Monday, January 23, 2017

Obama Administration Admits Money Didn't Really Work

The Obama Department of Education conceded in its last days in office that spending additional billions in the lowest-performing schools through "School Improvement Grants" (SIGs) was ineffective:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis. 
Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School
Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.... 
The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.
The money went to states to distribute to their poorest-performing schools — those with exceedingly low graduation rates, or poor math and reading test scores, or both. Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, on the condition that they adopt one of the Obama administration’s four preferred measures: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a “transformation,” including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.... 
[Arne] Duncan often said that the administration’s school-improvement efforts did not get the attention they deserved, overshadowed by more-controversial efforts to encourage states to adopt new standards and teacher evaluations tied to tests.
The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s “biggest bet.” 
He and other administration officials sought to highlight individual schools that made dramatic improvements after receiving the money. But the new study released this week shows that, as a large-scale effort, School Improvement Grants failed.

The relevance to New Jersey is that the Abbottist spending targets embedded in SFRA for high-FRL districts are going to be beyond the point of effectiveness.

How high are the targets?  For instance, SFRA's Adequacy Budget for non-at-risk high schoolers is $12,770 per student, but it is nearly $10,000 per student higher - $22,750  to be exact - per student for FRL-eligible, LEP high schoolers at schools where the FRL eligibility exceeds 60%. (source is the 2016 Education Funding Report)

And these figures do not represent all that SFRA says that schools should spend, since they are independent of Transportation Aid, Security Aid, Special Education Aid, and federal aid.  A consequence of this, is that a fully-funded high-FRL district in New Jersey should be spending $24,000-25,000 per student according to SFRA.

As always, I do believe that poor districts need to receive much more state aid than middle-class and affluent districts.  I believe their spending targets (ie, Adequacy Budgets) should be somewhat higher as well, but $24,000-$25,000 per student is excessive.

Although my analysis isn't as comprehensive or rigorous as the Department of Education's, the Abbotts do not outperform poor non-Abbotts who spend half as much as they do and who lack PreK:

Education spending does not exist in isolation.  The money the state spends on education is either acquired through taxation or cuts to other government services.  I don't think it's a coincidence that New Jersey is among the highest spending states on PreK and K-12, and yet our higher ed spending is average at best.  I don't think it's a coincidence the rampup of Abbott funding through the 1990s and early 2000s took place at the same time as the abandonment of our pension system.

If New Jersey is going to bring its taxes down into the realm of the national average and consistently fund its schools, it is going to have to drop the utopian spending mission and admit that its spending targets are beyond the point of diminishing returns and subtract from other government obligations.


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