Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Howard Fleeter and HB 1 Strike Again

Howard Fleeter, who's had a long, storied history as one of Ohio's most respected and persistent education finance experts, has mined yet another nugget from the state's vast data lode.

As reported in today's Columbus Dispatch (though disturbingly listed under its Politics banner online), Fleeter was able to comb through a set of little known data called a District Benchmark Report -- a requirement made of districts in House Bill 1 in conjunction with the Evidence Based Model.

When we set up this fiscal accountability system, it was intended to provide information about how districts were spending money in order to see whether those expenditures matched the latest research about how best to spend money to improve student outcomes. Here's a contemporaneous explanation of the report.

What Howard did was dig into these reports (whose post-EBM utility was probably considered minimal) and discover what has been known for a while -- that comparing per pupil expenditures across districts is fraught with issues.

Namely, many districts that spend lots of raw dollars per pupil only have discretion over a relatively small portion of those dollars because they are earmarked for poverty aid, special ed, etc. What Howard did was look at how districts spend their dollars on "typical" kids in their districts -- in other words, once you correct for high numbers of at-risk kids in some districts, they're actually spending less per pupil than high-performing districts.

As the Dispatch notes:

For example, in 2011, the most recent data available, Columbus spent $1,905 more per pupil than Dublin. But when spending on poverty and other factors are calculated, Dublin actually spends $1,618 more per pupil to educate a typical student than Columbus.  

In fact, Fleeter’s study said, eight Franklin County districts spend more than Columbus to educate a typical student. 
But the fascinating information doesn't stop there. For instance, Cleveland, which is always castigated for spending so much per pupil, ends up spending barely $8,000 per pupil when adjusted for their non-discretionary spending, not the more than $14,000 the raw data indicate.

I have linked to Howard's spreadsheet so you can see just how profound an impact non-discretionary spending has on a school district's budget.

The report has huge implications for education funding in Ohio. Does this now mean that we base the basic aid amount on the discretionary amount? Does this mean that urban school performance is related to lack of discretionary money being spent there? I don't know yet.

But it does mean that we can't look at $10,000 per pupil being spent in one district that's doing great and $10,000 being spent in one that's struggling and simply assume that the one that's struggling is being inefficient or something. What it means is education finance is complicated and, right now, inaccurate.

Howard's work is groundbreaking for it gets us thinking more about the true cost of educating children and ensuring their success.

And one more thing. (Sorry, but I can't let this go.) The impetus for the Fiscal Benchmark Report, upon which Howard based his work, was House Bill 1 -- the legislation I spent so much time and energy developing in 2009. It won the Frank Newman Award from the Education Commission of the States, created the first instance on record that Ohio's state funds exceeded its local property taxes to pay for schools, and now has resulted in a calculus that can more accurately determine the cost of education at the district level.

I struggle to understand the policy reasons behind why Gov. John Kasich and his legislative allies decided to undo nearly everything contained in House Bill 1. I sure do understand the political reasons.

And that's why Ohio's school funding system has been so hamstrung for so many years -- explaining why an analysis of a data report released by the Ohio Department of Education is listed under the politics page at the Columbus Dispatch. And it's why so many are so cynical that the political parties can ever work together to solve the big issues we face today.

Politics and education simply have not mixed well here. And that has really hurt our children.