Ed Waivers, Junk Rating Systems & Misplaced Blame: Case 1 – New York State

September 3, 2012

I hope over the next several months to compile a series of posts where I look at what states have done to achieve their executive granted waivers from federal legislation. Yeah… let’s be clear here, that all of this starts with an executive decision to ignore outright, undermine intentionally and explicitly, federal legislation. Yeah… that legislation may have some significant issues. It might just suck entirely. Nonetheless, this precedent is a scary one both in concept and in practice. Even when I don’t like the legislation in question, I’m really uncomfortable having someone unilaterally over-ride or undermine it. It makes me all the more uncomfortable when that unilateral disregard for existing law is being used in a coercive manner – using access to federal funding to coerce states to adopt reform strategies that the current administration happens to prefer. The precedent at the federal level that legislation perceived as inconvenient can and should simply be ignored seems to encourage state departments of education to ignore statutory and constitutional provisions within their states that might be perceived similarly as inconvenient.

Setting all of those really important civics issues aside – WHICH WE CERTAINLY SHOULD NOT BE DOING – the policies being adopted under this illegal (technical term – since it’s in direct contradiction to a statute, with full recognition that this statute exists) coercive framework are toxic, racially disparate and yet another example of misplaced blame.

States receiving waivers have generally followed through by using their assessment data in contorted and entirely inappropriate ways to create designations of schools and districts, where those designations then permit state officials to step in and take immediate actions to change the governance, management and whatever else they see fit to change in these schools (and whether they have such legal authority or not).

Priority schools are the bottom of the heap, or bottom 5% and are subject to the most aggressive, and most immediate unilateral interventions (seemingly with complete disregard for existing state statutory or constitutional rights of attending children, their parents or local taxpayers, as well as explicit disregard for existing federal law).

Implicit in these classifications – and the proposed response interventions – is the assumption that priority schools are simply poorly run schools – schools with crummy leaders and lots of bad, lazy, pathetic and uncaring teachers… who have thus caused their school to achieve priority status. They clearly must go… or at least deserve one heck of a shaking up! Couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s fault. After all, the state must have clearly already done its part to provide sufficient financial resources, etc. etc. etc. It must be the bad teachers and crappy principals. That’s all it can be! Therefore, we must have immediate wide-reaching latitude to step in and kick out the bums – and heck – just close those schools and send those kids elsewhere, or convert those schools to “limited public access, privately governed and managed institutions” (privately manged charters) where layers of constitutional rights for employees and students may be sacrificed.

New York State’s Waiver Hit List

New York State Education Department released their hit list of schools recently.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/accountability/ESEADesignations.html

Here’s quick run down of some key characteristics of schools and districts under each designation.

Demographics of Hit List Schools Statewide

I did a quick merge of the above classification data with data from the 2011 NYSED school report cards to generate the graph below, weighted by school enrollment.

https://reportcards.nysed.gov/

Notably, schools in “good standing” are lowest BY FAR in % of children qualified for free lunch, percent of children who are black, or Hispanic, and are also generally lower in percent of children who are limited in their English Language Proficiency. Race and poverty differences are particularly striking!

In short, the Obama/Duncan administration has given NY State officials license to experiment disproportionately on low income and minority children – or for that matter – simply close their schools. No attempt to actually legitimately parse “blame” or consider the possibility that the state itself might share in that blame.

AFTER ALL, NEW YORK STATE CONTINUES TO MAINTAIN ONE OF THE MOST REGRESSIVE STATE SCHOOL FINANCE SYSTEMS IN THE COUNTRY! 

And the underlying disparities in that system are quite striking!

But perhaps, if we just require all of these priority schools to be turned over to charter operators from New York City, they can work their miracles statewide – for less money – with the same kids – and generating decisively better outcomes????? And of course, dramatically reducing labor costs??? Okay… so the data don’t really support any of that.

Economics of Hit List School Districts Statewide

Here’s another perspective on the districts that house schools across these categories. New York State’s school funding model derives a combined wealth ratio based on two key factors that seem to be strong determinants of the local revenue those districts can raise on their own – Income per Pupil (aggregate income of residents divided by district enrollment) and Taxable Assessed Property Values per Pupil. Here’s how these two measures play out across categories (excluding New York City schools, where income and property wealth are a) difficult to accurately compare with the rest of the state and b) disproportionately weigh on the comparisons).

Say it ain’t so? Really, are the districts of schools that are in “good standing” that much higher income and that much higher in taxable property wealth than the schools that are identified as priority schools? Couldn’t be. The economics of these local communities clearly has nothing to do with it? Does it? It’s those damn lazy, apathetic teachers and their greedy overpaid administrators!

State Funding of Hit List School Districts Statewide

A while back, I wrote this brief:  NY Aid Policy Brief_Fall2011_DRAFT6

In the brief, I explain the layers of problems of the New York State foundation aid formula. I also wrote this blog post: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/more-inexcusable-inequalities-new-york-state-in-the-post-funding-equity-era/

In the brief, I explain how the current New York State school foundation aid formula is hardly equitable or adequate for meeting the needs of children attending the state’s highest need districts. But to rub salt in the wound – FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, THE GOVERNOR AND LEGISLATURE HAVE CHOSEN TO DISREGARD ENTIRELY THEIR OWN WOEFULLY INADEQUATE STATE AID FORMULA.

Even worse, when the Governor and Legislature have levied CUTS TO THAT FORMULA, they have levied those cuts such that they disproportionately cut more state aid per pupil from the higher need districts. As of 2011-12, some high need districts including the city of Albany had shortfalls in state funding (from what would be expected if the foundation formula was actually funded) that were greater than the total foundation aid they were actually receiving.

So, here’s one last graph for my statewide analysis – in which I summarize the foundation formula shortfalls per pupil by district, for the schools in each class. The foundation formula shortfall compares:

  1. What should be: full foundation formula aid that would be received per total aidable foundation pupil unit, using the 2011-12 Foundation Level (on Page 21, here:http://www.oms.nysed.gov/faru/PDFDocuments/Primer12-13A.pdf) and multiplying that foundation level times the regional cost index and pupil need index (and then determining the state share per the formula as described in the above linked document).  To be concise, this is the “what should be” target, but is based on last year’s target. So I’m being generous to the state, because the foundation level should have gone up again from 2011-12 to 2012-13 (see p. 21)
  2. What is: actual state foundation aid to be received from 2012-13 Aid Runs, with foundation aid adjusted for Gap Elimination Adjustment and partial restoration of GEA.

So… here are the funding gaps by status, with respect to the state’s own inadequate funding targets:

So, with respect to its own formula, the state is pretty much underfunding everyone. Of course, as I’ve noted on many previous occasions, the state is also dumping disproportionate unneeded tax relief aid into the wealthiest districts, which also happen to have the schools in “good standing.”

What we have here is that the state is most substantially underfunding – WITH RESPECT TO ITS OWN FUNDING FORMULA – the districts that house the majority of children enrolled in schools that the state has identified as “priority” schools.

Hey… here’s an idea for ya’…WHY NOT MAKE IT A PRIORITY TO ACTUALLY FUND THESE SCHOOL DISTRICTS AT AT LEAST THE LEVEL THAT YOU, THE STATE HAVE DECLARED ADEQUATE FOR THEM?

Is it reasonable to play this subversive “blame the teachers and administrators” game and kick them out and close their school when it is you… the STATE that has shorted them disproportionately on funding – FOR YEARS – with respect to your own funding formula benchmarks.

We can discuss the adequacy of those funding benchmarks another day. (read the brief: NY Aid Policy Brief_Fall2011_DRAFT6)

Additional analysis of New York City schools hopefully in the near future!

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular...