Are John Kasich and his devotees the first people you think of when we say “financial wizards?”  What about when we say “educational reformers?” Still no?  Well they would vehemently disagree with you while taking extreme measures to try to make their point, Ohio’s future be damned.  This is our 4th post in a series in which we are dissecting the new school ranking system imposed by the Ohio GOP as a part of this year’s budget bill.  You can find our first three entries at the following links:

  1. Kasich’s school rankings exemplify ignorance about K-12 education
  2. Kasich’s unfeasible school ranking system (Part 2)
  3. Kasich’s unworkable school ranking system (Part 3)

In today’s post we will discuss the sheer stupidity of items #4 and #5 in the list of ranking criteria – it’s all about the money.

Again, the six criteria that were adopted in the final bill as follows [bold added for emphasis]:

  1. Performance index score for each school district, community school, and STEM school and for each separate building of a district, community school, or STEM school. For districts, schools, or buildings to which the performance index score does not apply, the superintendent of public instruction shall develop another measure of student academic performance and use that measure to include those buildings in the ranking so that all districts, schools, and buildings may be reliably compared to each other.
  2. Student performance growth from year to year, using the value-added progress dimension, if applicable, and other measures of student performance growth designated by the superintendent of public instruction for subjects and grades not covered by the value-added progress dimension;
  3. Performance measures required for career-technical education under 20 U.S.C. 2323, if applicable. If a school district is a “VEPD” or “lead district” as those terms are defined in section 3317.023 of the Revised Code, the district’s ranking shall be based on the performance of career-technical students from that district and all other districts served by that district, and such fact, including the identity of the other districts served by that district, shall be noted on the report required by division (B) of this section.
  4. Current operating expenditures per pupil;
  5. Of total current operating expenditures, percentage spent for classroom instruction as determined under standards adopted by the state board of education;
  6. Performance of, and opportunities provided to, students identified as gifted using value-added progress dimensions, if applicable, and other relevant measures as designated by the superintendent of public instruction.

The department shall rank each district, community school, and STEM school annually in accordance with the system developed under this section.

#4 – Current operating expenditures per pupil.  Similar to the Performance Index Score, this is a relatively easy value to calculate for all of the 1,002 school districts in the ranking system since it is all based on public dollars.  An initial problem with this item isn’t a lack of figures, but we almost have too much data in this category with regards to the origins of the funding provided to schools.  But Kasich doesn’t require that we consider the funding sources, only that we identify and rank per pupil expenditures.  To ignore the flip side of this criterion is to ignore school funding, where we have local, state, and federal sources, vouchers, charter funding procedures, the Race to the Top federal grant, an unconstitutional state funding system, differentiated funding based on special education factors, and a new state funding model that cut $764 million much from schools.  This concept is tantamount to Kasich stating that he doesn’t really care where Bernie Madoff got the money, he wants to focus solely on how Madoff actually spent it.

Setting the unforgivable oversight in the importance of funding source aside for a moment, we must also beg the question of exactly how we are to rank districts in this category.  With the student performance criteria, it is fairly easy to assume that higher student performance receives a higher ranking.  In education, where the premise is to educate children, the better the children perform on tests, the better we assume the district is performing.  With district spending, however, we are left to question which is better – a school that spends more on its students or a school that spends less?  This seems to enter into a deeper philosophical and political arena that no longer is intent on judging the quality of the educational outcomes of the school district.

If we isolate this item and rank schools based on per pupil operating expenditures, which district is ranked at the top and which at the bottom?  In either case, how are we able to judge the effectiveness of a school district by merely looking at its spending?  A multitude of interrelated and increasingly complex factors, beginning with something as simple as the cost of living in the area, combine to form the total cost of educating the children, and yet these financial figures tell us nothing about the quality of education being delivered.  Neither a high amount nor a low amount of operating expenditures informs us about the educational quality of the district.

When we legitimately reintroduce the fact that there are various funding sources that comprise each district’s unique pool of funds, the discussion of how to rank the districts becomes even murkier, with both public school districts and charter schools suffering from the inequities.

Two examples:

Autism Model School: $37,007 per pupil

This K-12 charter school in Lucas County reported one of the highest per pupil operating expenditures in Ohio.  The cost alone appears exorbitant when compared with the statewide average of approximately $10,000.  Add in the fact that this is a charter school that is operating primarily on state funds and we could justify ranking this school at the bottom of our list.  Looking at those purely economic indicators would ignore the following facts from the school’s website: “The Autism Model School accepts students with a medical diagnosis of autism ages 5 to 22 years old, who are citizens of Ohio. The school is ungraded and groups students according to their abilities.”  Because of their intense instructional needs, schools serving children diagnosed with autism receive a dramatically increased amount in state funding.  A school that solely focuses on serving these children would be receiving state funds significantly greater than a “typical” school and should therefore also be spending an amount that might appear excessive, but is actually necessary to staff a program to best serve these children.

 

Upper Arlington City Schools: $15,172
Cleveland Municipal Schools: $15,072

While these two school districts might seem to have little in common, a ranking system that includes per pupil expenditures will place them only two steps away.  Aside from stark differences in student achievement, the incomparable differences in funding demonstrate the fallacy in utilizing this ranking criterion.  Upper Arlington has the 11th highest average income of any school district in Ohio (2009 federal AGI).  Combined with other factors, ODE reports that Upper Arlington actually realizes a net loss in state funding (-$304,790.98).  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cleveland Municipal has the 601st average income in the state of Ohio, and so qualifies for one of the highest per pupil funding amounts of any school district – just over $7,200 per pupil.  There is also large difference in the percentage of students identified with disabilities, with Cleveland subsequently receiving additional funding to serve this high-needs student population.  In the end, Governor Kasich’s directive to rank districts based on spending would render these differences moot.  Kasich doesn’t care that Upper Arlington supports its schools by contributing over 75% of the districts revenue while Cleveland’s income base contributes less than 25% of school funding. Kasich doesn’t care that Cleveland suffers from high-poverty and high disability, two major factors that require additional resources from outside of the district while Upper Arlington is blessed with wealth and health and, essentially, doesn’t need the state meddling in the affairs of its school district – they’re doing quite fine, thank you very much.  But in the end, these two districts will receive nearly the same ranking on this item from Kasich’s system.

So the question remains, will they receive a high ranking or a low ranking?  What was Kasich’s intent?  He may not have explicitly detailed it in the ranking, but we can easily deduce his intent from his interviews over this past year:

In March shortly after introducing his budget, Kasich began talking school spending:

While Governor John Kasich’s budget proposal for FY 12-13 calls for a 16.4 percent cut in support for Ohio school districts over the next two years, the budget plan offers some opportunity and direction for school districts to do more with less in providing education going forward, according to a statement from Ohio Education Matters released today.

The Kasich budget proposal contains elements of proposals offered by Ohio Education Matters this year as ways for the state to help local schools and districts to save money.

Kasich’s education adviser, Robert Sommers, presented them Tuesday night at the governor’s Town Hall meeting in Columbus and referenced research from Ohio Education Matters to indicate that he thought an opportunity existed for additional savings on the local level.

The Kasich budget provides 11.5 percent less in support for K-12 education in FY 12 and another 4.9 percent less in FY13 to help the state close an $8 billion budget shortfall for the two years. But the governor said he felt that schools and districts could handle the smaller amount of support by being more efficient. “They need to become much more efficient,” Kasich said of all local governments Tuesday.

We also posted about Kasich’s school funding views in Kasich releases school funding data…this time showing his budget doesn’t match his rhetoric
In April, we shared information from WOSU where Kasich was urging voters to “reject proposals to raise local taxes” and “pressuring schools to operate with less money.”

Lastly, the Governor and his advisers have repeatedly cited the aforementioned Ohio Education Matters report as their guidebook for reforming school funding in Ohio.  The report makes the following statements:

Ohio could save $1.368 billion annually in state and local dollars for non-instructional spending, for a savings of about 20% across all spending categories. That is an average potential savings of about $786 per pupil.

The goal of this benchmarking study is to spread best practices and ways to strategically cut costs to districts across Ohio…

We’re not against fiscal responsibility by public entities, we simply believe that these statements make it absolutely clear that the Governor intended for his ranking system to reward those school districts that spend less money on their children, regardless of the source of the financing.  Kasich has been consistent in his belief that spending more money to fund Ohio’s school children is not something he supports.  Combining his massive budget cuts, his anti-levy comments, and his favored report that pushes greater reductions in funding leads us to conclude that Governor Kasich values the districts that have the lowest per pupil expenditures.

Therefore, in our final rankings we ranked districts in inverse proportion to their per pupil expenditures, thereby punishing wealthy school districts that may have chosen to increase local funding through the process of elections on the part of the local residents.  Shame on them for attempting to offer their children more than Kasich deems worthy.

As a side note, Kasich & Friends opted to cherry-pick the Ohio Education Matters report to suit their needs, focusing solely on the discussion of cost-cutting measures.  Had they chosen to read the entire report (yes, ALL 40 pages) then they would also find these limitations:

The state, as it contemplates reducing state aid for public education, has a role and responsibility to help school districts reduce spending without hurting student achievement. Working with education stakeholders, state leaders should have as a primary goal sharing best practices in these areas to help others succeed at a lower cost.

Also, this study does not necessarily show that spending a set amount will result in achieving certain quality indicators. While the benchmark districts have been able to meet the quality indicators and spend less than others, their reasons for success might not always be apparent or even discoverable.

Finally, this study did not have a reasonable way to adjust for possible variations in cost across the state.

 

#5 – Percentage of total current operating expenditures spent for classroom instruction.  This measure is in many ways similar to the previous funding item, but requires a few clarifications about both our methodology and Kasich’s intended ranking structure.

In Ohio, school expenditures are presently broken down into five categories as described below:

Instructional: The cornerstones of education are teaching and learning, which generally occur in the building classroom. This function often includes teachers, teacher aides, or paraprofessionals, as well as materials, computers, books and other consumable materials that are used with students in the classroom setting.

Building Support: Facilities and operations support includes facilities and operations at the building and central office levels. Lunchroom operation is also included.

Administration: This category of expense denotes the functions of the building principal’s office costs incurred as the principal’s office sets the goals and directions and makes key decisions for the building.  Also included are central office costs incurred for the Board of Education, Superintendent’s Office, Fiscal Services, Business Manager, and Support Services. These costs do not deal directly with the education of the students and encompass planning, research, information services, staff services, and data processing expenditures.

Pupil Support: Students need support outside the classroom and beyond their academic instruction. They need guidance counseling, help in the media center or library, college advising, field trips, and psychological testing. Pupil support may be operated out of the district office, though these functions must ultimately serve the child in the building.

Staff Support: The adult employees in the district need support, staff development, training, retraining, additional college courses, and advice. Teacher support may be handled in the Central Office, where planning for staff development activities goes on, or it may occur in the building, where direct support for teachers and other staff is primarily handled.

For our rankings, we have decided to include Instructional expenditures, the most obvious, but also all costs related to Pupil Support.  While this latter category may include a variety of non-classroom expenses, the last sentence in the definition that states that “these functions must ultimately serve the child” was enough to convince us that it fits the “spirit” of ranking criterion #5.  In the future, it is likely that the Ohio Department of Education may require expenditures to be further defined in order to more accurately fulfill Kasich’s mandate, a process that would ironically require additional administrative expenses by both ODE and school districts.

Again, the identification of the costs appears to be somewhat easy at first glance, so we must now determine Kasich’s intent for the ranking – is a high percentage of classroom expenditures what he deems desirable?  Absolutely.  We have much evidence to support Kasich’s stated desire to increase the percentage of dollars spent “in the classroom.”

The Governor was on this train even prior to being elected:

“Ohio ranks 46th in the country in putting dollars in the classroom,” Kasich said the day after the election, disdain in his voice as he drew on a familiar campaign stomping point. He was citing a ranking noted in a 2010 report from the Greater Ohio Policy Center and Brookings Institution.

(11/3/2010, The Plain Dealer)

He continued to hammer home his point in his State of the State Address:

“More choice, more accountability, more dollars in the classroom instead of bureaucracy will improve our schools.”

Long on rhetoric and short on solutions, Kasich continued to repeat himself on Fox News on April 4:

Kasich has repeated these exact phrases on multiple occasions, and has even been declared Mostly True by the Plain Dealer’s Politifact Ohio website on two different variations, so the accuracy of the figures isn’t up for much debate either.

Again, it seems very clear to us that Kasich’s intent is that those districts that report the higher percentage of expenditures on classroom instruction should receive the more favorable ranking.  We have obliged by doing so in our final set of rankings, even though that means that 17 charter schools report spending 100% of their dollars exclusively in the classroom while another 25 claim to have spent 0% of their money on classroom expenditures.  Who are we to question the informed opinions of our esteemed Governor and the GOP legislators?  Surely these numbers reported by the Governor’s charter school friends, especially those 11 schools sponsored by White Hat Management spending 0% in the classroom, must be correct, right?

Meanwhile, some major components are missing from Kasich’s use of funding as criteria for judging school effectiveness.  First, he offers no semblance of proof that his ranking system will have a positive impact on the education of students, something that we usually find to be driving force behind education reform.  Secondly, nothing that Kasich or the legislature has put forth can certify that the dollar amounts actually have a direct correlation to the success of the school district.  And we’re not the only ones to question Kasich’s apparent ignorance in this arena.  In May, the Dayton Daily News wrote about their experiences when they researched this aspect of district expenditures.

A district-by-district comparison of school spending shows low administration costs — and even high classroom spending — don’t necessarily translate to better academic performance.
“Just because a district spends less on administration doesn’t mean they are being efficient in the way they spend their money,” said Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association.  Small rural and large urban districts with high poverty tend to have a lot of overhead while suburban districts can keep administrative costs low through “economies of scale,” he said. And, Hull pointed out, administrators also have different roles and do different things depending on the district.
But [Dayton Public Schools Treasurer Stan] Lucas said some districts may pay bigger teacher salaries, which would be reflected in the totals for classroom instruction.
Since the state data on spending was released as part of the school report card in August, Trotwood-Madison officials have been combing through the data to see how each job and expenditure should be coded — even deciding whether the disinfectant used to wash down desks should be classified as a classroom expense instead of maintenance. Some districts, she said, pay a lot of attention to how expenses are coded.  “I think our data will look very different on this year’s report card,” she said.

So it appears that Governor John Kasich, a master at implementing laws of unintended consequences, has struck again.  By working in an arena that he knows nothing about (again), Kasich isn’t promoting a system education funding reform that is thoughtful about its effect on the children, but instead appears to be promoting a process of re-calculating the numbers to simply make us look better.  By actually judging schools on the way they code their expenditures, he is promoting a reform effort that merely changes the way Ohio school districts code their expenses.

Any way we look at these financial ranking criteria and Kasich’s stated perspective, we cannot reconcile his speech and his actions.  Instead of following the advice of the Ohio Education Matters report and exploring thoughtful ways to cut spending by trying to using model districts, Kasich made devastating cuts to districts and has told them to deal with it.  And while he promotes districts increasing spending in classrooms, he has created more bureaucratic policies  (teacher testing, anyone?) that require an increase in administrative spending by both the Ohio Department of Education and local school districts.

And finally, instead of driving the improvement of student learning across Ohio, Statehouse Republicans are engaging in an elaborate shell game that they are ignorantly attempting to masquerade as educational reform.

Now THAT is something they are experts in – deception.

 

 

 

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