by David Safier
Part of Brewer's State of the State address dealt with her proposal to create a Performance Funding system for schools. Basically, she wants all schools to receive the same base funding — probably lower than the current amount — then get more money if they are either A or B rated schools or if they improve their test scores over previous years. The inevitable result: Schools with lots of high income students will get extra funding year after year even if they're mediocre. Everyone else will have to continually improve or overachieve to get something extra. And the schools that need the most help raising their students' achievement will occupy a permanent spot at the bottom of the funding ladder.
Without question, the most accurate predictor of student achievement is family
income: higher income levels generally lead to higher achievement levels. And since half of a school's A-F state grade is based on student performance on the AIMS test, schools with higher income students are far more likely to get an A or B grade that will give them those extra state funds than schools with lower income students.
How much more likely? Here's the percent of schools with an A or B grade based on the number of students who get free or reduced lunch:
- Less than 55% of students on free/reduced lunch: 90% chance of an A or B grade
- 56-85% of students on free/reduced lunch: 40% chance of an A or B grade
- More than 85% of students on free/reduced lunch: 25% chance of an A or B grade.
[Note: I based my results on a random sample of 100 Arizona elementary schools. While the figures aren't precise, they're reasonably accurate.]
A school gets anywhere from $100 extra per student if it's at the bottom end of the B range to $500 per student if it's at the top of the A range. That's easy money for schools with higher income students. Even mediocre schools that have less than half their students on free/reduced lunch have a virtual guarantee that extra money will pour in every year. Meanwhile, only the highest performing schools with more than half their students on free/reduced lunch will get some of the funds going to A and B schools.
But the funding inequity is actually worse than that.
Higher income schools usually get higher total scores than lower income schools that manage to earn Bs and As, and higher total scores means more money per student. In my sampling of 100 schools, only one school with more than 70% of its students on free/reduced lunch got an A, and those with Bs tended to be on the lower end of the B range. So even the highest achieving schools with lower income students will average about $100 to $150 less per student than a school with higher income students.
Part of the inequity problem is addressed by giving schools extra funding based on improvement, but it's only a partial fix. If a D school increases its score by 10 points over an earlier score, for example, it will get $350 to $400 more per student. That sounds like an equalizer, but the problem is, it's almost impossible for a school to keep improving its test scores over a number of years. A low performing school might put out maximum effort and raise its scores 10 points a year for one or two years, but after that, it's going to reach a point where it's maxed out what can reasonably be expected of its students. The school will hit a testing wall. Often after a few years of steady improvement, scores actually slip in the following years. But whether scores level off or fall, the result is the same; the extra funding dries up.
Brewer's Performance Funding is rigged to benefit schools educating higher income students which will get the extra funding consistently, year after year after year, while schools with lower income students have to outperform expectations to get an occasional burst of extra funding. And the schools that are hurting the most, low C and D schools unable to raise their students' test scores for one reason or another, will actually see their funding levels shrink. Dollars that would have gone to them if all schools received equal funding will be taken away to give funding bonuses to other schools. With lowered resources at their disposal, they are virtually assured of remaining at the bottom of the funding and achievement ladder.
Brewer's Performance Funding scheme is inherently inequitable, but the formula can be tweaked to address its bias toward schools with higher income students. I'll propose an improved formula in another post.