Our schools may need more than "better management"

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When tough choices must be made, quality is the first thing out the window.

Our schools may need more than "better management"

When comparing Rhode Island to other states, some simple math and analytical skills provide a powerful lens

By Tom Sgouros


Amid the usual gnashing of teeth and self-scourging about the quality of our public schools, the state of Rhode Island this summer has taken over the management of a second low-performing school district, and now will be responsible for the schools in Providence, as well as in Central Falls. The move was provoked by a report out last spring detailing the appalling conditions in a large number of Providence public schools, of the physical plant, the classrooms, and the classes themselves.


The schools have been taken over, and new management is on the way, but is it really that obvious that better management is the key to the problem?  Mayor Jorge Elorza and Governor Gina Raimondo are very different people, but is the quality of their hiring decisions going to make such a tremendous difference?  Maybe the new management will get some buildings cleaned up and that would be an excellent way to begin, but will they be able to do it without shortchanging the school budget in other areas?  What is the evidence that something besides lack of resources is primarily responsible for the conditions outlined in the report? 


In fact, there is no such evidence -- what would such evidence even look like? 


Will good management cure all?

There is something that looks like indirect evidence for the importance of management, and you see it in data about school costs per pupil. The drama this time is playing out in the shadow of Massachusetts (well, deeper in that shadow than usual) since Rhode Island has adopted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), that state's achievement tests, for use in our schools. With the same or slightly less funding per pupil Massachusetts achieves much better educational outcomes than Rhode Island, and this is the primary argument people make when they say we must be mismanaging the schools. 


Of course, these comparisons fall apart, as they usually do, on examination. Consider pension costs, for example. Providence spends over $21 million a year on the employer share of its teacher pensions, more than 5% of the school budget. Some of that is covered by the state. But in Massachusetts, the state covers the entire cost for all school districts, and not through the Department of Education, so it is not even counted as an education expense. 


Massachusetts schools also do not labor under the same mandates to fund private school transportation and textbooks that Rhode Island school districts do (though they do have some small responsibility for within-district transportation for private school students). Those are things we make our school districts pay for that Massachusetts does not. (In fact transportation costs do not count as part of the official definition of "net school spending" in Massachusetts, so without further inquiry to the source of the funding comparisons, it's hard to say more.)  Doubtless there are other mismatches like that, places where the definitions of school spending do not match up. However, this casual survey did not find any that tilt the other way. 


And within the category of educational expenses, Massachusetts has a distinctly different flavor in the ways it shares expenses between school districts and the state. For example, Massachusetts has a "circuit breaker" to help districts defray special education costs for severely disabled children. Last year, they distributed $326 million to school districts around the state, equivalent to $49 million here, or about 8-10% of the total amount we spend on special ed. By way of comparison, in 2019, Rhode Island budgeted $4.5 million for the "High Cost Special Ed" program, which is the only comparable program here. 


The Massachusetts School Building Authority is funded by a penny of their state sales tax and spends a bit less than $700 million each year on school construction and repairs, and the debt service on borrowing for construction and repairs. Scaled down to Rhode Island size, this would be around $150 million per year. By comparison, the state here spends about $80 million a year on the same things through the school housing aid program. 


Another 5 percent of Providence's budget pays tuition to charter schools. Massachusetts schools pay similar levels of charter tuition, but the state provides a few years of payment subsidy to school districts to help reduce the financial impact of a newly-opened charter school. Massachusetts also provides transportation subsidies for several categories of need. 


The fundamental facts

Towering above even all this is the fundamental fact that Massachusetts has a funding formula for state aid that is based on the basic needs of its students. High need, low capacity districts receive as much as 94 percent of their funding from the state, while rich districts might receive as little as 10 percent. [Or less, since many choose to spend well above the state-mandated minimums.]  Rhode Island had a proposal to do such a thing some years ago, based on a 2007 report about foundation education funding, spearheaded by Rep. Edie Ajello [D-Providence] and Sen. Hanna Gallo [D-Cranston, W.Warwick]. It was deemed too expensive and deep-sixed shortly after in favor of cutting state aid. The pie was re-divided a couple of years later, and more state aid does go to troubled districts, but not nearly to the extent one sees just over the state line. 


The data above are from financial reports of the two state's education departments. You can find further insight by strolling through the fact books compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count, the invaluable data source for all kinds of child policy issues. I learned there that as of 2017, 54 percent of Rhode Island three and four year olds were not enrolled in any kind of a preschool program, a level that ranks us 21st in the country, tied with South Carolina. In Massachusetts, the number was 41 percent, third-best in the country, behind only Connecticut and New Jersey. Thirty-one percent of young children here receive a developmental screening before first grade, ranking us about 18th in the country. In Massachusetts, the number is 53 percent, or second-best among states. You can run through the Kids Count list, and there are very few of the indicators relevant to education or access to education services where Rhode Island out-performs Massachusetts. [Except reading to kids, where Rhode Island does quite well comparatively.]  Young children there are simply more likely to be ready for school when they enroll, more likely to stay in, more likely to graduate. 


What can be done to fix the schools?

So what's the matter with the schools in Providence, and what can the state do to fix them?  It would be silly to assert that better management is immaterial, but there are limits to the most enlightened manager when money is so tight. You can always put off maintenance, but the bill for those private school textbooks comes every fall, no matter what. You can always postpone your plans for a pre-school program, but you can't postpone the charter school tuitions. Or the debt service, or the pension payments. What so many people refuse to understand about budgeting is that the quality of a school is precisely what is discretionary. When tough choices must be made, quality is the first thing out the window. 

 

Some will read this and say that it's vital to mention the union here, and there are no doubt ways in which the Providence teacher union contract can be adjusted to be a better deal for both sides. But it's the job market, not the union, that is the ultimate source of limits. One can resolve to pay teachers less, but one can't force good teachers to ignore higher pay and better conditions in suburban districts, or in Massachusetts. 

 

Money is an important issue, and the widely-used statistics about per-pupil expenditures are somewhat misleading. If a state takeover of the Providence schools is a way to quietly get students in those schools the resources they need, and to begin to think about how to improve school readiness, family stability, and funding inequities, it will be all to the good. If it only becomes a way to complain further about cost and find people to blame for "mismanagement" of an impossible situation, well, we've been here before and can expect to be back again sometime soon. 

 

Reprinted with permission from Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI.com

Full story here: http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/looking-at-the-facts-our-schools-may-need-more-than-better-management,5187