Tuesday, November 29, 2005

WSJ op-ed on Texas schools

The Wall Street Journal editorial board had a short commentary today on the Texas school finance ruling. They chose to put a pretty positive spin on it, and I think they make some good points.

Texas School Lesson

The Texas Supreme Court did the expected last week and struck down the statewide property tax for funding public schools. But what was surprising and welcome was the Court's unanimous ruling that the Texas school system, which spends nearly $10,000 per student, satisfies the funding "adequacy" requirements of the state constitution. Most remarkable of all was the court's declaration that "more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students."

Think about that one for a second. To our knowledge, this is the first time anywhere in the country that the judiciary has flatly rejected the core doctrine of the education establishment that more dollars equal better classroom performance. And it is potentially very good news for students, especially those from the poorest neighborhoods, because it shifts the policy emphasis from money to achievement. Better send the paramedics to check for heart failure at National Education Association headquarters.

Even more encouraging, the court endorsed more choices for parents and the state's 4.3 million school kids. It said flatly: "Public education could benefit from more competition." The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which provided much of the academic research for the court, looked at the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, where donors started a privately financed voucher program. The results indicate that not only have the kids with the vouchers benefited, but so have kids in the public schools that are now forced to compete for students.

We hope that courts and school boards across the country study the Texas decision -- including its comments on school financing: "The Constitution does not require a particular solution," Judge Nathan Hecht wrote for the majority. "We leave such matters to the discretion of the Legislature." In other words, it's not the proper role of the judiciary to intervene in the operation or financing of the public schools.

That kind of judicial thinking tends to be the exception these days. Over the past two decades, courts in more than 30 states have intervened in education policy and ordered billions of dollars spent on schools in the name of boosting student performance and ensuring equitable financing. The result has been an avalanche of new spending on inner-city and rural schools, but, alas, not much measurable achievement by the kids who were supposed to be helped.

In one of the most notorious cases, in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1980s, a judge issued an edict requiring a $1 billion tax hike to help the failing inner-city schools. This raised expenditures to about $14,000 per student, or double the national average, but test scores continued to decline. Even the judge later admitted that he had blundered.

The hope now is that, as Republican Governor Rick Perry and the state legislature search for a new school financing mechanism next year, they will accept the court's invitation to open up the school system to a wide range of options including charters, vouchers, scholarships and rewards for quality, such as teacher pay for performance. If so, the Lone Star State, once the home of some of the worst public schools in the country, could become the national model for educational excellence.

That conclusion, while hard to imagine, is pretty inspirational. Maybe the Legislature, facing some tough court-imposed decisions, will opt for radical change? To me, it seems sort of obvious that we have the best higher education system in the world - where schools have to compete - and some of the worst K-12 schools in the developed world, where they don't. Wouldn't it make sense to try to make the latter more like the former? And teachers: try taking a look at professors' salaries in a world where competing colleges try to poach talent, and compare it to your current salary. Considering how low teacher salaries are today, can there be anything other than upside?


At 11:24 PM, November 29, 2005, Blogger Mark said...

Do those countries which have better K-12 schools than us have them because their K-12 schools compete in an open market?

And is a comparison between k-12 education and college even warranted?

Primary and secondary schools have a duty of educating everyone who attends regardless of the abilities they bring with them. In that sense, the schools have to meet their needs wherever they are. Colleges on the other hand are not open to everyone. Students must compete to go there. Thus a competitive market-approach to higher education makes sense.

But consider, in a free market of education, what good teachers will be drawn to the poorest schools with the fewest resources and kids who have the most problems? And in an open market for schools, what education can the poorest expect to get?

The is the problem with the individualist-libertarian mindset which I keep reading about in Houston blogs. It seems to be the predominate worldview here. I would agree that the market it generally a good thing, but it will only deal with you if you have something to offer which it values. If you've got money or talent, it will reward you. But if you've got nothing, its just throws you away.

Thus as a matter of pure economics it is inefficient to educate those who have the least to offer. But we have decided that everyone should have some education regardless. Therefore, if education is to be public it has to be somewhat economically inefficient and counter market oriented.

The article probably makes a good point in suggesting that money alone isn't the key to good schools. But we cant say it isn’t a factor. Go look at the differences between someplace like Poe Elementary and one in the Third Ward.

At 12:50 AM, November 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's funny, because Raleigh did the exact opposite extreme (with busing) and has nationally been lauded as a high-ranking school district: http://lettrist.blogspot.com/2005/09/as-test-scores-jump-raleigh-credits.html

Texas, the intellectual rival of states like Alabama and Mississippi by most national measures, is of course a favorite example of the conservative Wall Street Journal, which throughout its entire editorial failed to mention the absolutely dismal state of education in Texas.

I dont agree with busing either due to logistics, but having schools compete will just end up creating the haves and have-nots in terms of schools even moreso than currently. This will just further entrench an underclass which can lead to problems (see: France).

Schools should be held accountable, but simply taking money away is retarded-- you have to reorganize the way the school works instead of just taking money away.

But again, the WSJ editorial isn't surprising in the least. Most of them went to private school anyway, so they wouldn't know anything about public education.

At 7:41 AM, November 30, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

The WSJ folks are making some big, untested assumptions. If they could point to somewhere where things like vouchers (whose net effect is to remove funding from public schools) have made any kind of significant difference - I'm talking about district-wide improvements, not happy anecdotes - their case would be stronger.

There's also the assumption that universities do better because of competition - as opposed to getting to cherry-pick students. Or because of having more money.

It's interesting that after insisting that money doesn't help, you bring up the issue of professors' salaries and basically argue that money DOES help.

I don't have the great answer to how to make public education work better - but neither does the WSJ, based on this editorial, which reads like cherry-picked facts intended to support their existing political view.

At 9:57 AM, November 30, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On money: by my calculations, $10k/student times 20-30 students per teacher means $200-300K available per teacher, yet teacher salaries are extremely low. Where is it going? Into the black hole of a public bureaucracy, would be my guess.

A voucher system provides an equal amount of resources per student. Learning disabled children can qualify for more.

>"having schools compete will just end up creating the haves and have-nots in terms of schools even more so than currently."

I don't think that would be possible. And govt can always tweak the market to get the outcome it wants, like it does with insurance and broadcasting.

> "Schools should be held accountable, but simply taking money away is retarded-- you have to reorganize the way the school works instead of just taking money away."

Not suggesting taking money away, just putting it into a competitive marketplace via vouchers. Same total money (or more) in the education system, but it would get used much more efficiently.

At 12:33 PM, November 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"On money: by my calculations, $10k/student times 20-30 students per teacher means $200-300K available per teacher, yet teacher salaries are extremely low. Where is it going? Into the black hole of a public bureaucracy, would be my guess."

Where is it going? Are you kidding me? How about school facilities, maintanance, utilities, buses, insurance, cafeteria, books, and that all-important Texas requirement....football.

Look, you can play rugged Texas conservative individualist who pulls himself up by his bootstraps all day long for all I care. But, there is one inescapable fact...those that care about education, spend the money on it. Those that spend the money to educate their children end up with educated children. Those who don't, end up competing with Mississippi for low-wage economies.

North Carolina spends money on their kids and it shows. Texas doesn't and IT SHOWS.

That isn't conservatism. It's stupidity. I don't even have kids, yet I know that it's cheaper to educate everyone else's kids than pay to imprison them.

At 12:56 PM, November 30, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I realize that someone else just made this point but it bears repeating - your "money available for teaching salaries" number is nonsensical. Books. Buildings. Utility bills. Special education programs. Administrative staff - yes, there is some bureaucracy required to run a school district. Insurance. Transportation. And so on.

At 3:15 PM, November 30, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I understand those expenses, but really can't believe they work out to several hundred percent overhead on teacher salaries. If they do - that's bureaucracy at work. Private enterprise gets that kind of waste under control so funds can be targeted where they matter in the classroom.

The Chronicle recently had a story pointing out that some of the best schools around Houston spend the least per student, and some of the worst schools spend the most per student (several thousand more per student).

At 4:13 PM, November 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the reality of the $/student converting to $/teacher is somewhere in between the two extremes:

I'm an engineer/urban planner; our "markup" is about 200%. That means that in addition to my actual salary, it costs the company twice as much as that to provide benefits, a computer, a building, supplies, unbillable people like marketing, etc. So to pay me $30/hour, they charge a client $90/hour (roughly).

This means $250,000 year per teacher, if you assume the same cost ratio of benefits, materials & facilities, translates to a direct annual salary of about $80,000 per teacher. I'd be surprised if they get even half that.

So again, where does the extra money go? Do they have a huge number of administrative staff (non-faculty)? Are the buildings unduly luxurious? Do they provide expensive perks? None of these are true as far as I've seen, so where on earth does it go?

At 8:26 AM, December 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

of course our employers don't send around yellow buses to bring us to work, nor do they build us stadiums to play sports in, nor do they provide subsidized meals, etc. Comparing the operation of a school to that of a company is like comparing apples and hammers (b/c with oranges, that's still a fruit).

At 7:29 AM, December 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The statistics cited in the WSJ editorial certainly raised a puzzled response as I read them. Public school spending of almost $10,000 per student?? This far exceeded any numbers that I had seen published in the public domain in recent years (most commonly the Houston Chronicle).

I took a look at Gov. Perry's website, where he listed expenditures of $10,400 per student (http://www.governor.state.tx.us/priorities/education/facts_figures), citing NEA statistics. While the NEA is often singled out as a liberal organization by certain figures on the right, Gov. Perry and his staff make significant use of NEA statistics throughout the bullets on his website.

Strange thing, though, when you actually consult the NEA report from which the Governor has obtained many of the statistics. The NEA rankings report presents a much less flattering picture of public school funding in the state of Texas. Public school expenditures of $8218 per student are reported by the NEA for 2002-2003 (Table F-1), ranking the state of Texas 32nd of 50 states, in contrast to the figure of $10,400 per student reported by Gov. Perry for the same year, drawing from the same NEA statistics (supposedly). These figures ($8218 and 32nd of 50) are much more consistent with those reported previously by the Houston Chronicle.

Looking through the NEA Rankings report, we see a consistent message of Texas being in the 3rd quartile on school spending by a variety of measures, including teacher pay. It is interesting to see Gov. Perry claim a 26.5% increase in teacher pay for 1999 to 2003 alone (non-inflation adjusted), while the NEA report shows the true picture in teacher salaries: a 4.3% increase from 1993 to 2003 when inflation is accounted for. Take note that this is a 10 year period as compared to the 4 year period that the Governor cites.

An interesting statistic is overall government expenditures for all functions (Table G-1), where Texas is ranked dead last of the 50 states. Only by comparing school funding/expenditures to overall state government funding/expenditures do things look more positive, bringing Texas up to a ranking of 5 (Table E-7). Of course, this is only because Texas has such low government expenditures overall. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a progressive state that looks after it's citizens.

We all know that the Texas legislature does a poor job in terms of expenditures that result in matching federal funds. We throw hundreds of millions in federal funding away every year because we choose not to invest in programs that provide these funds. Admittedly, there are also some inherent biases in federal funding to the states that penalize many of the states in the south, and generally all states that see significant increases in population.

While we have seen improvements in the state-mandated annual educational proficiency tests (first TAAS and now TAKS), this has been widely recognized to be a result of "teaching to the test," in combination with significant amounts of fraudulent testing. The result, of course, is no actual increase in student knowledge or proficiency. We need only look at SAT scores, which have been completely flat in the state of Texas over the last ten years, to understand that there has been little or no REAL improvement in the educational system.

While many sensible people will recognize that just throwing money at public schools will not necessarily result in improvement, I believe that the WSJ editorial is way off base. State funding of Texas public schools continues to drop (36% statewide, some 16% of funding of HISD), in spite of a constitutional amendment that requires the state to fund 60% of public school expenditures.

Certainly Texas faces a major challenges as the 2nd most populous state with the 2nd highest number of students enrolled in public schools. Perhaps part of the problem is the high funding demand of small rural school districts, since Texas has more school districts than California, even while having only 2/3 of the number of students. As a result, even though urban school districts are often splitting at the seams due to over-crowding, Texas has a relatively low student to teacher ratio of 14.9 (ranked 29 per Table C-6).

Bottom line - there is probably as much mis-information in the public domain as fact.

At 7:30 AM, December 02, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All good points. I think funding is a seperate issue from competition. Competition just insures you get the best you can out of whatever dollars are available - but you have to make enough available to do a good job. I think if we went to a voucher system, people would be more aware of better school options that cost more than their voucher, and would demand elected reps increase the voucher sizes.

At 7:31 AM, December 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points on competition, although I would say that this can be a mixed bag, too. We've certainly see a range of results with the Texas experiment with charter schools. There have been some really great charter schools, especially the KIPP schools. There is a case where reduced bureaucracy and reduced top-down control has allowed for the kind of innovation that has produced some outstanding results. And the KIPP program is even expanding out of state, from what I recall. But KIPP was also audited and funded (initially) by H.I.S.D., helping to ensure accountability (though it probably wasn't really necessary in that case as KIPPS founders are brilliant and altruistic educators). Another important point is that KIPP students have significantly higher demands than those in public schools, and full parental support is required.

On the other hand, a number of charter school have been closed by the state. Some of these used fraudulent accounting to boost apparent student enrollment to steal money from the state. Some small charter systems had "superintendents" pulling $200K+ with numerous family members pulling $100K+ salaries. And charter schools were also freed from the state legislature of the requirements for TAAS/TAKS testing, and many other state educational requirements. Here in Texas, there were a number of cases where non-educators with zero teaching experience started charter schools solely to tap into some of these plush, self-defined salaries.

At the end of the day, we need to seek excellence from our schools. Innovation in education is critical, and competition should play a part. Some significant cultural shifts will be required, for the students, the schools, and for the parents. Are we putting kids in school for entertainment value or for education? What role should popularity contests, sports, cliques, social clubs, and pep rallies really play in our schools while education suffers? For many students, school is about anything but education, and a few parents continue to fight against any really accountability in the education of their child. Should the education of advanced students suffer while we drag the pace of the educational process down to a snail's pace trying to get the average students to pass these recurring standardized tests? While we continue to have a dropout rate in Texas in the 30-40% range??

At 7:41 AM, December 02, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Another benefit of competition:
I heard a lecture yesterday from Dr. Bob Putnam at Harvard on the importance of social capital/relationships in society. He noted that the absolute most important thing you can do to improve education and test scores is get deeper parental involvement. Not easy, of course.

But what if parents had a voucher, and the best school they could get their kid into with that money required a certain parental involvement commitment? Almost like a contract? Something that is currently impossible for public schools, but well within the discretion of a voluntary market.

As a bonus, that parental involvement requirement could help cut costs: maybe tutoring, or supervising kids on the playground or lunchroom or in extra-curricular activities (freeing up teachers), or helping with discipline of their own kids so more classroom time is learning rather than riot control. I'm not the expert, but innovative, competing schools would find the best leverage of parental involvement to get the best value out of their time, so more real dollars can go into the more important aspects of education (like teacher pay).

At 11:40 PM, December 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Tory's last comment on parental involvement hit the nail on the head. The bottom line, no matter how much money you pour into the schools, it will always be an uphill battle if the parents are not involved. We can't expect the teachers/state/govt to take the role of the parent. Part of the responsibility of the parent is involvement in their child's education, unfortunately, what we are seeing is that some parents think the schools are substitute parents and a child's education begins and ends with the school bell. Government tends to do a terrible job of acting as parent and should not be in this business.

Vouchers, I believe, are the way to go, aside from shutting down the whole public school system. It isn't fair for students who go to school to learn to be dragged down by others who aren't there to learn. What we end up with is the watered down curriculum we see today.

Unfortunately, the victims here are kids, whether their parents are deadbeats/uninvolved or not. However, the answer is not raising taxes or increasing budgets. What we should be focusing on is minimization of bureacracy and reducing budgets. More money does not translate to equality. I don't care how much money you pour into a school, if the students are not interested and don't have the support from home, it won't make a difference.

In addition, as taxpayers, we should be granted some options as to our child's education. If we are forced to pay into a public school system that we may not use (i.e, send children to private school), there is absolutely no reason why vouchers or some sort of tax deduction shouldn't be made available.

Comptetition tends to weed out the weaker, non-performing entities of any industry. Government intervention weakens this effect, allowing entities that shouldn't exist, to exist.

The $10K per student does sound awfully high from a layman's point of view, never done research on it. Amazing they can't produce on that. Private school are able to excel. Some are more expensive than others, but even if a private school charges $20K a year per student, they still kick the a** out of public schools, seems like they shouldn't be beating that much. But leave it to government to screw anything up.

At 10:52 PM, December 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But leave it to government to screw anything up.

You know, people have become conditioned to say that, but I find it's actually a pretty ridiculous statement. Just like in the private sector, there are effective departments and organizations in governments and ineffective ones.

At 10:54 PM, December 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's true, there are some effective government agencies. I think the Postal system in the US is bar none the best in the world. Its reliable, relatively cheap. Try mailing something in Europe and you'll come to appreciate the US Postal System. There are probably some others that elude me at the moment (aside from military).

However, bloated government agencies linger longer than do inefficient departments of private industries, unless of course those industries are receiving some sort of subsidy. An inefficient private industry eventually will run out of capital to sustain itself, whereas an inefficient government agency will simply seek more funds and continue to survive.


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