Thursday, February 5, 2015

Edu $pending productivity: a novel concept.

From TN Education Independent -We often talk about money in the public education conversation. Rarely does anyone say we have too much. The conversation is often focused on we never have enough. There was some good discussion at the MNPS board meeting on ensuring that we're seeing the outcomes we want to see for students for the dollars we spend.

In the future, I see two larger things that will restrict the growth in education spending like we've seen in past years.

1. The demographic picture is changing in America. The population has a growing share of older people that may have no connection to schools systems or the desire to fund them. They'll want different services to be funded instead of public education. These are the individuals who tend to consistently vote, and I don't see them being for the taxes to pay for more education spending.
1a. In Tennessee we get a lot of our school funding from sales tax revenue. Older people don't spend as much on consumption (fixed income living and all).
2. City debt loads are already moderate to high in many municipalities. Paying back debt from a limited pot of money generated through local taxes makes it hard to free up money for more education spending in the present.
Little attention is paid to the question: Are we spending our edu-dollars as effectively as possible?

That's a general question, and the answer will be somewhat subjective based on who you are. The "return" part is likely to differ based on what you primarily value as the goal of a public education system.

If you care most about kids being nice and law abiding citizens, a high youth crime rate might tell you you're edu-money isn't being spent well. If you care about students demonstrating academic ability in core subjects, and your district's achievement scores are low, then you're edu-money could arguably be spent a lot better. There are many other primary values that differ among people.

There is common ground out there as well, but people have conflicting views on what public education should do for students, for the adults employed by that system, and for a city.

For whatever it is that school systems should be doing, the conversation largely centers on "we just need more."

Well...maybe...but more for what? If a district spends money ineffectively for whatever it is you believe that a school district exists to do for students - produce good citizens or graduate kids that know stuff - why give it more?

Why doesn't the conversation largely center on "how do we spend every dollar as best we can?"

Well, there's some data out there to look at to have more of this conversation. I wish we had a more formalized data set in Tennessee, and started looking at this data every year. Given all the challenges mentioned above with the future looking like it'll be constrained for more public education funding, we may be compelled to spend scarce education dollars in a more effective way.

The Center for American Progress has a report, found here: Return on Educational Investment: 2014.

And a corresponding interactive data set and map here: CAP interactive tool.

The report is from 2014 but the data on the interactive tool is a bit old (from 2011). Still, the analysis is worth considering, and it'd be even better to look at updated data on this. I wouldn't imagine some of the trends have changed that much.

Here's how they color code performance:

Some things stick out in using the tool:
  • The highest cost and lowest achieving districts are different by urbanicity (mix of urban, rural remote, rural fringe geographies.
  • You can be a low income district and still achieve green (Cocke County - 78% low income). Davidson Co fared most poorly among other large urban districts in Tennessee. Davidson Co was bright red (highest cost, lowest achievement), while Memphis was orange (medium cost, lowest achievement).
  • Poorer districts appear to score lower on ROI measures.
  • Size may be correlated with higher ROI (Memphis and Davidson Co are exceptions to this).

Bottom line: Across Tennessee, and in our two largest districts especially (now SCS and MNPS), we need to have a serious ongoing conversation about ensuring a high educational return for the money spent.

While many would like to jump to simply advocating for more money for public education, especially in these large districts, I'd prefer to spend our time and political conversations on how to get better educational returns. We spend a large amount of money already, and before asking for more, we ought to be confident that how we are allocating edu-dollars is actually working well for students.

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1 comment:

  1. Rod, I appreciate you posting this. This debate is LONG overdue and personally I think it is attached to the kind of efforts Scott Walker made in Wisconsin by standing up to the teachers unions. I don't know about TN teachers but as I understand teachers in Alabama bear TWO PERCENT of the cost of their health insurance. That is unconscionably low as public employees. Great, let the districts or the states negotiate for a great health insurance plan, as I would hope any employer would do but such a low rate simply soaks the taxpayers. We hear shrill cries to spend more on education while we also see academic performance slipping and the proverbial graduates who can't read, do math, or don't know basics of history. Such performance would get any other business/employee FIRED. In my opinion, much of this goes to the philosophy of the educational establishment which is focused more on method than substance going back at least to John Dewey. I think if voters started demanding and seeing accounability that failed approach would wither away. Long overdue.