.
Yesterday's Post: "Some Students Cost More to Educate ....Part I."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some Students Cost More to Educate than Others (1)

In the last year or so, as we confront a financial crisis in public education, it has become popular to attempt find an easy fix that will make our problems disappear as if by magic. From time to time I hear people advance the idea that we could solve our education finance troubles quite simply if we would suddenly declare that "all children cost the same to educate." This thesis has a simplistic appeal. All children are worth the same in the eyes of God and country, are they not? So why should we then spend more on some children than others, the thesis goes? This thesis is especially popular, of course, in localities that are receiving less state funding per student than others, because their schools enroll far fewer students deemed costly to educate. Wouldn't it be really simple, they argue, if we would simply move all of the "extra" funding that goes to the districts with students who have higher educational needs, and "equalize" it so everyone is treated the same. The result would be a significant increase in funding for the districts with less costly students, and wreak havoc on the others.

Now before you start writing your conservative-liberal driven comments on this topic, I want to point out that the thesis that some children are more expensive to educate than others is NOT a liberal or conservative idea. In fact, one of the most aggressive advocates for properly funding children based on true cost to educate is the conservative think-tank Thomas Fordham Institute, The Thomas Fordham Institute is a some-time proponent of vouchers and other conservative education reforms. One of the critical components of a voucher-based system, or any system that assures that all students can reach proficiency, the Institute argues, is that we must provide funds in accord with the educational needs of the children being served. Recognizing that different students need different levels of educational support is not a liberal idea, it is plain common sense.

In its 2006 Report, Fund the Child, the Institute argues: "Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"
The advocates for vouchers recognize, then, that in order for public schools to be effective, or in order for private and parochial systems to run effective voucher-based programs to educate the hard to educate, the State must provide greater funding for the students who cost the most.

As parents, we know that some of our children seem to thrive at school effortlessly, and some require tremendous extra assistance at school and at home. We put "Pat the Bunny" in front of one of our children, and almost as if by magic, it seems, they are reading at an early grade. But a second child, raised in the same home, by the same parents, with the very same level of dedication to learning, doesn't catch on until years later than the other. One child needs almost no encouragement from the teacher, the other desperately needs it. As parents, we don't say, "all of my children are equal, so I'm not going to give any more help to one of my children than the other." In fact, we know that when we love our children equally, it means that we give each the amount of help that they need to thrive. We discover as well, that often the children who needed extra help in school, nonetheless thrive and may later even equal or excel as compared to the sibling who seemed to thrive effortlessly in elementary school.

And if it is true that our children need different levels of help to thrive even though they are raised in the same home, it stands to reason with greater force that children raised in radically different environments, with very different obstacles to surmount, are going to need greater or lesser supervision, instruction and mentoring. The goal of proficiency for all students is not attainable if we refuse to recognize that some children cost more to educate than others.

That point is punctuated by the support for "funding the child" differently in accordance with cost to educate by the proponents of public voucher support. Private schools could not and would not accept the challenge of educating all children who come to them unless they received an elevated funding allocation for the children who cost the most to educate. We cannot expect public schools to do so either. Indeed, when we hear advocates from communities with very small populations of hard-to-educate children, they seldom advocate that they should get their share of the costly students along with the extra funding. Very few of these advocates would make that trade, because they know, in fact, that Minnesota's current funding system actually under-funds the hard-to-educate. They would not regard it as an acceptable solution to get the extra funding and the students who cost more along with it.

This is a complicated subject. If some students cost more to educate, how much more? How do we know that the extra money for costlier students is being used efficiently? How do we know that we are getting our money's worth? I'll try to discuss that in a future post.