Funding & Finance

New data will reveal which schools are winners — and losers — in the school funding fight

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

This story was originally published in the Educated Reporter, a blog from the Education Writers Association. It is a report from the National Seminar of the Education Writers Association.

There are few debates in education as fraught or as important as the fight over how much money to spend on schools — and where to spend it.

Whether a school has the cash to pay for such things as smaller class sizes, extra mental health staff or music instruction depends on decisions made by elected officials at every level of government, from the U.S. House and Senate to local school boards.

Most experts agree that it takes more money to educate students in poverty — including kids who may grapple with trauma in their homes or communities and need more support when they are in school. But in many places across the country, schools that primarily serve low-income families are actually getting less money than schools with more affluent populations.

‘The Promise of Equality’

“How can we fulfill the promise of equality of opportunity in an environment where we know that the students who need the most are getting the least?” said former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who spoke earlier this month at the National Seminar of the Education Writers Association. “They get less access to resources. They get less access to advanced coursework. They get less access to well-prepared, well-supported teachers.”

But is it a matter of providing resources or requiring accountability and competition? Lawyer Rocco Testani suggested that costly lawsuits don’t solve equity problems but holding school districts accountable and providing competition does.

He compared Florida, which hasn’t substantially increased its school funding, to New York, which has. Testani argues that Florida’s low-cost accountability provisions, as well as strong choice options, led to stronger improvements on the National Assessment for Educational Progress than New York’s.

Funding inequities are evident at the federal level. The largest K-12 funding stream at the U.S. Department of Education is Title I, which is designed to help schools and districts that serve high numbers of poor students. But the formula the government uses to distribute the money does not necessarily send it to the highest need districts, said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University. In fact, affluent districts can rake in federal dollars.

That’s because Title I, funded at more than $15 billion for fiscal 2017, has more than one goal, she said. In addition to redistributing money to poor schools, it is also one of the few tools the federal government has to pressure local districts to change their policies. As a result, almost every district gets some money from Title I. (In addition, the wide distribution of Title I, which reaches virtually every congressional district, has helped to ensure political support.)

Using Title I Aid as a Carrot

“If the federal government wants to get states to do stuff, it needs to have a carrot,” Gordon said. “Title I is that carrot.”

Within states, districts that serve the highest income areas have long had better financed schools because education is often paid in part through local property taxes and wealthy municipalities have higher property values. But over the last several decades, a movement to make school funding more logical and equitable has slowly swept the country.

Beginning with a 1989 Kentucky court case, many states have been changing their funding formulas to send more money to low-income districts, said Diane Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern University professor and the director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. Since then, spending across the country has increased dramatically.

That policy change has allowed researchers to study a perennial question in education: Whether increasing funding improves schools. In a recent study, Schanzenbach and her colleagues looked at how that infusion of money impacted test scores. They found that when states spent more on schools in low-income districts, the gap in test scores between high- and low-income districts closed.

While many states have changed their funding models to direct more money to poor school districts, there are still gaps in funding within districts, Schanzenbach said. “The bad news is that we found this policy also has pretty limited reach.”

She added, “Although this closes the gaps in funding and test scores between rich and poor districts, it does not do a good job of doing the same across rich and poor students.”

Schanzenbach noted that some districts that serve large numbers of low-income families still may have some schools with a lot of middle class and more affluent families. And money may not flow equally to all of those schools.

The policy of changing state funding formulas “seems to be too blunt to actually get more resources to low-income kids,” Schanzenbach said.

Local funding decisions made at the school board level can lead schools with affluent, politically savvy families to get more money than neighboring schools that serve more low-income families and students of color.

“If you are spending more on one school in a district, you are spending less on another,” said Marguerite Roza of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

The ‘Motherload’ of New Data

But in many states and communities, information on how much each school receives isn’t publicly available, said Roza. Sometimes schools serving a lot of low-income families get less money. Sometimes they get more. And sometimes there is little rhyme or reason to funding patterns that have developed over years. But Roza added, parents and community members don’t know how the pie is divided because spending decisions often are not transparent or public.

That’s about to change, said Roza. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act) requires districts to report spending by school. That data should start to become available in 2019, she said. Once each school’s budget becomes public, families might put more pressure on districts to give their school its fair share.

“This is the motherload of new financial data,” said Roza. “It will change everything.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”