Education Funding Isn’t Fun Anymore

By Stevan J. Kukic

When funding is large and flexible, we can try things that are exciting, self-fulfilling and, often, are not part of a broader system. Many times, these things are colorful, easy to use, and not very effective with our students.

Imagine any other profession allowing what we allow educators to do. Basals, textbooks, interventions, technology, and instructional practices are viewed as sets of options to be used creatively by each teacher. Further, these resources are often purchased based on how much free stuff we will get rather than on the data that prove the resources actually work to improve outcomes when used with fidelity.

Atul Gawande wrote an important book, The Checklist Manifesto. In it, he proves that in all professions there are routines that must be repeated with proficiency and fidelity. Yet, in education we too often allow teachers to do whatever they want to do with whatever they want to use.

This model does not work. And it cannot be supported anymore given the tremendous constraints on education funding. The mandates remain; funding is being constricted because of political bickering, this Great Recession, lack of public will, etc.

Take a look at this excerpt from a blog post titled “There Is a Hole in the Bucket” by John Kuhn, a superintendent from Texas.

“North of Dallas there is a well-to-do suburb called Highland Park. According to the last census ‘per capita money income in the past 12 months’ for Highland Park was $116,772, and ‘median household income 2005-2009’ was $176,375. The median value of a home is $982,600 in Highland Park.

“South of Fort Worth, there is a blue collar neighborhood called Everman. According to the same census ‘per capita money income in the past 12 months’ for Everman was $16,685, and ‘median household income 2005-2009’ was $39,508. The median value of a home is $80,700 in Everman.

“I’ll ask two rhetorical questions here: (1) should these two school districts be funded at the same level? and (2) if not, which district should get funded at a higher clip, and why?

“If you answered that Highland Park should be funded higher because rich white kids are used to nice things, you are a winner! (And on a side note, I’d like to thank you for reading the blog, Congressman.)

“Now, here are some relevant educational funding facts taken from the Texas Education Agency’s ‘Academic Excellence Indicator System.’ (You’ll notice that it doesn’t say a word about ‘funding excellence’ anywhere.) The hyperlink will take you to the TEA’s AEIS search engine so you can verify that I’m not just making junk up. (Please be aware that there are two Highland Park school districts in Texas. This Highland Park is usually denoted as Highland Park-Dallas. Also note that the state of Texas accidentally forgets to acknowledge the existence of the Target Revenue System on the AEIS report it releases as public information regarding each school district; that being the case, I have taken the target revenue information for these two schools from the link previously shared above, which contains information appropriated from the Equity Center.)

Comparing Two Districts: Everman vs. Highland Park

Funding

Target Revenue: Everman: $4973… Highland Park: $6013
WADA: Everman:
6184… Highland Park: 6697
Allotment for first 6184 kids: Everman: $30,753,032 … Highland Park: $37,184,392

Teaching Quality

Avg. actual teacher pay: Everman: $50,491… Highland Park: $55,894
Teachers w/adv. degrees: Everman: 14.6%… Highland Park: 67.1%
Students per teacher: Everman: 15.5 … Highland Park: 15.6
Turnover Rate: Everman: 18.0%… Highland Park: 9.2%

Outcomes

4-year completion rate: Everman: 85.2%… Highland Park: 98.1%
Met standard, sum of all tests: Everman: 67%… Highland Park: 98%
College-ready (TSI)-English: Everman: 50% … Highland Park: 93%
College-ready (TSI)-Math: Everman: 58% … Highland Park: 96%

Demographics

% of student body is white: Everman: 6.3%… Highland Park: 90.4%

“The one conclusion we can all agree on here is that students in Highland Park are turning out better than the students in Everman, academically speaking. But now I have to knock the wheels off our happy consensus and ask the question: ‘Why?’

“The way I see it, there are a few possible answers.

1. White people are intellectually superior. (The KKK prefers this answer.)

2. Higher-income parents have smarter kids. (Higher-income parents prefer this answer.)

3. Inequitable school funding stunts academic achievement. (I prefer this answer.)

4. Everman has crappy teachers, and Highland Park has awesome teachers. (School reformers prefer this answer.)

5. Everman has crappy parents, and Highland Park has awesome parents. (Republicans and burnt-out teachers prefer this answer.)

6. Social factors outside-of-school in Everman are more toxic to education than factors outside-of-school in Highland Park. (Democrats prefer this answer.)

In my next posting, I’ll delve deeper into causality and explain why I titled this posting as I did. I know you can’t wait.

John Kuhn is Superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Independent School District in Texas. Last year he spoke out on the steps of the Capitol in Austin, and was featured in this interview here.

Is Kuhn’s blog radical? Perhaps. Thought-provoking? Obviously.

How can we respond to this contradiction of constrained funding and continued, outcome-based accountability?

Here are some ideas:

  • Purchase only evidence-based practice that promises to improve outcomes.
  • Implement it with fidelity to get maximum return on investment.
  • Commit to never again buy materials primarily based on which company gives you the most free stuff.
  • Demand to see independent validation for any company’s claim of effectiveness.
  • Stop making decisions based on ideology or tradition; make decisions based on data.
  • Let the data speak. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop doing it.

A superintendent in Arizona recently told me that he was not sure we needed more money in public education. When I challenged him with great righteous indignation on that account, he told me this: Until we stop buying and using practices that have proven track records of not working, we have no idea how much well-targeted funding we need.

Isn’t it funny that implementing evidence-based practice with fidelity is a sure way to improve outcomes and a sure way to get the most out of our constrained resources?

Actually, it is not funny; it is obvious.

Stevan J. Kukic, Ph.D., is vice president of Strategic Education Initiatives for Cambium Learning Group. Previously, he was a consultant for Franklin Covey® and state director of At-Risk and Special Education Services for Utah. Kukic is a past president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE).

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