School funding and weak evidence

Gov. Strickland's school funding plan has come under heavy fire in recent weeks. Republican lawmakers-and outside experts on school finance-have criticized it for lacking any real evidence (see here). Numerous editorial writers and school district officials have observed that it spends more money on wealthy districts than on poor districts (see here). And even some of its supporters-for example, the Ohio Business Roundtable and the Ohio Grantmakers Forum-have sought to inject greater flexibility into it so as not to undermine such innovations as STEM schools, quality charter schools, and early college academies.

Many, probably most, of these challenges have merit and deserve serious, reasoned responses. Yet the governor's office is all but stonewalling. The latest is the release of a "statement by experts validating Ohio's evidence-based approach to education." It came out late on Good Friday-a classic political ploy to minimize attention to something, usually bad news that someone important cannot conceal but wants to minimize. (Wait until everyone has started their holiday weekend.)

Yet according to the Strickland press release, "The analysis, commissioned by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, validates the governor's research-based proposal to establish a constitutional system of education in Ohio" (see here). That looks more like vindication or corroboration than bad news. Why bury it on Easter/Passover weekend?

We can think of three possible reasons. First, maybe the governor's team did not want reporters and analysts to look too closely at the innards of the "Review and Analysis of Ohio's Evidence-Based Model" prepared by finance consultants Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden. For its detail indicates that implementing their "evidence-based model" would actually cost far more than the governor has let on. For example, they propose considerably smaller school sizes than is the norm in Ohio today (see here).

That would require millions of dollars in new school construction and render many current schools obsolete-including some that are brand-new, thanks to Ohio's use of the "tobacco money." Odden and Picus also recommend smaller (and costlier) adult-student ratios than does Gov. Strickland. If their model is really evidence-based, however, one may fairly ask what led the governor to propose something different than the model's own gurus say is called for by their "evidence?"

A second possibility for the odd timing is this: The governor's plan, whether or not it is faithful to the work of Odden and Picus, purports to show what it would cost to educate all children in Ohio to a high standard. Unfortunately, there is no such price tag. As Stanford economist Eric Hanushek explains, "Decades of scientific research across a wide range of school experiences has focused on uncovering the contribution of schools to student outcomes. This substantial body of work shows, contrary to widely held popular beliefs, that there is not a consistent relation between school resources and student achievement" (see here).

Indeed, in another report cited by the governor's team as further evidence, Achieve Inc. and McKinsey & Co. observed in February 2007 (see here) that it's impossible to calculate "the true costs of educating each student to the level of the State standards" because the state doesn't even collect the data needed to determine such a cost. Worse, no state collects such data. Hanushek calls so-called evidence-based models "educators' wish lists" and concludes they are "an inappropriate basis for judicial or legislative deliberations on school finance."

Finally, Strickland's team may worry about their advisors' credibility. In 2003, a Montana judge tossed out the testimony of Picus on a school-funding adequacy case, observing that Picus "danced with the girls that brought him." The judge noted that Picus had testified in both Kansas and Massachusetts that those states had equitable and constitutional funding systems but subsequently testified in Montana that its system was inadequate and violated constitutional requirements. This, the judge noted, despite the fact that Montana's system was objectively more equitable in virtually every measure than either Kansas or Massachusetts.

Gov. Strickland is keen to spend more state money on K-12 education. This is surely his prerogative and he ran for office promising to do just that. Unfortunately, his "evidence-based" model is really nothing more than the selective interpretation of a hodgepodge of research studies by hired guns. Maybe that explains why their expert "validation" was released late on Good Friday when everybody had stopped paying attention.

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