News Room

Letter: “Before reform, fund properly”

July 23, 2015 – The Philadelphia Inquirer – by Adam Schott and David Lapp

Earlier this summer, the state Senate advanced a far-reaching proposal to put public schools with low test scores under direct state control. As evidenced by statements by Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) and others, the legislation appears likely to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations around Gov. Wolf’s request that significant resources be added to the state’s education budget.In support of the legislation, lawmakers and some advocacy organizations have cited school turnarounds in Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. But comparisons to these other states require close scrutiny.

First, there’s the issue of resources.

While supporters of state takeover legislation have properly argued that money alone can’t cure what ails the state’s lowest-performing schools, it is also true that Pennsylvania public schools have endured more than five years of inadequate, unpredictable state funding. We have a practice in Pennsylvania of expecting our public schools to do more while providing schools and students with less.

For example, this month, the Department of Education reported that dramatically higher academic standards implemented over the last several years have led to a steep decline in state test scores. Public schools, educators, and students have been working feverishly to meet these ambitious standards, all while coping with staff cuts, program reductions, and fewer supports for vulnerable learners.

The story has been very different in Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee: In all three states, new accountability models were paired with additional resources – including billions in federal recovery aid for education and learning facilities in the case of Louisiana, and a decade of massive, progressively distributed investment in Massachusetts’ public schools. Most relevant to conversations about school turnaround models, both Tennessee and Massachusetts received a combined $750 million in federal Race to the Top funding – money that could be specifically applied to turnarounds and other interventions. This funding was nearly 20 times Pennsylvania’s award.

These resources rest atop reliable and equitable school-funding formulas, so as lawmakers in these states crafted new accountability provisions, districts and schools could count on the resources that would be available, year to year, to meet new objectives. For example, the 2014 edition of “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card” found that on one of the most important elements of school-funding fairness – the distribution of state dollars relative to student poverty – Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee ranked fourth, seventh, and ninth in the nation, respectively; Pennsylvania ranked 38th.

Beyond funding, all of these states have an advantage over Pennsylvania with respect to state education department staffing. Earlier this month, the National Center for Education Evaluation reported that states across the country have made school turnarounds a priority, yet most states lack the capacity to do this work well.

The problem may be especially acute in Pennsylvania: A 2011 survey found that the commonwealth’s public K-12 enrollment exceeded that of Tennessee’s, the next highest state, by more than 820,000 – yet Pennsylvania trailed all three states by a significant margin with respect to state agency staffing levels. In Pennsylvania, the Education Department’s declining staff levels and general operating budget are useful proxies for the state’s commitment to providing technical assistance and support to districts.

Finally, research on the effectiveness of these turnaround models, especially in Louisiana and Tennessee, is still in the preliminary stages. What we know is that the post-Hurricane Katrina landscape in New Orleans is a unique case; the school system was remade after the disaster with billions in new funding and a nearly total overhaul of management and teaching staff in certain areas. We also know that these reforms do not come free of additional cost.

As we await solid findings, we are beginning to see some political pushback against turnaround models at the state level. In Tennessee, we have early insight about teacher and student mobility, and about the options provided by schools, along with the difficulties associated with improving practice across diverse schools.

It is possible that turnaround and other provisions in these states are working as intended. But it is also true that significant differences between the states cited as models for ambitious turnarounds and the present state of education policy in Pennsylvania make it impossible to directly attribute improved student outcomes to the accountability side of the equation.

But one thing is virtually guaranteed: Ambitious school-takeover policies will add greater long-term costs to our education system. Again and again, Pennsylvania’s education community has embraced accountability in the form of higher standards, more demanding tests, new evaluation systems, and performance reporting. None of these mandates have come with adequate levels of funding and support. Before experimenting with a new, more costly model, Harrisburg should provide education funding that is adequate, predictable, and equitably distributed.

Adam Schott is director of policy research at Research for [email protected]

David Lapp is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center. [email protected]