Author Archives: Max Marchitello

New Report: Benefit Spending Consumes Growing Share of Education Budgets

The recent teacher strikes in Arizona, Colorado, and West Virginia highlight a common problem: education spending is stagnant or in some cases decreasing. If teachers working multiple jobs to make ends meet isn’t bad enough, here’s worse news: skyrocketing benefit costs, such as healthcare and pensions, are consuming an increasing share of K-12 education budgets.

In a new report, “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets,” I analyzed district education and benefit spending from 2005 to 2014. The results are troubling. Over that ten-year span, benefit spending increased more than 22 percent nationally. K-12 spending, on the other hand, grew less than 2 percent. As a result, more than $11 billion fewer dollars made it to classrooms in 2014 compared with 2005, after adjusting for inflation.

The problem of rising benefit costs varies significantly by state. As shown in the graph below, in the vast majority of states, benefit spending grew far faster than education budgets overall. In North Carolina, for example, benefits grew 48 percent while the state’s education spending only increased 2 percent. The problem persists even in states like Michigan that cut both K-12 and benefit spending, because they weren’t cut at the same rate. The Wolverine State cut education spending by 19 percent, but benefits were cut by only 2 percent. As a result, benefits eat up an even greater share of Michigan’s education budget than they did previously.

via “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets”

Barring a dramatic change, the problem of ballooning benefit spending will only get worse. Due to many states’ histories of underfunding their pension systems while simultaneously increasing the generosity of the plan, costs will continue to rise. Legislators will need to find politically viable solutions that both meet existing obligations and mitigate rising costs going forward.

Read my full report here.

Pay Gaps in Education are Bad. Pensions Make Them Worse.

Education, as a field, isn’t supposed to have pay gaps. In the vast majority of school districts, salaries are determined by uniform salary schedules based on educators’ years of experience and educational attainment. This policy should, at least in theory, guard against gender- or race-based salary inequities.

Sadly, pay gaps persist. In a new report, we studied Illinois’ educator data and found that women, regardless of experience level, earn markedly lower salaries than their male peers. As shown in the graph below, gender-based salary gaps begin in educators’ first year and increase until an educator reaches her 30th year of service.

As we show in the paper, these gaps also persist into retirement. For example, a teacher first becomes eligible for a pension after working for ten years in Illinois. At that point in their career, women’s average salary is $8,000 less than their male colleagues. This salary gap translates in a $2,100 disparity in annual pension benefits. And that pension inequity continues to grow each year. After working 30 years, a common retirement age, male educators get an average pension that is $8,000 more valuable than the average pension women receive. That is $8,000 less per year. After 10 years in retirement, men will have amassed an additional $80,000 in retirement benefits.

In short, salary schedules fail to sufficiently guard the education field against large and persistent gaps in salary and retirement benefits.

To learn more about gender-and race-based inequities in salaries and pensions, read the full report, here.

Three Potential Risks of New Federal Weighted Student Funding Pilot

The education field widely acknowledges that some students may need additional support to thrive in school and beyond because of challenging life circumstances, specific learning needs, or other factors. And, in fact, the structure of federal funding programs like Title I and the design of many state school funding formulas recognize this principle and provide targeted support and differentiated funding based on specific student needs.

However, this idea is rarely reflected at the local district and school level, where budgets are more commonly based on inputs like staffing ratios and salary schedules that are not directly linked to the needs of students served in a given school. But a new federal pilot program authorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015, (ESSA) seeks to change that by incentivizing more districts to redesign their school funding methods around students.

School districts’ applications to participate in ESSA’s weighted student funding pilot program are due to Secretary DeVos today. And while these funding models could theoretically increase equity, the devil is in the details. The Department, advocates, and ed-watchers should be on the lookout for both the potential rewards and the risks of these district proposals.

Under a weighted student funding model (WSF), districts fund schools in whole or in part through a formula that considers the total number of students served in each school and specific student characteristics linked to higher costs. These types of formulas assign greater funding weight to students with such characteristics, sending more money to the schools serving them.

Well-designed WSF systems can counter the unfortunate result of common funding distribution methods currently in practice in many districts, where input-driven funding methods often result in higher funding levels in schools that serve fewer high-need students. As such, in theory, encouraging more districts to implement funding allocations that shift resources toward student need should be a boon to equity — a potentially big “reward.”

To date, districts that have implemented WSF, such as Boston, Denver, and Indianapolis, have limited these allocation methodologies to state and local funds. Federal funds have been left out of the mix primarily because federal regulatory and reporting requirements make it complicated and burdensome to mingle federal, state, and local resources in a single, unified WSF formula.

This ESSA pilot could change that by waiving many federal requirements and permitting approved districts to combine funds and allocate them to schools under locally determined WSF formulas. In exchange, these formulas must provide “substantially more” funding to low-income students and English language learners compared with other students. Continue reading

Under ESSA, Subgroup Accountability is like Gotham Without Batman

When something is wrong in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon puts up the bat signal and a powerful spotlight projects Batman’s symbol into the night sky. It’s a simple idea, really: make it crystal clear that there is a problem and alert the person who can do something about it.

This was the basic concept of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law required states to shine a spotlight on schools where individual groups of students were struggling — in order to reveal a problem. And with the problem revealed, schools, districts, and states were required to do something to solve it.

The attention to subgroup performance was the most popular aspect of NCLB. When the law was finally reauthorized in late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created an accountability system in which states must report inequities, but in the vast majority of cases, aren’t required to do anything about them. In lieu of NCLB-style accountability, the hope was that states and districts would create systems to act as Batman, and respond with additional support tailored to meet the needs of struggling schools and students. Barring that, since the law only requires states to identify the lowest of the low-performing schools, ESSA relies on transparency to encourage schools to improve.

Unfortunately, however, our new analysis of the accountability plans from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. found systems that were unambitious, uncreative, and, in some instances, unfinished. The worst part is that, in 41 out of the 51 state plans, subgroup performance will have no bearing on the ratings most schools receive.

This would be akin to Gotham police shining a plain spotlight into the night sky in the hopes that someone — anyone — would respond or that the bright light alone would stop crime.

Across the board, state accountability plans follow more or less the same pattern. They promise to report subgroup achievement across their selected indicators; but, when a school’s overall rating is calculated, it will be based solely on school-wide averages. Under this approach, schools can appear to be at least average while hiding massive achievement gaps.

In most cases, subgroups only truly matter in a few schools in which the performance of a group of students is as low as the worst performing 5 percent of schools in the state. And even then, it’s not clear that states have an effective strategy to improve struggling schools. In short, these plans will shine a light on a still-undetermined number of schools, and do little to resolve them.

There are very few exceptions to these retrograde policies.

In Tennessee, for example, 40 percent of a school’s score is based on subgroup achievement. Under this model, subgroup performance actually matters since the state uses these ratings to determine the schools that will receive additional support and resources. Minnesota takes a different tact to ensure that its schools are held accountable for subgroups: Instead of taking a school-wide average, the state first looks at the average performance for each subgroup and then combines that number into an overall average for the school. This model ensures that all subgroups count equally in the accountability system.

In Gotham, the bat signal works because the medium carries the message, leading Batman to show up and take care of the problem. Although imperfect, that’s how NCLB worked: states revealed problems and they then had to take steps to address them. Under ESSA, that’s no longer the case.

A public school serving mostly poor or non-white students is not a dystopian city like Gotham. Nevertheless, it is a place rife with injustice, where kids have been failed habitually by public institutions. These students don’t need a superhero to save them. What they need are state education systems designed to ensure that they are not misrepresented, underserved, under-resourced, or over-policed. They need access to all of the tenets of a high-quality education that they have so long been denied. And that takes real and intentional action, not just a bare spotlight.

3 Reasons Why Teacher Pensions Are Critical to School Funding Equity

Money spent on public teacher pensions is often left out of analyses of school finance equity. Rather than a being seen as an issue affecting students’ education, pensions are often viewed as a budgetary dilemma for state legislators. Yet, both of these approaches overlook the effect pension spending can have on increasing the funding gap between schools based on students’ race.

Last week I released a new report, “Illinois’ Teacher Pension Plans Deepen School Funding Inequities,” that shows just how much pension spending in Illinois affects the state’s finance equity. The results are startling and reveal that teacher pensions are yet another example of how states and districts underinvest in the education of low-income students, and the educations of black and Hispanic students.

Here are three key reasons why teacher pensions should be thought of as a key part of the push to ensure educational equity:

  1. Class-based gaps grow by more than 200 percent after accounting for pension spending. Teacher salaries comprise the lion’s share (roughly 80 percent) of school expenditures. And, unfortunately, the most experienced and highest paid teachers are unevenly distributed across schools. In Illinois the salary gap between the schools serving the highest and lowest concentrations of low-income students is on average around $550 per pupil. After factoring in pensions, however, the disparity jumps to over $1,200 per student.
  2. Race-based gaps increase by more than 250 percent after accounting for pension spending. In Illinois, the average teacher salary-based gap is $375 between schools serving predominantly white students and those serving predominantly nonwhite students. But after accounting for money spent on teacher pensions, the inequity increases to nearly $950 per pupil.
  3. States are investing more money in their pensions (because they’re in significant debt), and that will widen the gaps even further. From an educational equity point of view, the Illinois pension system is the problem. Since pensions are paid as a percentage of teachers’ salaries, which are unevenly distributed across the state, funneling more money into the system may help to decrease unfunded liabilities, but it also will result in even larger funding disparities.

Illinois is widely considered to operate one of, if not the most, inequitable school finance systems in the country. Yet, many prior analyses underestimated the problem because they have not always included money spent on teacher pensions. This problem is not unique to Illinois. On the contrary, pensions will increase funding disparities in any state with an uneven distribution of teachers. The effect will likely be greater and more closely resemble Illinois in states, such as Missouri and New York, where large urban cities operate separate pension funds.

There are a couple of steps states can take to mitigate the increase in education funding disparities due to pension spending. Those states with more than one retirement system should consider folding the district plans into the state fund. The state has greater resources and almost always contributes to the pension fund at a higher rate. This would ensure that schools in the district — which disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color — receive pension payments at the same rate as other schools.

As it stands now, low-income students and students of color receive far less than their fair share in school funding. To change that, states must address the structure of their teacher pension systems as well as their school funding formulas. Teacher pensions are a key feature in the broader education equity debate.