Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Real-Dollar Spending Analyses: One of the best things we ever did

In our 20th anniversary publication, Russlynn Ali wrote about CRPE’s research on real-dollar spending within school districts. Russlynn was the perfect person to assess the impact of our work in this area, because she had drawn on it twice to great effect: once in California to advocate successfully for a more transparent state funding system, and later as head of USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights, to attack within-district spending inequities.

From the time of CRPE’s founding in 1993, I was determined to develop real-dollar spending as a line of research. It was obvious to me from earlier studies of Title I that big city districts funded schools inequitably, putting the highest-paid teachers and many special programs in the schools with the most advantaged kids. It was also clear that a lot of money was tied up in district central offices, and that nobody knew how much or what anything, from professional development programs to substitute pools, really cost. That meant nobody could make informed trade-offs or compare the effectiveness of equal-cost alternatives.

But it was hard to get the work started. Funders didn’t readily get the need (“Doesn’t the district budget tell you what you need to know?”) and it was hard to find staff with the quantitative skills, imagination, and grit to do it well. That is, until Marguerite Roza, a wizard I had known during her Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, returned to Seattle looking for work.

I hired her immediately and she set to work analyzing real-dollar spending, first in Seattle and then in Cincinnati, Denver, Milwaukee, and Houston. We were fortunate that Angela Covert of the Atlantic Philanthropies was willing to let us use grant funds to support this unprecedented work. The results, from Marguerite’s first analysis of spending discrepancies within the Seattle district, to her later and more complicated results on real expenditures in district central offices, were more vivid and amazing than even I had hoped. It was clear that districts didn’t know how they were spending money, but also that spending patterns often worked against announced district priorities. Moreover, opaqueness on spending was baked into the system. Without the kind of detailed, follow-the-dollar analyses that Marguerite did, district leaders couldn’t possibly know where their money was going.

This work has had a profound effect on district and state policy, including adoptions of pupil-based funding at both levels. We also made some headway at the federal level, urging that Title I “comparability” rules be beefed up so that districts couldn’t spend less of their own money on schools that served disadvantaged children. That change should happen, if Congress can ever pass an ESEA reauthorization bill.

We have also had some frustrations. Our legal brief (aimed at getting civil rights groups to use our methods and results to attack inequitable spending patterns within districts) took a long time to catch on: the groups would rather sue states than districts, and they didn’t want to tangle with unions about spending inequities driven by collective bargaining. But the Vergara decision might help wake some of these groups up.

Launching this line of inquiry was one of the best things CRPE ever did. Marguerite has now spun her work off into a new center (the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown), but we still share an agenda, and collaborate daily. As Russlynn writes, the work continues to be transformative, for CRPE and for the field.

Read Russlynn Ali’s essay, “Real Students, Real Data, Real Change”

Also: Read Marguerite Roza’s essay, “Check Your Assumptions”

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