In Sunday’s ProJo, education columnist Julia Steiny explained how Rhode Island has attempted to use a theory of “equity” education funding. In this model, money from higher income districts goes to the poorer districts in the hope that the academic levels of poor students would improve to that of the better-off kids in rich and middle-class districts. However, this hasn’t seemed to work so a new theory–adequacy–is being studied.
Rhode Island, along with many other states is now commissioning an “adequacy study” [link to a word document] to get a handle on how much money it would take — minimally — to get most kids to proficiency. Rhode Island’s proposal defines it as “the amount of per pupil funding necessary to support an effective and efficient educational system.”
Like Steiny–who wrote, “I confess the word ‘adequacy’ gives me the chills, because it does not sound like it includes music or art, nor any shred of creativity.”–I’m a bit skeptical about what will be deemed “adequate,” too. Nonetheless, the goals of the study are worthwhile:
State Rep. and adequacy-study committee co-chairwoman Edith Ajello says. . . says that the committee’s charge is to identify the “lowest cost option” for educating each kid henceforth, without regard to how the money has been spent so far.
Commendably, they are studying how to exploit some obvious economies of scale of which this tiny state rarely avails itself, such as redesigning 36 different healthcare and transportation contracts and systems to be on a statewide basis. (Finally!)
But, Steiny points out some holes in their approach:
But not to examine how the money’s been spent so far is . . . well, insane, because ignoring Rhode Island’s gritty, stubborn and sometimes perverse psychology ignores the significant obstacles to change. Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it.
Two little examples of hundreds demonstrate how a lack of curiosity can make both adequacy and equity virtually impossible.
First, the bite taken out of the per pupil expenditure for contributions to the teachers pension fund is pretty much the same district by district. But some districts added yet more benefits on top of these already-generous pensions. The 2005 Information Works! chart called “out-of-district expenditures” shows that Newport spent about $900 per pupil giving their retirees healthcare benefits for life. But 9 districts out of Rhode Island’s 36 give no such benefit at all, and so spend zero dollars per pupil on retiree healthcare.
When the state comes up with an adequacy formula, how will they handle this discrepancy? Will the taxpayer be asked to raise the extra $900 per pupil so Newport can meet its obligation? Or will they allow the Newport child to do with $900 less in order to pay for the contractual obligations? (To my knowledge, Newport, Jamestown and Bristol-Warren have ended that extra benefit, but will still be paying for eligible retirees until they are gone.)
Okay, here’s a different kind of example. A few forward-thinking districts and all of the charter schools have very professional rules governing hiring and evaluation of personnel. Others are stuck with completely inflexible seniority systems. The salary for a teacher who was picked for the job, shines in evaluations and gives really good service is roughly the same as for the klunker whose contract protects him or her from accountability. The money is the same, but the value is not. What’s “adequate?”
A definition of “adequacy” will be critically useful as a standard or a baseline against which we can measure and understand each district’s per pupil expenditure. But those devilish details will demand attention either up front in the study itself or later on when the state tries to apply the new standard of adequacy.
Our 36 regular school districts have gotten themselves saddled with many years’ accumulation of contract, policy and past-practice constraints on how they spend their money. The regular districts’ per pupil expenditure has long been spent to meet contractual inflexibilities, step increases, across-the-board raises, increases in healthcare, fuel costs and so forth. Almost never do they have the fiscal flexibility to adjust their academic priorities or programs.
So even if you had a formula, money would still flow to the kids through the district filters at very different rates, unless you start cleaning out those filters as well.
The perfect per pupil expenditure is the number that everyone agrees will get the job done, in most every case. Good luck finding that number.
But unless we look for it aggressively, passionately, the price of education will continue to climb while improving the lot of the kids will not.