School Funding Advisory Council questions the effectiveness of evidence-based funding model

Eric Ulas

The Ohio School Funding Advisory Council had its second meeting last week. Some observers have questioned the makeup of the 28-member panel, a group charged with crafting education spending recommendations by December 2010 but that is stacked with folks who may have a “vested interest” in seeing larger education budgets come to fruition. 

Despite this, several council members voiced concerns about the fiscal realities facing Ohio in the biennium, as well as the efficacy of the “evidence-based model” (EBM) in other states. With the first of the EBM’s mandates ready to be unleashed on school districts in July 2010, that’s certainly a fair question.

Deborah Delisle, state superintendent of public instruction, pointed out that analyzing the EBM elsewhere won’t give us the answers we’re looking for, because in other EBM states, “there has not been fidelity to the [evidence-based] program.” This may be true, but it begs an obvious question: if school districts elsewhere haven’t been faithful to the mandates enshrined in EBM (reduced teacher-student ratios; all-day kindergarten; mandatory staffing of counselors and “school wellness coordinators,” etc.), what does Ohio plan to do differently to enforce spending requirements that districts are already unhappy with? (Recall the push-back against the all-day kindergarten requirement, the first of Ohio’s EBM mandates to be phased in.)

Understanding the “evidence” behind this massive -- and expensive -- undertaking is important. Rep. Steve Dyer encouraged council members to have faith in the “scientific evidence” of the model (Fordham remains skeptical of the science, as does prominent economist Eric Hanushek, among others).

As for financial realities? “Yes, there will be economic realities, but that’s something we have to worry about in a couple of years,” said Dyer. He also stated his belief that “the magic of the EBM” lies in its transparency; because the EBM indentifies the cost of education strategies “proven” to work, taxpayers know where their dollars are going. (It’s true the EBM costs out the price for various reform strategies, but taxpayers and individual school districts may not like being instructed on how to spend their money. Transparency doesn’t diminish the desire for autonomy.)

A question posed by council members as to whether the EBM has worked in other states that have adopted it (Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming) is one that all Ohioans should be asking. If the Buckeye State is going to commit to increased spending on education and impose prescriptive requirements on districts, shouldn’t we look to other states who have already committed to the EBM to see if its promises (improving student achievement by an extraordinary three to six standards deviations!) hold up? As one council member described at the meeting, “If someone could convince me that by adding [these mandates] we would improve student achievement, then we’ll find the money somehow.”

But the academic results in other states (as measured by NAEP, the “nation’s report card”) that have adopted the EBM are not as stellar as one might hope. Admittedly, there is no way to determine that the EBM had a direct causal impact on student achievement scores (for better or for worse) in these states, and the graphs don’t attempt to show the precise date that EBM was implemented in each state (assuming it was gradually phased in, as Ohio plans to do). Still, it is telling that achievement patterns in EBM states over the last decade – in both tested grades and subjects – look remarkably similar to the national average. In fourth- and eighth-grade math, most EBM states saw small gains in proficiency of a few percentage points, but so did non-EBM states. In reading, the findings are grim. Despite ten years worth of reforms, proficiency rates in reading in EBM states are alarmingly flat. A handful of states even saw a decrease in test scores.

Improving student achievement statewide is no easy task. Members of the School Funding Advisory Council may be tempted to buy into the myth that increased spending will translate into student achievement gains, but the experience of other EBM states should serve as a cautionary warning. Spending more on inputs without a clear link to improving student outcomes can only guarantee one thing: more spending. The mandates embedded in the EBM haven’t lived up to their promises in six other states, and we are naïve to think that the EBM will be more effective in Ohio. To quote an old adage, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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