Ohio Auditor Keith Faber explained on Tuesday that, “The Auditor of State’s Office recently completed a performance audit for the Ohio Department of Education.” Faber says that the purpose is to make recommendations about “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness in the areas reviewed…”
One of the subjects of the new report from the Ohio Auditor’s office is the correlation of school districts’ expenditure per pupil with their school performance as measured by standardized tests. Here, from the Performance Audit Summary, is what the Auditor discovered: “Conclusion: Expenditure per pupil has a loose association with Achievement in Ohio, particularly at the high performing districts. As total district spending increases, there is no single expenditure category driving this increase.” Later in the body of the report, the Auditor states: “The analyses in this section indicate that it is not necessary for districts to spend more to get better results. The data show that lower spending districts can achieve at the same level as higher spending districts, a point which parents and taxpayers should take into consideration in their personal decision-making surrounding financial and performance issues in their district. ODE and LEAs should consider if there is a point of diminishing returns in spending, where additional district revenue and expenditures will not necessarily increase student success.”
The Plain Dealer‘s Emily Bamforth digs deeper, explaining to readers that one purpose of the Audit was to discover which practices in high spending school districts are most essential for raising test scores: “The research found there is a low correlation between per-pupil spending and success on the Performance Index, and often higher spending was correlated with a lower index score. The auditor’s report maps the analysis, which shows clusters of high spending compared to low index scores around urban areas, like Cleveland and Cincinnati. The conclusion was used to reinforce recommendations to the Department of Education to review the highest performing districts’ practices to see what could be applied to other schools, and for community members to question spending relative to student success.”
I give Bamforth credit for questioning the Auditor’s conclusions and highlighting some of what is missing in the auditor’s report: “(T)he state auditor’s office claims that spending-per-pupil in districts is not closely correlated with student success. However, this conclusion does not factor in socioeconomic data that might affect student performance. Socioeconomic standing affects outcomes in many areas of life, including education and health, according to the American Psychological Association. Socioeconomic status includes household income, among other factors.”
Bamforth cites the American Psychological Association, but the body of research examining the correlation of school districts’ aggregate standardized test scores with family and neighborhood economics is long, deep, and overwhelming. Academic research in two areas—(1) the correlation of lower school achievement with socioeconomic opportunity gaps, and (2) the impact of per-pupil spending on student achievement—confirms Bamforth’s skepticism about the new report from Ohio Auditor Keith Faber.
The Research on the Difference Between School Achievement Gaps and Opportunity Gaps
In their 2014 book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, educational researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass explain: “For schools to be a powerful solution to the problems of poverty, it would help if an America absent of poverty already existed. We know that the socioeconomic status of students explains most of the variation in educational outcomes. Although there is evidence that some schools with many low-income students are academically successful, there is much more evidence that most schools do not overcome the barriers that stem from low income and low wealth. Health care, housing, stability, and a host of other out-of-school influences greatly affect a child’s academic achievement. Much of the achievement gap in test scores and much of the gap in graduation rates between racial and socioeconomic groups are due to opportunity gaps such as access to medical care, stable housing, and freedom from discrimination.” (Fifty Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 230-231. The authors cite the research report documenting this conclusion.)
Why Money Matters and Why One Should Not Assume that Successful Programs in “High Achieving” School Districts Are Simply Transferable Best Practices
Ohio’s A-rated school districts on the state’s Performance Index are mostly located in wealthy exurbs. Ignoring the correlation between family and neighborhood economics, the Ohio Auditor’s report seems to suggest that if the state can only identify best practices in high-achieving school districts, these programs can simply be moved to low-achieving districts as a strategy for raising overall achievement as measured by test scores..
In Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, the nation’s best known expert on school finance, Bruce Baker explains, for example, that in a school where student poverty is concentrated, students will always benefit from the most basic—and sometimes very costly—investments. We don’t need the Ohio auditor to tell us what a rich exurban district is doing; instead the state simply needs to budget the needed dollars: “Reducing class size is often characterized as a particularly expensive use of additional school dollars… What we do know… is that ample research indicates that children in smaller classes achieved better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 98-99)
Baker reports that education costs more in schools serving poorer students or students with special needs: “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes. The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time. Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. it’s reality. It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.”(Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)
Ohio legislators, with expert guidance from educational leaders and school finance economists, just spent over two years developing a new school funding plan. Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, criticized the plan 18 months ago when an early draft was released, because while the first draft addressed the reality that Ohio’s school funding has become increasingly inadequate through a decade of tax cuts, the new plan’s first draft did not invest enough in equity.
In a September 4, 2019 report, Fleeter explained: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.” In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically reduced funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children:
- “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
- “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
- “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
- “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
- “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”
It is ironic that, right now, Ohio Auditor Keith Faber has been asked by the Ohio Department of Education to investigate “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness” of the distribution of school funding. After all, less than a month ago, the Ohio Legislature killed the proposed new school funding plan once it had been adjusted to meet Fleeter’s demand that the state would more equitably serve the needs of the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the new plan by an overwhelming margin, but the Ohio Senate killed the plan by refusing to vote on it before the session ended. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman claims that the Ohio Senate let the plan die because he estimates the plan would have cost $4 billion rather than the $2 billion the plan’s sponsors projected. And now the auditor has conveniently “discovered” that perhaps a school district’s level of expenditure doesn’t really affect student achievement after all.
I suspect that leaders of the Ohio Senate are beginning to lay out their case that we can simply get by by spending less money more efficiently. That’s nonsense. It is just the latest proof that the conservative Republican majority in the Ohio Senate lacks the will to invest in the school districts which serve Ohio’s poorest children.