Rearranging Deck Chairs

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, Nebraska City, NE, ID’d by Diane Branstetter

The Titanic has come to mind twice recently:  first when a friend told me he and his husband are cruising from England to the United States for a vacation, primarily to get away from their cell phones, and second when I read Making Oklahoma’s School Funding More Rational: Simplifying the WADM Calculation, a policy paper by Byron Schlomach of the 1889 Institute Stink Tank.

WADM as used in the state funding formula means “weighted average daily membership”.  Few would dispute the fairness of allocating state funding in a way that assures school districts have approximately the same financial resources per student they are educating.  All districts are required to report their ADM, average daily membership, as the count of the number of students enrolled.  The “weighted” part exists in the state funding formula because the political consensus, based on educators’ experience and research, is that students with certain characteristics cost more to educate than others.  The largest weightings Oklahoma uses have to do with the students’ grade level (early childhood and high school have greater weights), students with disabilities, and students who are economically disadvantaged, i.e. family income is low.  The effect of altering, or even eliminating, weightings is to increase funding to some districts paid for entirely by decreasing funding to other districts.  In the same way that rearranging deck chairs will not keep a sinking ship afloat, changing student weights will not address the overall shortfall of funding for Oklahoma’s public schools.

As our governor and a substantial majority in our legislature are aware, Oklahoma’s schools are under-funded.   The state aid funding per WADM peaked in FY 2009 at $3,275.60; for FY 2018 it is starting at $3,042.40.  That decline is in the face of steadily rising prices for such essentials as utilities and insurance; additionally, the steady growth in local revenues collected, primarily property taxes, that are part of the state aid calculation somewhat mask the dismal effort made by our state.  Unmasked the state’s effort is shown by this familiar chart:

The Titanic is sinking and Schlomo’s (see A Rise By Any Other Name) rescue attempt is to rearrange the deck chairs, a task for which he is woefully inadequate.

Here are his recommendations for the big three weights, and my critique.

  1. Grade Weights. Current grade weights start out high for pre-K and Kindergarten through 2nd grade (1.3, 1.5, 1.351), drop for 4th through 6th (1.0) and rise for 7th through 12th (1.2).  Schlomo, based on his “perusal” of private school tuition structure, would start low with Pre-K and elementary grades (1.05 and 1.0) and end higher (1.2) in high school.  He thinks lower class sizes and sports are needed for high school students but larger class sizes and nose/butt wiping by lower paid staff will suffice for the younger students.  He needs to spend a day “teaching” kindergartners and another teaching 12th graders and see if he is still of the same, uninformed opinion.  Having actually taught 7th through 12th grades and community college classes for 17 years and having dabbled with pre-school and early elementary classes at our church, I’d flip his scale upside down.  Better yet I’ll stick with the Task Force 2000 recommendations that formed the basis of House Bill 1017 25 years ago (House Bill 1017 25th Anniversary ) until our state engages in a similar process of actual study and research—not a perusal of private school tuition.  In any event, since all school districts have a healthy mix of student ages, little redistribution should result from changes to grade weights.

  1. His primary recommendation for Special Education weights is that somebody else needs to review them; translated, he doesn’t know enough about this critical area to offer any helpful advice. He does make the nonsensical recommendation to eliminate the Summer Program weight.  Special education services are mandated by federal law and the state is ultimately responsible for assuring that the required education is provided.  Oklahoma in turn delegates that responsibility to its public schools.  Therefore, it makes sense that it should provide sufficient funding for these services.  For some students with disabilities it is determined that a summer program is necessary for them to receive the appropriate education required by federal law.  The Summer Program weight is intended to offset the school district’s cost to provide the required program.  It makes no sense to eliminate that weight if the purpose of weights is to offset the cost of the educational services.  He also opines that the category Specific Learning Disability is “sufficiently vague that almost any student could qualify.”  He is apparently afraid that parents will game the system and get their children classified as learning disabled so they can have longer to take tests.  If he bothered to read the six pages in the state special education manual about how a specific learning disability is determined, he would know that saying “almost any student could qualify” demonstrates his ignorance of the statistics of test measurements (to qualify for SLD a student’s score on one or more achievement tests must be 1.5 standard deviation below the student’s intellectual ability test score).

  1. Lastly he recommends eliminating the weight for Economically Disadvantaged. The only people Stink Tanks enjoy disparaging more than government employees (they exempt law enforcement and the military) are the poor.  You see they think the presence of rich people, and middle class stink tankers like Schlomo who feed off their dole, proves that if certain people aren’t rich they have only themselves to blame.  And trying to help them won’t help, it will only make them lazy.  Schlomo ignores an abundance of research on the topic (just Google “economically disadvantaged and educational achievement” and you will find such papers as Starting School at a Disadvantage:  The School Readiness of Poor Children, 2012 Brookings Institute).  Tulsa is blessed to have the Kaiser Foundation working hard to find the right use of additional resources to break the cycle of poverty and unlock the potential of children whose futures would otherwise be bleak.  It makes sense to provide additional resources for similar efforts based on measured concentrations of poverty.

But Schlomo has his most fun accusing Oklahoma families of cheating on school lunch applications so they don’t have to pay for their children’s meals.  His basic argument is that one source of data says only 49% of Oklahoma’s children live in households with incomes below 200% of poverty, yet 64% of Oklahoma’s public school children are receiving free or reduced lunches based on being in a household with incomes less than 185% of poverty.  However, he cheats with his analysis and use of statistics.   Consider that:

*His 49% is of a base that purports to include ALL children regardless of whether attending public or private schools.  The 64% is of a base that only includes public school attendees.  If private school students experience a lower rate of poverty, then his comparison is distorted by some amount.  He could do some real research and make the adjustment (see This Is Too Much Fun).

**Part of his analysis jumps off from Oklahoma’s overall poverty rate of 17.3%, which he uses to extrapolate to school children; yet readily available from the U. S. Census the same year is the poverty rate for Oklahomans ages 5-17 of 21.5%.  Again, his use of the incorrect number distorts the comparison.

***The School Lunch Program has rules intended to qualify students in an expansive way, using direct certification of families receiving TANF and SNAP benefits, residing in institutional settings, allowing a somewhat casual self-reporting of income on the applications, and a “once qualified, valid entire year” standard.  By design the program will overstate the incidence of lower incomes when compared to the     U. S. Census that comes at it through tax returns and other sources that are statistically adjusted year to year.  While honing in on the same information, the two approaches are like apples and oranges.

Candidly, if some parents, out of carelessness, ignorance or greed, have understated their families’ incomes, I find that far more excusable than the sloppy work produced by Schlomo who, possessing a PhD in economics, must know better.  However, just as he suspects parents might knowingly lie on a school lunch application for the price of their child’s school lunches, I suspect Schlomo is willing to play fast and loose with statistics to please the 1889 Institute’s donors with analysis and “facts” that fit their preconceptions.

Upon reflection, perhaps it is preferable to have a documented limited thinker ( Miserables Love Company ,  Double, Double, Toil and Trouble , Later, Sooner ) like Schlomo merely rearranging the deck chairs of our state because we sure don’t want him piloting the ship.

As always lunch is on me for the first to ID the photo location.


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