Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has gone around relentlessly announcing her philosophy of education, even in places where the message might not be age-appropriate. For example, last fall to celebrate the beginning of the school year, DeVos visited a K-8 school in Casper, Wyoming, where she told the children: “Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’? There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student. Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…” Earlier in the summer, she had said the same thing to a more comprehending and likely audience at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “There are individual men and women and there are families… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”
DeVos’s words have been consistent, despite that to me they sound like gobbledygook. How do we separate the needs of the individual children being educated from the system of schools our society has set up for that purpose? Is DeVos’s message really just an empty, educational-libertarian linguistic construction to convey the message she stated bluntly in another 2015 speech, when she declared, “Government really sucks.”?
Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, now renamed as ExcelinEd, recently released a brief to help us understand what DeVos means when she says, “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families.” The new brief, Student-Centered State Funding: A How-to Guide for State Policymakers, purports to tell states how to remake their school funding distribution formulas in order to make each child’s school funding fully portable—a little backpack full of cash that the student can carry with her as her parents choose the school they believe will perfectly meet her needs. The brief seems to emphasize public school choice across school districts, but the implication is that the state/local public funding would be fully portable to whatever school, public or private, the parent might choose.
ExcelinEd’s brief says there are five simple steps for remaking a state’s school finance: “(1) Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served… (2) Require local funding for a district on a per student basis…. (3) Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight…. (4) Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving. (5) Remove restrictions on how districts spend money….” ExcelinEd defends its new strategy as more transparent, more empowering of districts and parents, and fairer.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado asked Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, to evaluate ExcelinEd’s new plan. NEPC just published Baker’s review.
Baker is not impressed: “First, the brief advances the false dichotomy that state and district school finance systems should focus on funding the child, not funding the (bureaucratic, adult-centered) institutions that serve those children. This false dichotomy wrongly asserts there is no benefit to children of equitably and adequately financing educational institutions, and ignores the fact that it ultimately takes institutions, institutional structures and governance to deliver the relevant and appropriate programs and services… Second, the brief is based on overly simplistic, frequently misrepresented, and often outright incorrect versions of the status quo. This includes overbroad mischaracterizations of how schools are currently financed… Third, the details of the brief’s proposals and espoused benefits are entirely speculative and unsubstantiated….”
In its brief, ExcelinEd describes its theory about how states currently operate public schools: (1) that, “states fund specific staffing positions, services, programs or schools rather than students,” (2) that “states have hold harmless provisions such that districts get the same funding even if they lose students,” (3) that “states allow local funding of districts that is not dependent on the number of students,” and (4) that “states provide additional funding to districts that have a relatively small number of students.” Baker demonstrates the flaws in ExcelinEd’s argument: “The authors appear to be unaware or simply ignore the vast body of peer reviewed literature for guiding a) the setting of foundation levels, based on ‘costs’ of providing children with equal opportunities to achieve common outcome goals, b) the determination of additional costs associated with variation in individual student needs and in collective student population needs, c) the additional costs associated with differences in economies of scale and population sparsity, and d) the differences in costs associated with geographic differences in competitive wages for teachers and other school staff. Additionally, literature dating back nearly 100 years addresses methods for determining equitable local contribution toward foundation spending levels.”
Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s brief for ignoring that school funding inequity is universally connected to disparities in the local property taxing capacity of local school districts. He explains that a primary purpose of state aid formulas is to equalize—to compensate for unequal local capacity—“to… keep in check per-pupil inequity resulting from local property tax revenues.” “But the obsession in the ExcelinEd policy brief seems to be primarily on the fact that available funding for school districts is not 100% linked to the coming and going of individual students… ExcelinEd offers a bizarre illustration of how districts could increase or decrease their property taxes as enrollment shifts occur, with no consideration whatsoever of the primary basis by which local contributions are determined…. That is, to ensure that local jurisdictions, regardless of their wealth, can attain adequate and equitable per-pupil resources… The authors do not address the property wealth equalization goals of state school finance formulas….”
Baker further condemns ExcelinEd’s failure to acknowledge the role of concentrated student poverty across a local district’s student population, and failure to distinguish concentrated poverty from any individual student’s personal lack of resources. While it would be relatively easy to compensate for a child’s personal poverty with weighted additional funding the child would carry in his personal backpack full of cash, concentrated poverty is a more serious challenge that is glossed over in ExcelinEd’s brief. Here is Baker: “Student demographic factors that affect the institutional costs of achieving common outcomes come in two parts—individual factors related to specific-student needs (language proficiency, disability) and collective population factors, including poverty, the concentration of poverty, and interaction of poverty with population density. These ‘social context’ factors do not simply move with the child. A specific child’s marginal cost in one social context setting might be quite different than in another.” “Here the authors choose to outright deny that the marginal costs of an additional low-income student in a predominantly low-income setting might be different from the marginal costs of that same student in a higher income setting, and that accommodating those costs might improve equity…. (T)his means simply ignoring a legitimate driver of the cost of providing equal opportunity and thus knowingly disadvantaging students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty, merely to preserve their dogmatic view that all funding can and should be ‘student centered.’ That is, the authors are rationalizing the maintenance of inequality, because it’s just too hard to accommodate in their pro-choice framework.”
Baker notes that ExcelinEd’s brief denies the existence of stranded costs when children leave a school district for school choice: “(T)he authors’ treatment of funding related to declining enrollment fails to comprehend institutional cost structures…. Rather, in their view, any dollar that does not travel immediately with the child is a dollar spent inequitably and/or inefficiently…. (I)nstitutions providing services to the state’s children must manage fixed costs (institutional overhead, including capital stock), step costs (classroom/level site expenses, which do not vary by student), and costs which vary at the level of the individual student. All costs do not, nor can they, nor have they ever, regardless of institutional type, vary at the level of each individual student.”
Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s promise that school choice and portable funding will contribute to equity: “The brief’s central premise is that adopting ‘student-centered’ funding to enable parental choice of schools necessarily leads to a fairer and more transparent system for financing children’s schooling…. (T)he brief is predicated on the wrong assumption that most if not all state school finance systems and district budgeting models… operate in a way that favors institutions (and adult interests) over children.”
“Finally, to the extent that the end goal is to increase choice, it should be noted that increasing choices among different types of operators, with different financial and student service incentives, and different institutional cost structures and resource access, tends to erode, not enhance equity. That is, increased choice in common spaces often leads to increasingly unequal choices.”