Real reform can close the education achievement gap

Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

The recently announced National Assessment of Education Progress (NAPE)  indicates a stagnation of academic results in Texas and the nation. Unfortunately, Texas actually lost ground as compared to 2015 results. Critically, the achievement gap for minority students continues to haunt the state at totally unacceptable levels.

These poor findings caused Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to direct the respective education commissioners in Texas to explore effective solutions. Over the years, Texas has explored many strategies intended to close the achievement gap, including reading and math initiatives, curricula modifications, professional development programs, accountability reforms and targeted funding. None of these have resulted in a silver bullet; in fact, one report  indicated “experts warn against making broad conclusions for or against any specific education strategy.”

The problem continues at unacceptable levels and, therefore, constrains progress for many Texas students. There is no clear consensus regarding a solution. So, what can be done?

A real solution will require a critical reevaluation of education funding. How money flows directly affects the results it will produce. So, how do we currently fund education in Texas? How could we flow funds more effectively to help close the achievement gap?

Money can flow based either on process or on product. For example, if farmers were paid based on the number of seeds they put into the ground, they would receive funding based on process. If instead, farmers were paid based on what they harvest, then funding would be based on product.

How money flows in any industry impacts that industry’s results. If farmers were paid based on process (number of seeds planted or some other input measure) aggregate production in the industry would be definitely be diminished. This is true of any industry.

Make no mistake: Education is a huge industry in Texas, with budgets exceeding $70 billion annually. It directly employs about 600,000 people, plus thousands of indirect workers: contractors, lawyers, association employees and others who rely on the education industry for their livelihood.

Schools are the cornerstone of the education industry. Historically, schools have provided most education services in Texas, so we fund schools as a proxy for the education process. Then we attempt to determine how much it costs to run schools — a task that experts have struggled, in vain, to master for decades.

Currently, the key component for determining school funding is attendance. Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is the core formula element for school funding in Texas. Many contend that enrollment is a better proxy for the process of schooling since a school has to cover the cost of teachers and classrooms based on the number of kids enrolled, even if not all of them show up for school.

The ADA number is then adjusted for certain weights. These weights are an attempt to adjust for school cost differentials. For example; in an attempt to help close the achievement gap, the state gives schools an additional 20 percent for each child enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program. This is a proxy for poverty and remedial needs.

However, schools get these extra funds regardless of their progress closing the gap, regardless of whether they actually use the funds for campuses which house those students, of actual remedial needs and whether they address the individual remediation needs of each targeted student.

If these remediation funds went to schools based on actual progress in closing the achievement gap, much greater progress could be made. We’d be paying educational providers for progress (product) rather than process.

Funding based on the actual harvest, in lieu of just head count and seat time, would greatly benefit Texas students!

Funding should follow the child, not some proxy for that child. Educational providers should be funded based on delivery of services to each individual student, not a proxy for perceived school needs. For example, let’s look at how another service was provided and how those services changed over time.

For most of the 20th century, we paid telephone companies for phone services. The country was divided into regions and phone companies had monopoly power over these regions. All phone service and equipment was provided by phone companies. Basically, consumers paid for the process of telephone services.

Once the monopoly power of these phone companies begin to wane, through deregulation and litigation, other vendors started providing different phone equipment; eventually, the telecommunications industry was transformed. Service providers have totally transformed themselves and we no longer fund telephone companies; instead, we fund communication services. We pay for product (phone/text/internet/etc.) instead of process (phone companies).

Naturally, the phone companies felt more secure with their monopolies; however, upon reflection it was not a consumer-versus-producer situation. Instead it was a win-win. Consumers benefited immensely while the industry has grown and thrived.

Education is not immune to transformation, except as limited by government. Schools continue to provide most educational services; however, the advent of home schooling, online learning, charters and other innovations will continue to reshape education in Texas and around the world.

Government can help promote educational progress through rational reform. Some contend that the current funding structure rewards schools for warehousing kids. Actually, that is exactly how the money flows. Schools funding is based primarily on attendance, not on the services provided, or on consumer satisfaction. That funding strategy can be changed to the benefit of both Texas and students and educational providers.

Real progress will require a critical reexamination of school funding.  Just as we adjusted from funding “telephones” to funding “communications,” through the telecommunications industry, we must shift from just funding schools to actually funding education in the education industry.

Such change will require:

  • relaxation of rigid regulation of the school industry.
  • funding based on individual students and their needs.
  • that education providers be rewarded and funded for the services they actually provide, rather than artificial proxies for the school’s needs.
  • require a relaxation of monopolistic control over students and taxpayers based solely on geographic restrictions.
  • a reevaluation of how we view educational funding.

Every dollar put into the education system is intended for the benefit of Texas students. Therefore, education dollars are held in trust for the benefit of Texas students — that is why school board members are called trustees.

Too often, we view school funds simplistically as belonging to school districts, when in fact they actually belong to Texas taxpayers and are held in trust for Texas students.

Parents and students must be empowered to use those trust funds in manners best suited to the individual needs of Texas students. The achievement gap will never be eliminated unless we allow the natural transformation of the education industry and adequately fund education instead of just funding the process of schooling.

Texas has led on many fronts. It is time for Texas once again to lead the nation and allow for the transformation of the educational industry to align with 21st century needs. It is time for Texas to lead in closing the achievement gap. It can be achieved!

Kent Grusendorf

Education activist, former state lawmaker