26 January 2015

K-12 Education Funding... and the Strings Attached

In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, California spent $70 billion on K-12 education. To put that in perspective, Bill Gates' net worth is $80.4 billion. So, in a single year, California spends nearly all of Bill Gates' wealth on teaching children. This is a good thing, of course, but it's also an impressive number.

Nationwide, the country spent $632 billion on on public elementary and secondary schools in the 2010-2011 school year (the latest year for which I could find data). That's nearly 4% of the US GDP and 10% of total U.S government spending (including federal, state and local).

Here's where the 2013-2014 California money came from, in billions of dollars. Other states have similar proportions between federal and state/local funds:

Local Funds$21.78031%
State Funds$40.86458%
Federal Funds$7.38211%
Total$70.026

For this post I'm going to concentrate on the strings attached to the Federal funds.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA 1965)

Federal funding of education, at least at contemporary rates, centers on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," the ESEA was intended to address inequities in education. It had been long observed that students from lower income, urban schools have significantly lower educational achievement than their middle income, suburban contemporaries. ESEA provided supplementary funding to the lowest achieving schools with provisions intended to insure that existing funding is preserved rather than replaced.

The ESEA was set up to require periodic reauthorization by congress – typically every five years. However, due to congressional gridlock on educational ideas, the reauthorizations have often been single-year continuing resolutions that continue funding for another year without changing the provisions of the law. Major updates occurred in 1981 under the Reagan administration and in 1994 under the Clinton administration. But the biggest update was No Child Left Behind, proposed in 2001 and signed by President Bush in January of 2002.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB 2002)

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is the name given to the 2001/2002 reauthorization of ESEA. It establishes the accountability and reform framework in which state education systems presently operate. In theory, states have the ability to opt out at the expense of federal funding. In practice, no state is willing to give up approximately 11% of their educational budget.

The principle focus of NCLB is on the Standards and Accountability theory of education reform. Here are the main requirements:
  • States must establish state standards (sometimes known as core standards) for achievement in English Language Arts (ELA), Mathematics, and Science. Most states also include standards for Social Studies and other subjects.
  • States must test all students in grades 3 through 8 and again in either grade 11 or 12 to measure progress in ELA and Math. 
  • At a minimum, states must test students in science three times. Once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9, and once in grades 10-12.
  • The testing results for each school should show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward having all students meeting or exceeding state standards by the 2013-2014 school year.

Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

Among the most challenging parts of NCLB as been the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement for schools. Schools receiving Title I assistance (those with a large number of low-income students) receive increasingly strident interventions each consecutive year they fail to achieve AYP:
  • Year 1: No intervention.
  • Year 2: Develop an improvement plan, provide students the option to transfer to other schools including paying for the transportation to get there, and prescribed uses of Title I funds.
  • Year 3: Must continue year 2 interventions plus and also provide tutoring and/or after school programs from a state-appointed provider.
  • Year 4: Must continue year 2 and 3 interventions plus one or more of the following: Replace responsible staff'; Implement a new curriculum; Decrease a school's management authority; Appoint an external expert to advise the school; or Restructure the internal organization of the school.
  • Year 5: Shut down or completely restructure the school.
When NCLB was passed, there was an optimistic outlook. Within 12 years, nearly all schools would be meeting state standards for performance with a small number of underperforming schools receiving intervention. It turns out that, as a country, we haven't worked out a formula for consistent school improvement. If the process for meeting AYP standards was well-known, the goals might have been met.

One concern has been that certain states set unreasonably low standards. Prior to adopting the Common Core State Standards, Tennessee had the lowest standards for reading while Massachusetts had the highest.

Despite low and inconsistent standards, so many schools are failing to meet AYP goals that there aren't enough resources to deliver the prescribed remedies. In 2011, 48% of public schools failed to meet AYP goals. In 21 states, more than half of schools didn't meet AYP goals and in 41 states and Washington D.C. more than one fourth of schools didn't make AYP. There aren't enough tutoring organizations, replacement staff, or trained principals to supply the year 4 and 5 remedies for this many schools, not to mention sufficient funds to pay for these interventions.

Waivers

With so many schools failing to meet AYP goals and the remedies being impractical to implement, congress is way overdue for an ESEA reauthorization that adapts to current circumstances. Unfortunately, no proposed update has made any significant progress. Congress has left us with continuing resolutions that preserve the law as it stands.

To relieve pressure, the Department of Education, under Secretary Arne Duncan has begun granting waivers to NCLB to states that produce an acceptable alternative plan. Not surprisingly, the granting of waivers is controversial. The authority of the executive branch to waive requirements like these seems to have legal precedent. However, it's not clear that alternative requirements can be applied without congressional action.

Nevertheless, every state except Nebraska has applied for a waiver, many have been granted, and even Nebraska has announced plans to apply for a waiver in 2015.

The Way Forward

There's growing hope that congress may finally address ESEA reauthorization in 2015. There are even hints that the reauthorization may include support for competency education. Many organizations are offering wishlists for reauthorization from civil rights groups to advocates of federalist solutions. As in the past, divisions on education don't follow traditional political lines.

Here is my personal wish list for an ESEA reauthorization:
  • Preserve and strengthen state standards, encourage but don't require alignment of standards between states.
  • Preserve regular assessment of student achievement with an increasing emphasis on Depth of Knowledge.
  • Accelerate the shift from seat-time measures to direct measures of competency for the granting of secondary school credit.
  • Encourage the transition from periodic testing events to continuous assessment of student skills (curriculum-embedded assessment) with frequent and rapid feedback to students, teachers and parents.
  • Clarify the difference between standards and curriculum and establish a framework for public review of both standards and curriculum. Require schools to report the origin of curricular materials on public websites and on every worksheet or assignment.
  • Sustain the concept of interventions for schools not achieving AYP goals while shifting to more practical and supportive remedies than those in NCLB.

2 comments :

Kristen Wilkinson said...

This is a super helpful overview of where the state of education is today. My biggest concern is that for many of the failing schools, the biggest driver of failure is what's happening in the homes of the children. How can that be fixed by a government mandated change in administration, or any other of the consequences?

I'd like to know what potential "supportive remedies" for failing schools could be.

Brandt Redd said...

I don't think government can directly solve home problems. We need to rely more on churches and community organizations. But government policies can be tuned to strengthen families. Among the biggest things government can do in this area is teach young women. The educational achievement of you he mother is among the best predictors of a child's success (according to a number of studies).

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