"Reform dollars" for education are dwarfed by status quo spending

The gravity of Ohio’s $6-8 billion dollar budget hole and its unavoidable impact on K-12 education is about to hit home. Ohio’s budget cliff has prompted much worry but also optimism as it forces the state to grapple with tough spending tradeoffs. With serious budget decisions looming over us, it’s a good time to recognize that money has real limits if not coupled with tangible policy changes and driven by bold leadership.

There have been remarkable investments in (and hype over) public education reform over the past year– landmark federal grant programs, statewide legislative changes, some gutsy edu-films, and the usual celebrity bandwagon-jumping. We have a president and secretary of education who are liberal Democrats yet support the expansion of great charter schools, teacher evaluations based in part on student growth data, and other initiatives that Democrats typically feel tenuous about, and have tied real dollars to these ideas. Initiatives like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants (and i3, Teacher Incentive Fund, Promise Neighborhoods, etc. if you consider dollars to non-profit entities as well) are channeling federal dollars in a competitive fashion.

But, while these programs’ intentions are laudable, an analysis of how these “reform” dollars stack up against spending-as-usual is sobering.

Last spring, Andy Smarick examined the breakdown of federal stimulus dollars and pointed out in Education Next that the majority of these education allocations supported the status quo (not surprising in light of the piece by Terry and Jeff above). While Race to the Top garnered a lot of excitement and buzz, his analysis put into perspective just how inconsequential RttT dollars are, and probably will be, over the long haul.

A look at Ohio shows the same thing. Despite the state’s promises to enact some exciting reforms, the dollars we’ll spend on them shrink dramatically next to the other pots of federal money.

Take several Ohio urban school districts as examples. As charts one through four below show approximate funding allocations for “reform” activities in some of Ohio’s urban districts-- School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top, two sizeable programs directing money to schools and districts competitively and with strings attached. This is contrasted with “status quo” dollars – State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, the usual Title I and IDEA funds, and the recently passed federal jobs money to stave off teacher layoffs (“Ed Jobs”). (There are other notable “reform” pots of money such as the Teacher Incentive Fund, charter school grants, or i3- but those aren’t funneled exclusively to districts or schools. On the other end [status quo] there are other programs like funding for English Language Learners, but these are small in comparison and are not included the breakdown.)


Source: Ohio Department of Education

Note: These figures represent one year of funding and are meant to show how relative amounts compare to one another in a given year. SIG, a three-year program, was divided by three; RttT divided by four; EdJobs divided by two; IDEA, Title I, SFSF all represent one year of funding and are listed according to the most recent year’s worth of data on the Ohio Department of Education’s website.

Despite best efforts by some districts to institute bold reforms, you can see that reform dollars (at least those flowing from the federal government) are dwarfed by status quo dollars, with as much as 11 times more being spent on traditional programs and propping up current spending rather than on school turnarounds or Race to the Top-related reforms. In other words, even those K-12 initiatives considered most promising are dollar-store programs compared to typical funding streams.

This isn’t to say that increasing funds for such reforms would even be enough to make a dent in achievement gaps. Beyond this sobering portrait of federal money is the reality that the degree to which any reform attempts will lead to meaningful, lasting change depends on bold leadership from the state level and tangible changes to policy. Even though Ohio has won a combined $532 million from Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, the state has done little to ensure that districts and schools move beyond business as usual. (See this article describing Ohio’s weak turnaround strategy, for example.)

In contrast, several other states have passed laws overhauling teacher evaluations, removing lifelong teacher tenure, or lifting charter school caps. Ohio has not.

Money – whether a tiny bit of or a whole lot if it – ultimately matters less than the manner in which we choose to spend it. Because of Ohio’s imminent budget problems, money weighs heavily on our collective conscience. This is ultimately a positive thing if it forces the state to rethink and reorder education spending. But dollars alone won’t do it. Figuring out how to adjust, cut, bolster, or merely shuffle education funding to various programs is worth a fraction of the effort that will be required to translate good ideas into state policy, move legislation, undo antiquated policies and regulations inhibiting reforms, and develop the political will necessary to pursue a reform path that will actually impact student achievement.

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