School Finance 101 – A Breath of Oxygen in the K12 Toxic Environment

Sometimes it’s a delight to highlight the great work of others.  A blogger I’ve only recently discovered is Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University.  He is an expert on school finance, as one can deduce from his blog site, School Finance 101.  If you want to follow the economic pros and cons (and I think they are mostly cons) of the current school reform movement, Dr. Baker’s blog is a refreshing site to follow.  As soon as I spent some time reading his “Dumbest Stuff I’ve Ever Read!” blog category, (find it by scrolling down to the category menu on page right) I subscribed to the RSS feed.

Dr. Baker takes a dim view of the misuse of data by ‘reformy’ folks across the spectrum of public school critics.  In his own words from the blog site, Dr. Baker explains his motivation for his work: “The purpose of this blog is relatively narrow for the time being. When school finance    topics do make the headlines, there are often many “facts” and “figures” and arguments tossed about, usually to make one point or another. Public School Spending is out of control! Administrator salaries are exorbitant! Or, that liberal judge simply made up the facts to come to his predetermined liberal conclusion!

In this blog, I intend to share the best version of the “facts behind the headlines” that I am able to pull together in a reasonable amount of time, with sufficient citation so that you can check it out for yourself.”

Baker pulls no punches in highlighting the shoddy and distorted reasoning that is promoted to justify some of the current proposed educational reforms.  He takes on some of the key figures and organizations in the reform movement and shows where their reasoning fails a reality test.  And he accomplishes this shredding in an entertainingly clever fashion, in many cases.  It’s witty and sarcastic, especially if you agree with his interpretations, as I do.

In the “Dumbest Stuff I’ve Ever Read!” category, he offers some outstanding examples of the use/abuse of data.  What tops his list is a graph with fabricated data which was use by a Gates Foundation ‘expert’ to promote spending on tech-based learning technology which was presented to the New York Board of Regents, and then reshown by the New York Commissioner of Education to school superintendents.  The data is nonsense, and is a worst case illustration of the bizarre arguments financed and pushed by business interests that want to commoditize education and capture the billions spent every year in public schools.

If you value responsible use of data and want to get a responsible take on the fiscal implications (and motivations) of the reformers, subscribe to this blog today.






Is School Reform Failing?

We are inundated every day with pundits talking about how our school reforms will improve our results, yet after years of more and more testing and more and more accountability based on public reporting or test scores, our schools appear to remain problematic. Two recent articles exemplify the ideas of researchers who offer insights on changing the direction of the reform movement.

David Berliner, in “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth,” provides a strong argument that economic inequality and poverty are the issues that must be addressed to see any wide-spread improvement in student achievement.  Go to, look under Articles, and search for Berliner to find an executive summary.

His content derives from his own and other research on how socio-economic issues are the driving forces that work against student achievement. He provides analysis of American student test scores broken out by levels of poverty in schools, and makes a clear case showing that our scores, when comparing like levels of student poverty, rise to the top, or very near the top on the international tests that are regularly used to claim our schools are failing. He makes it clear that our social support systems have failed, and our international competitors have done a far better job of providing supports to families and children in need. So, our schools are not failing upper and middle class students, but our society is failing lower-income families and schools.

What I find encouraging in his work (and he has a long history of debunking the critics of American education, which you might want to examine separately) is his willingness to identify sloppy reasoning and utter nonsense found in the media and in the arguments of reformers with political agendas. He recognizes there are examples of “occasional” (the emphasis is Berliner’s) success stories from individual schools and families who are successful and rise from poverty, or the “occasional” teacher who breaks through with low-income children, but he points out that these are exceptions, not the norms. Americans want to believe in this idealized version of the American Dream, but as policy, it simply doesn’t work. He point out that while we have long-living overweight smokers, no one seriously suggests building public health policy by examining these exceptions—these exceptions don’t drive public health policy, except in education, where reformers hold on to the unrealistic notion that finding only exceptional teachers for low performing schools will render poverty irrelevant, and testing to find great teachers will cure educational ills.

Taking a different, more traditional view on reform, David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkley, wrote “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools” on February 10, 2013, in the New York Times. Kirp talks about the “striking achievement” of Union City, N.J. schools, an urban district that has done school reform successfully. They enroll almost every 3 and 4 year old in prekindergarten, work on character, focus on the individual needs of children, “figuring out what’s best for each child, rather than batch-processing them.” Strong principals encourage teachers to raise expectations, and teachers have responded. In Kirp’s words, “What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing ‘underperforming’ schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.”

They started transforming their schools years ago when poor performance threatened them with a state take-over. The district designed an evidence based curriculum where “learning by doing replaced learning by rote.” Teachers were encouraged to work together and coaching and mentoring supported staff who struggled. Principals became education leaders.

Now folks from all over are visiting to see what Union City has done. Frankly, the research on what works in education has been rather clear for many years–Union City simply read it and implemented it in their school improvement work. So, here’s an interesting example of a school district that is one of the “occasional” examples of success that Berliner talks about.

Where do these two articles overlap? While at first they seem to reflect opposite approaches, I find them more complementary than not. These researches are not in the testing to find and fire weak teachers camp. They both want to see schools address root causes of academic failure with responsible strategies–Union City brings in high expectations, parent involvement, support for weak teachers, and a cultural shift that reflects a long-term strategy of continuous improvement. They both reject the current direction of school reformers who want to reinvent education with unproved quick fixes.

Kirp’s recent book is Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, a more detailed look at the Union City Schools and what they represent as a legitimate model for school reform. Google him –his vitae lists lots of articles he’s written–many for Huffington Post–on education policy issues.

Race to the Top – A “Race … in the Right Direction?”

New York schools, despite having one of the largest percentages of students in poverty, consistently rate highly in Quality Counts, from Education Week.  The state was a second round winner of $700 million in Race to the Top funds from the Feds, and aggressively rammed new legislation through the state legislature to qualify.  The unintended consequences are now being felt by those responsible for implementation.  Teacher morale is down, the costs of implementation are proving to be unfunded mandates several times greater than what was gained from ‘winning’ the Race, and a tax cap pushed through by the Governor is wiping out district capacity to raise taxes even where the public would be willing to pay more to maintain quality schools.  Moreover, many are estimating that 40% of New York districts face bankruptcy in the next few years.

Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, the Superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Rockland County, NY, contributed a wonderful analysis of the unintended consequences of Race to the Top in New York, published by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  Open ‘Discussion Brief 8’ from this link to read the full article.  With the cooperation of 18 school districts in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam Counties, the three counties bordering New York City to the North, Dr. Mitchell produced an eye-opening analysis of the impact of RTTT in this relatively wealthy region.  These three counties are among the richest in New York–and the 18 districts are representative of the range of wealth found in the 60 districts in the region, though, I think, they would average somewhat above the mean in community wealth because some of the larger and lower income districts did not contribute data to the study.

Financially, Dr. Mitchell reports that the four year return to the 18 districts from RTTT funds will be $520,415, while the expense to districts is estimated to be $6,472,166, for a deficit of $5,951,751, an unfunded mandate of nearly $400 per pupil, to be funded by local taxpayers.  And because of the tax cap, which now requires a 60% super majority to pass a budget above the 2% cap, very few districts will be able to fund the mandates without substantial cuts in programs somewhere.  The cost of implementing the state’s new Annual Professional Performance Review – APPR  (teacher and principal evaluation) by itself represents a 3% increase in local costs to pay for the testing and evaluation training required for implementation without considering the costs of redesigning instruction to move to the Common Core curriculum, which requires new texts, instructional materials, shifts of content from grade to grade, and additional teacher professional development for implementation.

The effects, as gleaned from the 18 districts responses to the program, are disturbing.  Despite Race to the Top’s promotion as a school improvement program, districts will see staff cuts and larger class sizes, and non-mandated programs will be cut.  Districts are cutting maintenance despite this being a wonderful opportunity to get cost effective pricing during an otherwise slow economy.  Priorities are shifting away from instructional services that districts have developed over years of successful local control in order to fund the external mandates.  Internal professional development and staff to provide it is being cut, and training is focusing on teacher evaluation requirements, not on classroom instruction. Some districts will be required to hire additional supervisory staff to complete the evaluation mandates, which require more time than existing programs.  Curriculum is narrowing as districts prepare for extensive testing that will be used for teacher accountability.  And finally, quoting directly from the brief, “..the hidden costs may be greater than the outlay in dollars.  Teachers and administrators, stressed by the rapid change, the demand for accountability via the new testing and observation requirements, and anxieties about receiving low scores, are very likely to abandon initiatives that may be innovative and beneficial for preparing the next generation, but are out of alignment with a narrowed professional agenda for staying within the ‘Effective” range on the APPR.”

Dr. Mitchell proposes some reasonable shifts that New York politicians could make to back off and redirect this initiative.  He also identifies several sophisticated research groups that question the use of tests for teacher evaluation as Race to the Top demanded, and question the massive national shift to the Common Core curriculum.  Both these shifts are untested and lack a research base to justify the depth of the changes.  And since the changes were imposed by the legislature in New York, and by legislatures racing to get Federal funds across the nation during the economic slow-down, the changes are out of the hands of state education departments even if those leaders were inclined to back off in the first place.  Since they were generally the designers of the system, they are unlikely to be responsive–it’s full steam ahead, into the chaos that will ensure.

Download the article pdf at the link above, and see the research citations in the “Works Cited” link as well.