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John Kuhn on Education Funding in Texas: There is a Hole in the Bucket

Part 1 of 2

Guest post by John Kuhn.

"There's a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza."

At the root of the school reform debate as I see it is a fundamental disagreement about causality. No one disagrees that by any number of measures (PISA scores, graduation rates, etc.) the academic outcomes of some American students are horrendously unacceptable. On this point, even Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are in perfect agreement, along with everyone else who thinks even a little bit about education.

But then the wheels come off.
When you ask the question, "What caused this?" the wheels come off.
When you ask the question, "How do we fix it?" the wheels come off.
We are all friends until we're not. And when those questions come up, we go to our respective corners and we prepare to fight for what we see as the best way forward. This is great. This is the messiness of democracy. I'm thrilled to be wearing these gloves. (I don't pretend to be impartial.)

You discover many battle lines when you survey this field of contest. Charter schools force traditional schools to get with the program vs. charter schools skim kids in order to look better. Vouchers encourage competition vs. vouchers haven't worked in Milwaukee. Merit pay encourages excellent teachers vs. merit pay destroys morale. And on and on.

But I want to use my happy visit to this blog to study my favorite battle line of all, one that I have revisited various times in past comments. First, a bit of local context that will help me advance this discussion:
In 2006, legislators in the great state of Texas--that beacon of compassion for the unfortunate--planted into statute a creation called the "Target Revenue System." Under this system, each one of the 1029 (or thereabouts) school districts in Texas was assigned a dollar amount that would be its full share of state and local revenue. No more and no less. It was to be a floor and a ceiling. Now, since school districts in wealthier areas were accustomed to a certain standard of living, the legislators decided they couldn't very well fund them at the same rate as those unfortunate suckers in the border towns, inner cities, or fading farm towns. Ergo, different districts got different Target Revenues, which to this day differ. (In essence, some of Sam Houston's children get a higher allowance than others, depending of course on how black they are.)

So, if you look at the current list of Target Revenues in Texas (published here since the Lone Star State doesn't seem eager to put it out for public viewing), you'll find that Star ISD gets $3809 per weighted average daily attendance (WADA) while Westbrook ISD gets $13,116 per WADA. (I will be using the shorthand "per student" in place of "per WADA" for clarity from here on out.) So, if both these sample school districts have an identical 1000 students, Texas policymakers will lavish upon Westbrook ISD $13,116,000 and will bless Star ISD with a slightly less generous $3,809,000. Keep in mind that both districts are required to provide the same curriculum, both are required to offer the same mandated programs, and both are required to have their students achieve identical minimum outcomes in terms of test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, and so forth. (I wonder if the "Money doesn't matter" folks will honestly contend that Star ISD should have no problem getting the same results as Westbrook ISD with 10 million fewer greenbacks to play with. I'm sure if Star ISD would just cut some of the fat in its administration office and quit hiring so many dad-blamed assistant football coaches they could close the gap!)

So clearly, the Target Revenue System in Texas is from the devil. But I don't want to shortchange our esteemed congressmen, so let me just add here that they really, really intended to "bring the bottom up" over the past six years, but the darned economy just didn't leave them enough money to do that AND give tax breaks to luxury yacht buyers. Sometimes you have to make hard choices.

Westbrook and Star are the most extreme example of the funding gap in Texas; I want to focus on a less extreme (but no less egregious) specimen.
North of Dallas there is a well-to-do suburb called Highland Park. According to the last census "per capita money income in past 12 months" for Highland Park was $116,772 and "median household income 2005-2009" was $176,375. The median value of a home is $982,600 in Highland Park.

South of Fort Worth, there is a blue collar neighborhood called Everman. According to the same census "per capita money income in past 12 months" for Everman was $16,685 and "median household income 2005-2009" was $39,508. The median value of a home is $80,700 in Everman.

I'll ask two rhetorical questions here: 1.) should these two school districts be funded at the same level? And 2.) if not, which district should get funded at a higher clip, and why?

If you answered that Highland Park should be funded higher because rich white kids are used to nice things, you are a winner! (And on a side note, I'd like to thank you for reading the blog, Congressman.)

Now, here are some relevant educational funding facts taken from the Texas Education Agency's "Academic Excellence Indicator System". (You'll notice that it doesn't say a word about "funding excellence" anywhere.) The hyperlink will take you to the TEA's AEIS search engine so you can verify that I'm not just making junk up. (Please be aware that there are two Highland Park school districts in Texas. This Highland Park is usually denoted as Highland Park-Dallas. Also note that the state of Texas accidentally forgets to acknowledge the existence of the Target Revenue System on the AEIS report it releases as public information regarding each school district; that being the case, I have taken the target revenue information for these two schools from the link previously shared above, which contains information appropriated from the Equity Center.)

Comparing Two Districts: Everman Vs. Highland Park

Funding
Target Revenue: Everman: $4973... Highland Park: $6013
WADA: Everman: 6184... Highland Park: 6697
Allotment for first 6184 kids: Everman: $30,753,032 ... Highland Park: $37,184,392

Teaching Quality

Avg actual teacher pay: Everman: $50,491... Highland Park: $55,894
Teachers w/adv. degrees : Everman: 14.6%... Highland Park: 67.1%
Students per teacher: Everman: 15.5 ... Highland Park: 15.6
Turnover Rate : Everman: 18.0%... Highland Park: 9.2%

Outcomes
4-year completion rate: Everman: 85.2%... Highland Park: 98.1%
Met standard, sum of all tests: Everman: 67%... Highland Park: 98%
College-ready (TSI)-English: Everman: 50% ... Highland Park: 93%
College-ready (TSI)-Math:: Everman: 58% ... Highland Park: 96%

Demographics

% of student body is white: Everman: 6.3%... Highland Park: 90.4%

The one conclusion we can all agree on here is that students in Highland Park are turning out better than the students in Everman, academically speaking. But now I have to knock the wheels off our happy consensus and ask the question: "Why?"

The way I see it, there are a few possible answers.
1. White people are intellectually superior. (The KKK prefers this answer.)
2. Higher income parents have smarter kids. (Higher income parents prefer this answer.)
3. Inequitable school funding stunts academic achievement. (I prefer this answer.)
4. Everman has crappy teachers and Highland Park has awesome teachers. (School reformers prefer this answer.)
5. Everman has crappy parents and Highland Park has awesome parents. (Republicans and burnt-out teachers prefer this answer.)
6. Social factors outside-of-school in Everman are more toxic to education than factors outside-of-school in Highland Park. (Democrats prefer this answer.)

In my next posting, I'll delve deeper into causality and explain why I titled this posting as I did. I know you can't wait.

John Kuhn is Superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Independent School District in Texas. Last year he spoke out on the steps of the Capitol in Austin, and was featured in this interview here.


What do you think of the funding of schools in Texas? How does this compare to school funding in your state?

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