This column responds to our Feb. 14 editorial, “Question of adequacy.”
COLUMBUS: Clamoring about the issue of “adequacy” with regard to the funding of public education is a convenient smokescreen for those who refuse to acknowledge the real financial issue facing our public schools. The real issue, and the one deserving the most attention, is the persistent misalignment between how schools currently use money and what we know about the best practices for providing the best possible education for our children.
Fundamentally, the inefficient and ineffective use of funds is the real reason the issue of adequacy cannot be reasonably addressed — not in Ohio; not anywhere.
The concept of adequacy is flawed because it is anchored in the misconception that how much money is spent per student somehow relates to the level of student achievement. The idea that “money can buy better student outcomes” is an intuitively attractive argument to those who have not looked at the data or the research. But the data and research are clear — there is no relationship between how much money a district spends to educate a child and the academic achievement of the students in that district.
“How can this be true?” many will ask. People point to wealthy suburbs and say “they have so much money, and all their students succeed.” But the little secret is that the students in those suburbs would succeed with far less; or alternatively, with the dollars available, those districts could do far more for their students.
What’s more, how does one explain a district that spends very little, and achieves at as high levels as the wealthy suburbs? (Consider, for instance, places like Manchester Local and Norton City districts in Summit County and Avon Local in Cuyahoga County.)
Of the districts in Summit County that are rated Excellent or higher in fiscal year 2011, the highest spending district spends 58 percent more than the lowest spending. Across the state, in every spending category — high, medium or low — there are examples of high performing schools and low performing schools. Bottom line — more money doesn’t equal better results.
Looking beyond Ohio’s borders, the data show the same thing. No “adequacy study” conducted in any state has ever been proved to be the answer; the magic number. And the states that have implemented “adequate funding” have little academic improvement to show for it. When the focus is simply on how much money and not how money is used, more money is spent, nothing improves, and the taxpayers get stuck with the tab.
So if not money, what does contribute to getting consistently high results with student learning? It’s a lot of things. The quality of the teachers and their professional development, the quality of principals, a “no excuses; every child can learn” attitude, the collaborative and urgent approach to instruction and learning taken by an entire school building team, diligent and frequent student data analysis, a focus on research and evidence-based practices and fidelity of implementation, etc.
In Long Beach, Calif., a large district with high poverty that has shown amazing improvement, they call it “the Long Beach way.” It’s stuff that money cannot really buy.
It’s how a district is organized to deliver the results and the attitude it takes in doing what needs to be done. Every performance audit conducted by the state auditor has shown ways for each audited district to save money. Every Ohio Improvement Process visit conducted by the staff at the Ohio Department of Education has shown opportunities for academic improvement within current resources.
Virtually no district in Ohio (or in any state, for that matter) is making the best use of its available resources in the interest of improving student achievement. So unless and until we maximize the productive use of the resources currently available we shouldn’t be speculating about the school funding equivalent of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” — adequacy.
Gov. John Kasich and his staff were right to not waste any more time and energy over something that has entirely no relevancy. Our collective efforts are much better focused on how to operate our schools more effectively and efficiently in the interest of improving student learning.
DeMaria is a former state budget director and former associate superintendent for school finance at the Ohio Department of Education.