Voting NO for [Faux] Reform. Money Won’t Fix Our Education System.

Now that we are a little over a week beyond the defeat of Amendment 66 in Colorado, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. Surprisingly to some—most notably those who have not read my blog carefully—I voted against Amendment 66. This may seem odd because yes, I am an advocate for education reform and staunchly support equitable learning opportunities. But what I am not is someone who believes money will fix our broken education system. Do not get me wrong, many public schools are sorely lacking in financial resources; however, money is a band aid for systemic inequalities. I am more interested in addressing housing segregation, teacher preparation, standardization, music/art/PE in school, and academic rigor. These, more than anything, are what I believe will affect sustainable change.

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For those who do not live in Colorado, let me overview Amendment 66:

“Had it been approved, Amendment 66 would have increased the state’s income tax to raise the amount of state tax revenue spent on public school districts by about 16.6%, from $5.5 billion under the current law, to a little over $6.4 billion. Once the increases for charter school funding were added, this would have amounted to a $950 million increase.[2] Amendment 66 would also have allowed for the implementation of the new Public School Finance Act Senate Bill 213. The new tax and education funding formulas found in SB 13-213 would have gone into effect in the 2015-16 fiscal year. At the time of the November 2013 vote the statewide per-pupil funding was $6,652 and was projected to rise to $7,426 under SB 13-213.[3][4][5] The organization “Colorado Commits to Kids” sponsored the initiative.[6]

Colorado’s current personal income tax rate is a flat 4.63%.[7] Amendment 66 would have imposed a graduated income tax with rate increases according to the following income criteria:[8]

  • Any taxable income of up to $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5%.
  • Any taxable income surpassing $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5.9%.

The proposed increases represented an 8% increase in income tax on those making less than $75,000 per year and a 26.6% increase in income tax on any taxable income over $75,000 per year.”

Colorado Commits to Kids campaigned that Amendment 66 would have allowed for the following:

  • Schools can hire thousands of new teachers to reduce class sizes
  • Teachers can provide students with the one-on-one time they need
  • Taxpayers will have confidence that new money is used only for education reforms or enhancements to existing programs
  • Districts will have more flexibility to restore funding for art and music classes, sports programs and transportation

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Now, this all looks great to someone who is not engaged with social and political issues in education. My biggest concerns here are twofold: first, who is tracking the spending of this money? What guarantees do we have that these funds would go toward hiring more qualified (notice that this word is absent from campaign promises) teachers and implementing art programs? There is no guarantee. This piece of legislation merely provides local government boards with the option to spend the money as they see fit. Second, where is the evidence that more money directly contributes to higher achievement?

Allow me to answer: there is none.

What we have is evidence that money spent in ways that would benefit student learning results in higher achievement. Given the unique needs of individual students, communities and schools, there is far too much trust in our local government to a) know what students in their district need to achieve and b) to actually spend the money accordingly.  If you’ve never researched your local school board members I encourage you to do so now. You will find that very few of them have any experience in education from a practitioner’s perspective or a policy perspective. Most school board members are parents, retirees, or people looking to boost their community reputation to increase the customer base for their primary occupation. These people are not trained to investigate issues of education reform, to read educational data, nor to create educational policies. Yet, this Amendment would’ve increased their power to do so.

Decades of educational data tell us there are dozens of mediators between money and academic achievement. Here are a few:

  • food programs
  • healthcare in schools
  • extracurriculars
  • qualified teachers
  • more rigorous course offerings (e.g., AP and IB courses)
  • new school buildings
  • up to date textbooks
  • transportation to and from school
  • more diverse course offerings

Can money help implement all of those? Absolutely. Then why hasn’t it? (See above statement about unqualified and under-informed people making decisions about educational spending) Race to the Top is an excellent example of how throwing money at schools will not affect reform. I thoroughly discuss this in a previous post, so let’s look at some other evidence.

I want to look at the correlation between per pupil expenditure (since this was 66’s primary point—Colorado is under-spending per pupil) and district performance. The top spenders in 2011 were New York ($19,076), the District of Columbia ($18,475), Alaska ($16,674), New Jersey ($15,968) and Vermont ($15,925).

If we look at it by enrollment, New York City School District in New York ($19,770) had the highest current spending per student in 2011, followed by Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts ($19,181), Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland ($15,483), Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland ($15,421), and Howard County Schools in Maryland ($15,139).

Using 2011 data from the Dept of Education, we can see that across math, reading, science and writing, those high spenders have between 8%-58% of their students performing at or above proficiency levels. Here is the state by state breakdown:

New York: 29%-36%; DC: 8%-22%; Alaska: 26%-37%; New Jersey: 34%-51%; Vermont: 41%-49%; Massachusetts: 44%-58%; Maryland: 32%-48%

Conversely, states spending the least per student in 2011 were Mississippi ($7,928), Arizona ($7,666), Oklahoma ($7,587), Idaho ($6,824) and Utah ($6,212). The percent of students performing at or above proficiency in 2011 was as follows:

Mississippi: 19%-25%; Arizona: 23%-34%; Oklahoma: 26%-33%; Idaho: 33%-39%; Utah: 33%-43

Now, without comparing mean test scores, I would hazard a guess that the performance of New York, DC and Alaska is not significantly different from the performance of the low-spending states. The remaining four high spenders are probably doing statistically significantly better but with that many students taking a test, it won’t take much to meet statistical significance. That said, having only 15% more students performing at or above proficiency does not warrant spending 3 times as much per pupil. What effect is all that money having???

Under Amendment 66, Colorado’s per pupil expenditure was expected to rise from $6,652 to $7,426. Following the trend of other states, this marginal increase would not have affected performance bands at all. In 2011, 39%-47% of CO students performed at or above proficiency across subject matters. This is already higher than Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma and Idaho’s performance results—all of whom have higher per pupil expenditures than Colorado.

While these are admittedly very rough comparisons, the point is clear: more money does not equate higher performance.

I continue to be baffled by the American people who believe so strongly in throwing money at problems. That strategy has not been successful (long-term) in any sector of society yet we continue to stand by our capitalist ideals.  Money, in the hands of the American people, is a divisive tool and until we figure out how to use it for good, I will always vote NO.

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