Money is Not Enough

Winston C. Brooks, superintendent of USD 259, recently wrote an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle. Headlines are normally written by copy editors, not op-ed contributors, but here it is anyway: “Money helps, but not that simple.”

True enough. Given the choice between more money and less, which would you–an individual, non-profit organization, government office, or commercial enterprise–choose? More money.

Now let’s delve into what Mr. Brooks has to say.

“I just wish it was as easy as The Eagle editorial board made it out to be in its editorial “Help out: Back-to-school time for citizens, too” (Aug. 15 Opinion). I wish it was that easy — that you just spend more and you should expect better education results.”

That’s a promising start.

“Now, make no mistakes about it — I do believe that more money will result in higher achievement and a better quality student. And make no mistakes about it — the Wichita board of education and this administration believe in being held accountable. However, there are issues that must be considered other than the number of Title I schools that are “on improvement.”

Will more money automatically result in high achievement? Not so fast. Look around the country, and you’ll find that some of the highest-spending districts are among the worst in performance–even after years of ramped-up spending. (KCMO, anyone?)

As for “being held accountable,” there are at least two ways of being held accountable. One is marketplace accountability, which the education establishment strongly opposes. By marketplace accountability, we mean this: if you don’t like the service record of an enterprise, you take your dollars elsewhere. Even when the money a person spends is taxpayer money and not his own, we often let the person decide where he will spend it. That’s the case with food stamps, section 8 housing vouchers, public grants to college students, and, one might argue, tax credits or deductions used on early childhood education and child care expenses. But again, that kind of accountability is resisted by most union leaders, school boards, and school administrators.

The other form of accountability, of course, is the one that we’ve been using for decades: give the poor performers more money. We’ve changed that lately with No Child Left Behind, which says “make schools give tests and them shame them through adverse publicity, and then threaten some ambiguous ‘restructuring’ down the line.

Superintendent Brooks then shifts to No Child Left Behind.

“For example, let’s examine Marshall Middle School. It did make adequate yearly progress in math in 2007, and it also improved math proficiency overall by nearly 10 percentage points. However, in reading Marshall did not meet AYP, nor does the data indicate improvement.

Why? In 2006 the state allowed us to waive the reclassification process for special education students. This year the state did not. What does this mean? Well, the federal legislation only permits districts to allow 2 percent of their special education population to take an alternative assessment.

This 2 percent cap probably works for 85 to 90 percent of the districts in Kansas. It does not work for Wichita, because Wichita has become a magnet for special education students in south-central Kansas, and subsequently we have a greater percentage of special education students in the Wichita district than the state average.”

Now we’re moving into the arcane world of NCLB measurements. But you don’t need to look at AYP lists. Look at the state report card. Roughly one in three students does not read at grade level. That means that the poor performance of all students cannot be solely laid at the feet of special ed students.

Brooks turns to the unit of analysis.

“The No Child Left Behind Act and the state assessment plan require that students, schools and districts hit some arbitrary performance percentage. What if a school doesn’t hit that target but makes a 10 percent gain? Is that improvement? Should we consider that school a failure?”

Using student-growth models would probably be an improvement to NCLB’s current configuration. But we will end with a note that someone left in the comment section of the article:

“If Winston Brooks truly believes in being held accountable, he would advocate allowing competition through school choice funded by vouchers and/or tax credits.

It’s one thing to say you want to be held accountable. But it is another thing to actually be held accountable by parents who would have the credible threat of taking their children somewhere else.”

You’ve got that right.

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