Weak links to student achievement in school funding model

Members of Ohio’s School Funding Advisory Council have expressed concerns about the efficacy of the state’s new evidence-based model (EBM) of school funding. As Ohio heads into the next biennium with a staggering $8 billion deficit, tough questions about the expensive mandates imposed by the EBM aren’t just partisan drivel; they are part of a necessary public policy debate. It’s a reasonable expectation to want to know that the state can actually afford.

The co-creator of the EBM himself – Lawrence Picus, a researcher from the University of Southern California – attended the council’s March 25 meeting in Columbus and had a chance to answer council members’ burning questions. How do other states implementing the EBM perform academically? Does Ohio have to adhere exactly to the EBM, as designed by Drs. Picus and Odden – or can it deviate? How much will it cost to fully implement Ohio’s EBM? Will effective Buckeye State districts have to modify their current policies, and who will pay for it?

Unfortunately, Dr. Picus’s responses to these critical questions were usually contradictory or incomplete. His presentation of evidence behind the original EBM wasn’t reassuring either, as his list of educational best practices from which the funding model is derived appears to have no discernible connection to the costly mandates with which Ohio leaders are now struggling.

Dr. Picus presented “10 steps” that can “double student performance,” arguing that these serve as the common thread among all high-achieving schools:

  1. Analyze state tests to understand performance challenges
  2. Set higher goals
  3. Adopt a new curriculum
  4. Commit to data-based decision making
  5. Invest in professional development
  6. Focus class time more efficiently
  7. Provide interventions to struggling learners
  8. Create professional learning communities
  9. Empower leaders to support instructional improvement
  10. Take advantage of external expertise

Dr. Picus provided no explanation as to how these “steps” correlate with the actual mandates imposed by the EBM. For example, how did “focusing class time more efficiently” or “creating professional learning communities” get translated into prescriptions for health and wellness coordinators and mandated student-teacher ratios for Limited English Proficient students? From what “step” is the mandate for family and community “liaisons” derived, for set numbers of building managers and secretaries, or for per pupil funding levels for “extracurriculars?”

For the Buckeye State, this debate matters greatly. The salary costs alone of hiring new teachers as a result of the EBM’s reduced K-3 class sizes will be nearly $800 million annually. Why stipulate so many requirements for schools already facing severe budget pains – unless, of course, we have very strong evidence that the EBM will definitively raise student achievement?

But it’s here that Ohio has reason to worry. The “evidence” from Wyoming and Arkansas – the two states that have employed the EBM the longest – is bleak. Consider the flatness of their NAEP reading and math scores in the graphs below, or the fact that Ohio seems to be on pace with the national average (and performing even higher at some junctures) without the EBM. Picus had little to say when council members questioned Wyoming’s and Arkansas’s test scores, despite admitting that “the test [of the EBM) is whether or not children are learning."

 

Lawmakers and council members must realize that just because Ohio has officially adopted the EBM doesn’t mean we should ignore countervailing evidence that it isn’t working elsewhere and that our state may very well not be able to afford it.

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