by David Safier
Yesterday I wrote about the gross inequities built into Brewer's proposed Performance Funding plan for schools, where schools with higher income students are virtually guaranteed extra funding from the state while schools with lower income students have to improve or overachieve to get their extra funding. You can read the analysis here.
Now let's look at some concrete examples: three actual elementary schools in the greater Tucson area.
- School No. 1 has a student population that's 64% White, 15% Asian and 17% Hispanic, with 10% of its students on free or reduced lunch. Its state grade is A — 154 out of 200 points, an average grade for a school with students in that income bracket.
- School No. 2 has a student population that's 91% Hispanic and 3% Native American, with 96% of its students on free or reduced lunch. Its state grade is C — 113 points, only 7 points below a B, significantly higher than normal for a school with students in that income bracket.
- School No. 3 has a student population that's 94% Hispanic and 3% Native American,
with 96% of its students on free or reduced lunch. Its state grade is D
— 93 points, on the low end of schools with students in that income bracket, though not the lowest.
Let's see how much extra funding each school will get if it shows no improvement and next year's score is identical to this one.
- School No. 1: an extra $300 per student.
- School No. 2: an extra $75 per student.
- School No. 3: no extra funding.
Someone could argue, I guess, that School No. 3 doesn't deserve any extra funding because of its poor performance and lack of improvement. But the fact is, that means it will actually get less than the current base funding, which makes its chance of improving even worse than it was before. However, by any real-world standard, School No. 2 is outperforming School No. 1 in relation to the economic status of its students — the teachers are probably working their tails off, performing far beyond the call of duty (and certainly far beyond their salaries) — yet it's getting a quarter of School No. 1's extra funding, whose teachers are in a far less stressful situation, because School No. 1 reaps the benefits of being filled with high achieving students from affluent families.
Let's change the scenario and see what happens if each school gains 5 points in the next year. That means they'll all get more money because of the improvement. Here's what their total extra funding would be.
- School No. 1: an extra $425 per student.
- School No. 2: an extra $260 per student.
- School No. 3: an extra $180 per student.
The funding inequality is still there, though it's shrunk a bit because the lower a school's original score, the more extra money it gets for every point it improves. But still, School No. 1 is getting far more than either of the other schools.
Most likely, the funding gap between the schools will revert to something close to the first scenario as years pass. None of the schools will be able to keep improving year after year. School No. 1's score is so high already, it may have one or two more years of improvement, tops, then the money it gets for improvement will disappear, and its extra funding will stabilize at about $350. School No. 2 is already one of the highest scoring schools with students at that income level, so it's got maybe two years before it hits a wall and stabilizes at about $125. School No. 3 has the most room for growth because its score is so low. Optimistically, it can keep up that pace of improvement for, say, four years. Then its scores will most likely stabilize with its extra funding at about $75 per student.
That's the system in a nutshell. The fix is in, built into the basic formula. The easy money goes to schools with affluent students who generally test high just because of their economic status. As the students' family income drops, schools have to rely on unsustainable improvement to get significant extra funding, and it's still less than the funding the high income schools receive with ease. Then, when they reach a point where they can't improve much further, their funding level will slip.
It's an inherently unfair system, but there are ways to tweak it to make it fairer and more equitable. I'll suggest one way in a later post.