I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, February 22, 2021

We Don't Need Standardized Testing In a Pandemic

UPDATE: Just as I was finishing this post, I caught a glimpse of this news:

The U.S. Department of Education extended flexibility to states today in how and when they administer mandated end-of-the-year assessments, including allowing shorter tests that can be given remotely and, in the summer, or even in the fall. The federal agency advised states to blunt the impact of the tests, suggesting the scores not be used in final grades and grade promotion decisions.

However, despite the disruption to schools from the pandemic, the federal agency did not liberate states from administering standardized tests; it will continue to require statewide assessments. Some states, including Georgia, requested waivers that would allow them to forgo standardized testing altogether this year.
As I argue below, this is a bad idea. I really hope the Biden administration can be persuaded to reconsider.

* * *

A notable bit of education policy news in New Jersey last week:

New Jersey will apply to the federal government to waive standardized testing for the current school year as districts across the state continue to cope with the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.

Murphy said the state has not yet received word from President Joe Biden’s administration as to whether it will accept its application to waive the federal testing requirements.

“We also recognize the importance of statewide assessments to gauge where our students’ learning,” the governor said during his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. “But given the need to ensure our students’ instructional time is maximized and the levels of stress on them, our educators, our school administrators, and our families are minimized, we are putting forward this waiver request.”

The state is hardly alone, as several others have also applied for waivers from the federal mandate for testing. But there's plenty of pushback, as it's become an article of faith among certain education reformers that we must have tests, and that in a time of crisis testing is more important than ever. In Florida, for example, students will be required to show up to take their tests in person, even if their parents have been keeping them home during the pandemic. Why?

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an order this week requiring the tests. The order said the tests are more important than ever because many struggling students are learning at home and falling behind.

Test results will “ensure that each student is given the services and supports they need to succeed in life,” the order says.

If you take Commissioner Corcoran at his word, he's going to use the tests to make sure students get what they need. But that's coming from a state that chronically underfunds its schools. If students weren't getting the supports they needed before the pandemic, what would make anyone think they'll get them now -- but only if they take a test?

Corcoran is engaging in the typically facile thinking that has become the hallmark of many who espouse the virtues of standardized testing. I have a set of questions I like to ask whenever anyone says students must take a standardized test:

- What are you going to do with the test results? 

A core concept of assessment is that tests must be shown to be valid for the purposes in which they will be used. In other words: you should make a separate argument for every proposed use of a test. A test that may be valid to use for, say, determining whether there are enough overall resources in the education system isn't necessarily valid for the purpose of determining whether a student should pass to the next grade.

Psyshometricians often speak of making a validity argument in favor of the use of a test for a particular purpose. That argument should touch upon the relevancy of the outcomes to a specific use, the consequences of making decisions based on these outcomes, the opportunity to learn the content in the test, and other factors.

One of the biggest failings in our current testing system is that we use statewide standardized tests for many purposes -- even if no one has presented an argument for those uses. Some lawmakers have argued that these tests should be used as a graduation exam or to determine grade promotion, even though most have never put forward an argument that the test is valid for that purpose. Some say test outcomes run through a statistical model should be used to evaluate teachers, again without making an argument against the many reasons that's a bad idea.

That's especially true this year. The fact is that too much of what is happening in schools is out of the control of teachers, administrators, or students. Students have had wildly uneven opportunities to learn during the pandemic, and it's not fair to visit consequences on them or their teachers based on outcomes in this year's tests.

One implication those who argue for standardized testing make is that teachers need the data to help students make up for the learning they've lost over the past year. But these tests provide little meaningful information for teachers. First, the results take a long time to come back, so they aren't useful in real time. Second, teachers aren't allowed to see the questions, which makes them mostly useless in informing instruction. Third, there usually aren't enough items in each area of content knowledge to provide reliable data. Teachers need to assess their students and get to work quickly; these tests weren't designed to help with that task.

So, if the tests aren't going to be used for teacher evaluation, or promotion/graduation, or allocating resources, or informing instruction... why do we need to give them? For what purpose, exactly, should they be used? No one should advocate for administering tests unless they can give a specific answer to this question.

- What is the cost of administering the tests?

I'm not just talking about dollar costs, although those can be significant. But the truth is that we have known for a good long while that administering standardized tests in math and English has extracted a price on students, educators, and the K-12 education system aside from mere dollars. 

Testing has narrowed the curriculum, especially in districts with high levels of student poverty and, consequently, relatively low average test scores. The pressure on students to perform on these tests has been well documented. Several major cheating scandals highlight the pressure adults also feel, leading to moral compromises that would likely be absent in an environment without such high-stakes attached to the tests.  

Add this to the current worries about contracting COVID-19 in school and it becomes clear that the cost of administering these tests this spring will be very, very high. Which leads me to ask...

- Is the cost of testing worth it?

What, exactly, will statewide standardized test outcomes tell us that we didn't already know, or that we couldn't find out some other way? That students didn't gain as much learning as they would have without the pandemic? We already know this; and again, it's not like the tests will give educators data they couldn't get other ways that are much faster and more detailed.

Will we learn that students who are economically disadvantaged need more resources to equalize their educational opportunity? We already knew that before the pandemic. And does anyone really think that otherwise reluctant politicians will be persuaded to dole out more funds when they see this year's test scores? Really?

It's worth noting that all tests are subject to construct irrelevant variation, a fancy term that means the outcomes can vary based on things other than a student's knowledge. Students who take tests in less-than-optimal conditions, for example, are more likely to do poorly than they would if they were in better circumstances. 

This year, the differences in the testing environments will be more stark than ever. Students in districts that remain fully remote will take their tests in widely-ranging home environments. Students who take their tests in school may be in smaller cohorts, or crammed together in full classes. The COVID mitigations they face during the tests varies widely, as does the technology available to take the tests. 

Variations in test-taking conditions has always been great, but now those conditions will very even more than before. How, then, can we trust that the test is measuring what it's supposed to actually measure?

Normally, I believe that test data can be useful for research and policymaking purposes -- although I think we could get data just as good as we have now for a lot less cost and bother by cutting back the amount of testing and removing unvalidated attachments to high-stakes decisions. 

But the more I think about it, I the more I come to the conclusion that the data this year isn't going to be of much use. Why, then, go through the bother of testing kids when the cost is so high and the value of the results is so low?

The tests can wait a year. Give everyone a break.

ADDING: Honestly, this makes no sense to me:

“To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant education secretary, wrote in a letter to state education leaders.

What decisions exactly are you going to make based on those scores? If you can't answer that, you don't need the data.

Identifying the resources and supports students need is the job of schools. The government's job is to get schools the extra money they're going to need so schools can provide resources and supports. Go work on that and leave the educational decisions to educators.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Fiscal Impact Of Charter Schools on School Districts: Thoughts on My New Report

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed a few comments about a new report I have out with the Fordham Institute: Robbers or Victims? Charter Schools and District Finances. I'm putting my thoughts here so you know they are mine and mine alone. Hopefully, I can shed light on what the report finds and what I believe that means.

Let me start by saying I don't think a have a false sense of my place in the ongoing debate about education policy: I'm a teacher and blogger who went and got a PhD in the field, who continues to teach K12 (but also teaches grad students in education policy part-time), and has a bit of following on social media (although not nearly as large as others). My blog is full of posts that call out what I believe is bad research in support of education "reform" -- especially charter schools. I also put out reports now and then for a variety of groups that have cast doubt on charter school "success" stories.

Given this, it was a surprise to me when I got an email last year from Fordham, asking about a working paper based on my dissertation. Fordham is well known as a supporter of charter schools, and regularly produces research supporting their expansion. Why would they want to work with me? Did they know who I am and what I've done?

It turns out they did. They were considering doing a study very similar to what I had done in my dissertation, assessing the impact of charter school growth on the finances of "hosting" public school districts. In other words: what happens to district finances when charter schools start proliferating within a district's boundaries?

What I had found – and what I still found in this latest report – is that as charter schools grow, per pupil spending in school districts increases. This is in contradiction to what some charter critics have suggested: that spending in host districts schools goes down as charters grow. To be honest, it was contrary to what I thought I was going to find,,, until I started digging further into the data.

I'll go into that in a minute; first, let me explain why I took the gig.

Working With Fordham

We are obviously in a time of intense polarization along ideological lines -- and that includes education policy. For myself, I draw a distinction between those who I think are arguing in good faith, and those who aren't. I'll admit it's not always a bright, clear line; however, I am trying to be open to the possibility that people can disagree on things like charter schools but still have meaningful and productive dialogue. 

Before I agreed to working on the report, I did take a second look at Fordham's body of work. Some I think is just wrong -- not so much in its methods as in the conclusions they come to based on their findings. But some I think is valid and worthwhile. I disagree with Fordham's president, Michael Petrilli, about any numbers of questions around education policy. But I also acknowledge he's been one of the few charter school supporters who's willing to concede that "no excuses" charters do not enroll similar populations as public district schools (a point I find so obvious that I don't believe I can have a good faith discussion with anyone who doesn't agree).

I also knew that if I turned down the gig, someone else would do it, and I wouldn't get a chance to further my work in this field. Yes, I got paid... but it's hardly a fortune, especially considering the amount of time I've put in (and I understand my fee was substantially less than many other better-known researchers who have written reports for them).

There was always the agreement that there would be an introduction that would not be under my name. So long as everything else met my approval, I thought that was fair. I suppose I could have asked for a "rebuttal," but I didn't want it subjected to their editorial review; hence, this post.

Let me say one other thing that readers can take or leave depending on whether they want to trust my word: this was one of the most rigorous review processes I've been involved with. That's not to say the work couldn't be improved; as I say below, rereading after getting reactions this week, I do wish we had made some revisions.

But I was allowed to suggest my own reviewers, and considered myself lucky to have two of the best researchers working in this field, Paul Bruno and Charisse Gulosino, agree. David Griffith at Fordham was also quite demanding, and insisted on having me spell out in great detail nearly every decision I made in creating both the dataset and the models.

Again: this report is hardly the last word on whether and how charter school growth affects school district finances. There are several very big limitations on what I found, and the approach I took does not at all lead us to a definitive answer as to whether charter growth is helpful, harmful, or neutral to district finances. That said, I hope, at the very least, the report helps frame the question in a way that is useful. Because, until now, I don't think many charter supporters (like Fordham) or skeptics (like myself) have been viewing the problem the right way.

Fixed Costs and Charter School Growth

Let's set up an example with numbers that are easy to work with. Imagine a school district with 5,000 students in 10 schools, each with 500 students. Each of those schools has 20 classes of 25 students each. That means 20 classroom teachers –– but it also means one principal, one librarian, one guidance counselor, one nurse, etc.

The salaries and benefits paid to the classroom teachers in this example are instructional spending: spending that goes directly to the instruction of students. The principal, librarian, counselor, etc. salaries are support spending: spending that is for the support of students but not directly related to instruction. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Next, a charter school comes to town and begins drawing students away from the district. Let's say it takes away five percent of the enrollment, or one classroom's worth of kids.

We'll assume this happens across the district: every school loses 25 students to the charter.

What happens across the district? Well, each school now has the equivalent of 19 classrooms, not 20. To maintain the same instructional cost per pupil, the district will have to let one teacher go at each school. This might be through retirement and hiring freezes, or through outright firing of teachers. Obviously, the district will have the ability to shuffle teachers around as needed between buildings, so the teacher reductions can play out in various ways.

But the support personnel are another story: it's unlikely, especially in the early stages of charter growth, that the district can or will get rid of support personnel in a way that parallels enrollment losses as easily as it can shed instructional personnel. A principal, for example, is needed for every building: it isn't likely the district will close a building and get rid of a principal when it's only lost a few students in each building.

In this scenario, after enrollment losses to charter schools, instructional personnel (teachers) to students remains 25-to-1. But support staff to pupil goes from 500-to-1 to 475-to-1. This is an increase in spending per pupil: fewer pupils per staff member will raise the cost per pupil of that staff member.

This is an example of what we'll call a fixed cost. Scholars of school finance have, in fact, noted this for decades: some spending in schools is easier to adjust than other spending when enrollment falls. The question I tried to ask in this report is: does the data reflect this trend?

Spending, Revenues, and Charter Growth

It turns out that, in many states, we see what I'm showing above. Here's the graph from the report showing how charter growth correlates with instructional spending:

And here's the graph for support spending:

The correlation for support spending is significant in many more states than instructional spending; further, the effect measured is larger for support than for instruction spending. I believe this is fairly solid evidence that there are differences in the ways different types of spending respond to charter growth, something economists refer to as elasticity.

Now, an important question is why the spending is allowed to rise. Don't school districts have a limited amount of funds available to them? Wouldn't they just have to deal with the enrollment losses and fixed costs by adjusting their spending as best as they could?

Not necessarily. First, it could be that other areas of spending are being cut, possibly to the detriment of the district, that don't show up in the data. The spending I'm tracking is current spending, which excludes things like debt service and capital outlays. It could be that districts are holding off on facilities spending, or other types of spending not included in my dataset.*

But there's another possibility: that more per pupil revenue is actually being put into the system to help address those fixed costs. It could, in fact, be the same amount of revenue but spread out over fewer students. 

My analysis shows evidence that's happening -- but the type of revenue, like the type of spending, seems to differ. School districts get revenues from three main sources: the federal government, the state, and localities. Federal revenues average less than 10 percent of the total, although that varies from district to district. The rest is some combination of state and local revenues.

The report shows a significant difference in how state and local revenues correlate with charter growth.  Here, for example, is the correlation between charter share and state revenues:

And here it is with local revenues:

In many states, local revenue increases correlate more significantly with charter school growth. Why would that be? Part of the reason may be that, in states where charter schools receive funding directly from the state, local revenues don't decline when students leave local districts. The local school taxes, in other words, don't necessarily go down as enrollment declines. The same amount of revenue spread out over fewer students will lead to higher revenues per pupil. But if that same state is giving state funding based on a per pupil formula, per pupil revenues from the state won't increase. 

Now, a charter supporter may look at this and say: "Great! In many states, there's no fiscal harm to local districts as charters come in! This proves charter schools don't harm district budgets!"

Not so fast...

Cost vs. Spending

One of the worst errors people make in trying to understand school finance is conflating cost with spending. Spending is easy to understand: it's simply the monies you put out toward educating students. OK, it can get a bit more complicated, especially when trying to categorize different types of spending... but it's important to understand that spending is not cost.

Cost is the amount of spending you need to get a student to meet a particular educational outcome: a test score, a graduation rate, etc. You'll often hear critics of public schools bemoan what they say are the out-of-control spending amounts in public versus private schools, claiming this proves public schools are wasting money. What they don't understand (or do, but won't admit) is that different schools with different contexts having different students have different costs.

A school that is located in a more competitive labor market has higher costs. So does a school enrolling more children with a special education need, or who don't speak English at home, or is located in an area with a higher concentration of poverty. Getting to a place where these children have equal educational opportunity requires more resources and, therefore, indicates a higher cost.

Charter school supporters will often point out that charters educate their students at a lower level of per pupil spending than district schools. But that misses the point: charters often have a lower per pupil cost. Charters enroll fewer students with costly special education needs than district schools. In many jurisdictions, charters enroll smaller proportions of English language learners, or students in economic disadvantage. In these cases, their cost is less than a school district's; simply comparing per pupil spending figures misses this critical point. 

It also ignores the fact that most school districts have distinctly different responsibilities than their charter school neighbors. Public school districts have to be ready to find a seat for any child who comes into their boundaries at any time of year. They have to enroll students in all grade levels, and not just the ones they choose to offer. They have to offer curricular choices and extracurriculars to their students that those in charters may elect to forego when enrolling. And in many cases, school districts have to provide services for both district and charter students, such as transportation.

So it may be that districts need additional monies because their costs are higher. But it's also true that spending isn't always going to improve an educational outcome. It could be that more money put into a school doesn't increase student learning or opportunity: that spending would be inefficient. The term often carries a pejorative sense with it, as if anything inefficient can simply be addressed by better choices. But sometimes those choices aren't clear, and sometimes we expect greater efficiency from those who haven't had the power to make those choices -- like whether charter schools should proliferate.

It is, to my mind, very likely that the additional spending that accompanies charter growth is inefficient, because that additional spending is mostly for fixed costs. For that reason, it is also very likely that school districts can't improve their practices to make themselves more efficient; in other words, so that their additional spending could improve student outcomes. It may well be that the increased per pupil spending simply reflects the reality that districts need to do the same job as always, but for fewer students. For this reason, it's impractical to ask a district to perfectly reduce its administrative, support, and facilities spending in alignment with their enrollment losses to charters.

So, no, this report is not a finding that charters don't harm school district finances; neither is it a finding that they do. It is, instead, a description of what seems to be happening to school districts as charters come in -- although that description comes with many caveats attached...


I'll be doing a wonky post about the problems with modeling spending and revenue changes when charters grow at some point in the next few weeks. But I want to address some questions I've received about the limitations on this study.

- A note on my analysis: what I'm using is known as a fixed-effects model. The basic idea is that every school district has unique characteristics, and we should account for those characteristics when estimating the effects of charter growth on district finances. We also need to account for changes that affect all districts year-to-year. A fixed-effects model allows for that, and for other varying factors that may also affect spending, such as different student populations, density, labor market effects, etc.

But a fixed-effects model cannot say with certainty that changes in charter growth caused the correlated changes in financial measures. It could be that there are other factors involved that account for the changes -- we just don't know. That said, the estimates in the report provide enough evidence that the relationship may exist that it's worth investigating further.

- My measure of charter school penetration assumes that all students in a charter school would otherwise attend public school in the district where the charters is located. There is no federal data available that directly ties a charter school student to their "home" district, so this is really the best I can do with the given data. 

We know, however, that charter school students can and do cross school district boundaries, so the percentages of charter penetration are not exact. There are also quirks in some state's charter regulations (California is a good example) where distant districts can authorize charters, making the figures even more imprecise.

That said, there is previous research that uses the same methods I do and compares it to actual district-level data that gives precise measures of charter penetration. That research generally shows the measures lead to similar estimates. So, yes, I'm using a proxy measure -- but there's reason to believe it's a pretty good proxy,.

- There is one aspect to this last point that requires more caution when approaching the estimates: virtual charter schools. While the overall percentage of students in these schools is low, there is more penetration in some states and districts than others. Tying virtual charter enrollments to district boundaries is obviously not going to work, and that will bias the estimates, although it's impossible to say how much.

I did some work to try to mitigate against this, and continue to work to solve the problem. The biggest issue is the data, which is not very good. That said, I should have been more clear in the report about this issue -- and that's entirely on me.

- One of the biggest issues we came across is dealing with the problem of scale. We could, for example, ask this as the research question: "How do charter schools affect district finances not including the effects of enrollment losses?" That would allow us to control for those losses in the model... but what if we think (as I do) that enrollment losses are the primary mechanism through which charters change district finances? If we included a scale measure in the model, it would "eat up" the charter effect, because detangling charter effects and enrollment losses is impossible.

The problem is further complicated because other scale effects unrelated to charter growth are very likely impacting district finances. So we have to account for scale, but not scale changes due to charters. This was tricky, and, as the appendix on this in the report suggests, the solution is definitely up for debate. I'll discuss this more in the next post.

Let me just add this: if anyone thinks one report using one method and one set of data by one guy settles any question of public policy... then you really don't understand how social science works. Which brings me to...

My Takeaways On All This

As I've said on this blog and elsewhere many times: I am not for abolishing charter schools. I started my K-12 teaching career in a charter, run by good people who were committed to their students and their school. I have seen repeatedly in my teaching career that some students are not well suited to the "typical" public district school, and would benefit from an alternative that better suits their needs. I have no problem with charters being proud of their students and their schools, and I have never and would never criticize a parent for making the choice to enroll their child in a charter.

What I am against are the facile, often lazy, and sometimes outright mendacious arguments made in favor of charter schools by some -- some -- of their most ardent supporters.

There is no question that there are bad actors in the charter sector, and that they have caused unnecessary waste, fraud, and abuse against the taxpayers and families they are supposed to serve. There is no question that the current charter authorization and oversight system is completely inadequate to the task and needs to be reformed; consequently, many charters act in ways that are not in the best interest of citizens.

I am also deeply concerned that charters, particularly of the "no excuses" variety, are imposing a type of education on students of color that would never be tolerated by white parents in affluent school districts. The stories of students being denigrated and subject to carceral educational practices are well-known and far too common.

Some argue the gains these schools show are worth it. I first want to point out that the overall effect of charters on student outcomes has been little to nothing; at best, the positive effects are confined to "no excuses" urban charters. The peer-reviewed literature on charter schools of this type often shows a positive effect; what usually gets missed, however, is why those effects occur. I've seen no evidence that these charters have pedagogical or organizational advantages that lead to better student outcomes. What seems to be happening instead is that certain self-selected students benefit from longer days, longer years, and one-on-one tutoring.

These things cost money, which begs a question: If we can find additional funds for some students in charters to have more resources, why can't we find it for all students, including those in public schools?

My point in reiterating all this is that the debate about charter schools has to move to a new level; the old tropes weren't accurate and we have to get past them. So I have little patience at this point with those in the pro-charter camp who dismiss the many, many problems charter schools are creating for public education. And no, I don't think there is equivalent bad-faith argument on "both sides."

But neither do I think the charter-skeptics, of which I count myself, have had the issue of charter school growth's effect on district finances completely right. There are mechanisms and compensatory policies that, in many states, appear to increase per pupil spending and revenues at school districts as charters move in. This doesn't mean that districts don't suffer fiscal harm; rather, the simple story of "charters taking money away from districts" is more subtle and complex than what some have understood.

One last, completely self-indulgent thought: the more I do this kind of work, the more humble I've become about it. It is far too easy to screw up a dataset, or make a mistake when coding a model, or make a conceptual error, or overlook some critical factor. I tend to get obsessive about triple checking things, but my biggest fear remains putting something out that is just flat out wrong.

Yes, some research is more rigorous than others. Sometimes people come to conclusions their analysis doesn't warrant. Some people are clearly hacks. But if you're transparent, and you're open about your limitations, and you're willing to have a good faith discussion about your findings, I'm not going to fault you, no matter what you believe or what you find. Because I know this stuff isn't easy.

I didn't always take that view; I try to now. More to come.

* I did do some modeling on this, but I grew suspicious of the data, as it's not clear states report capital spending consistently. More later.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

January, 2021 Update on NJ COVID School Opening Plans: Still Racially Biased, Still Inadequately Funded For Many

The estimable Colleen O'Dea from NJ Spotlight News continues to do New Jersey a service by updating the data on school instructional models during the pandemic. I've been collecting her updates, including the latest one from late in January, and matching it to enrollment and funding data from the NJDOE.

I did my first report on this for the New Jersey Policy Perspective back in October, and have updated my findings here several times since (here and here). Let me be clear: these are not reports about how many students and families are electing to participate in remote, hybrid, or in-person learning. Rather, I'm showing what the options are for students in their school districts. 

A school district, for example, may offer hybrid learning (a combination of limited classroom time and virtual learning at home) to its students; however, those students may choose to stay home full-time. But a student in a "remote" district won't have that option: they never get to decide whether they want to come to school at least part-time.

There are four categories of instructional models in the data

  • In-person, where all instruction takes place in school (again, NJ law says students could still elect to learn from home).
  • Remote, where there is no in-person learning available.
  • Hybrid, where there is a mix of in-person and remote learning for the district's students.
  • Combination (combo), where different schools within the district have different models.

The reports I've been doing, based on O'Dea's data, have been getting a fair bit of attention for two reasons. First, there is a clear racial bias in the instructional models being offered. Students of color are much more likely to be in districts where only remote learning is offered. 

Some have suggested this is because Black parents are especially wary of sending their children to school, and districts are responding to their wishes. But that brings up the second finding of my reports: the remote-only districts are far more likely to be underfunded, as measured by the state's own law on school funding.

This makes sense, because a district that offers hybrid learning very likely needs more resources (per student) than a district that doesn't. Most hybrid districts are cohorting their students: dividing them into groups and then rotating them so class sizes are small and social distancing can be maintained. To do this, there have too be enough staff to deliver remote and in-person instruction simultaneously, even as fixed costs like transportation and facilities management remain the same. That's going to cost money.

Now that we've got the background, let's see where New Jersey stands as of now on its pandemic instructional plans. We'll start by looking at how things have changed since the fall.

A couple of weeks ago Governor Murphy said more schools were opening for in-person instruction. But my data-crunching shows we actually have more students in remote learning than we did back in September. Granted, we had more students in districts with unknown plans at the start of the year; still, the numbers of in-person, hybrid, and combo students haven't changed much.

What's interesting is that it appears that there were districts who tried to move to hybrid in the fall, but then stopped and went back to remote going into the winter. Was this a reaction to the wave of new cases that started when the weather got cold?

Let's next look at the racial/ethnic profile of students attending districts with different instructional models.

As I pointed out in October, Black students were more likely to be in remote districts, as opposed to hybrid or combo districts. That hasn't changed; if you're a Black student in New Jersey, you're still more likely to be in a district with fully-remote instruction than a district with at least some in-person learning.

Same thing for Hispanic students:

I'm not quite sure about the dip in combo districts' Hispanic percentage, although the number of districts using that model is small enough that only a few would have to change to see a significant shift. That said, there is a clear and persistent difference in the ethnic profile of hybrid and remote districts.

This is naturally reflected in the percentages of white students:

In New Jersey, white students are more likely to have the option of attending school in-person at least part of the time compared to Black or Hispanic students.

It's worth noting that there are also differences between students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure of student economic disadvantage:

So why is this? Well, as Bruce Baker and I have pointed out many times (here's the latest), Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be in school districts that the state's own law says are underfunded. And it turns out the districts most likely to be fully remote are those that are underfunded—a condition that has remained the same throughout the pandemic.

You can see my figures from October in the NJPP report. Let's jump ahead a bit to November; the situation remained the same.

Almost all school districts that are deeply underfunded—more than $5,000 per student—were offering only remote learning back in the fall. That changed little in December...

And even less in January:

I don't see how anyone can argue that school funding has nothing to do with pandemic schooling: Consistently, the students in the most underfunded New Jersey school districts have been denied any opportunity for at least some in-person instruction.

With vaccines around the corner, the school year halfway over, and the new state budget season coming up, I don't know if we can fix this in the short term. But we have got to acknowledge that long-term, structural deficiencies in school funding are creating unequal education opportunities for New Jersey's students. The pandemic didn't create these inequalities, but it did make it impossible to argue that they don't matter. Addressing this problem has got to be at the top of the state's policy agenda.

I'll keep updating my findings as new data becomes available. Until then, we've got some other important things to discuss—stand by...

Thursday, December 3, 2020

New Jersey's School COVID-19 Operating Plans: Still Racially Biased, Still Inadequately Funded For Many Students

Earlier this year, I posted about the racial inequities in New Jersey's school reopening plans, which were all affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following that blog post, I used some updated data, refined my analysis a bit, and wrote about it over at the NJPP website. In both of these analyses I relied on data published at NJ Spotlight (an invaluable source for news about education policy in the Garden State).

Turns out NJ Spotlight just updated their list of NJ school districts and their COVID-19 operating plans. Let's first give props to Spotlight's Colleen O'Dea for keeping on top of these data updates.

With a few tweaks of my statistical program's code, it's not too hard to see how things have changed over the last few months. But let's review what I found back in September:
  • About half of the state's students were in districts that only offered fully remote classes, while one-third were in districts that offered a hybrid of remote and in-person learning.
  • White students were more likely to have the option to receive in-person instruction than Black or Hispanic students.
  • The districts that offered only remote instruction were more likely to be underfunded -- according to the state's own law -- than districts offering hybrid instruction.
Before I get to the update, let me be clear about what I'm presenting. The analysis here is not what students are actually doing; it's what their districts offer. Governor Murphy has required all districts to offer fully remote instruction during the pandemic. But some districts also offer students the option of at least some in-person learning. What I'm presenting here are the options districts offer their students and their families -- it's not what those families actual decide to do.

That said, let's see what's changed:

Back in September, about one-half of New Jersey's students were in fully remote districts. That's changed a bit: somewhat fewer students are now in districts where remote is their only option. A bigger change is that the districts whose plans weren't in the data back in September are now being tracked. The upshot is that more students are now in hybrid districts than back in September: where 3 in 10 students had the hybrid option in September, now 4 in 10 do.

Let's see if that's changed the racial disparities in whether in-person schooling is offered:

So far as Black students are concerned, there's been little change. 7.3 percent of students in hybrid districts were Black back in September; now it's 7.8 percent. The remote districts were 20 percent Black; now they're 21 percent.

The graph above shows a distinct change in the percentage of Hispanic students in combination districts -- districts that offer hybrid in some grades and remote in others. But remember: these districts enroll less than ten percent of all students -- they're not a big factor. There's actually very little change for Hispanic students in their options. Like Black students, they are more likely to be enrolled in remote districts than hybrids.

In September, hybrid districts had more white students than remote districts. Again, little has changed: if you're a white student in New Jersey, you're more likely to be in a hybrid district than a remote one.

So there was a clear racial bias in COVID-19 school operating plans back in September... and that bias has not gone away. Why is that?

As I noted back in September, whether a district offered in-person learning was clearly correlated with whether that district is adequately funded:

New Jersey's school funding law, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), sets an "adequacy budget" per pupil. This is the amount the state's own law says a district needs to provide an adequate education for its students. SFRA recognizes that schools serving students in economic disadvantage, or who are limited English proficient, or who have a special education need, need more resources to equalize educational opportunity. 

Unfortunately, New Jersey has not followed the state's own law when it comes to school funding. There are many districts that are inadequately funded -- some by more than $5,000 per pupil. 

There are several different ways to calculate the adequacy gap. What I do here is slightly different than what Bruce Baker and I did for our latest report on SFRA, but by either method, there are about 130,000 students in these severely underfunded districts. In September, I found that just about all of these students were in school districts that only offered remote learning.

Well, in December we now have more children in hybrid programs. But guess what? Nearly all of the students in severely underfunded districts are still in schools that only offer remote learning.

Put another way: In September, nearly all of the students in underfunded districts were only offered remote learning. Today, in December, these students still can only access remote learning.

School districts that do not have adequate funding don't have the same access to revenues to maintain their facilities, including their HVAC systems. As Bruce and I show, these districts have fewer staff per pupil; it's much harder to offer both remote and in-person learning when you don't have enough staff to divide up the responsibilities for two modes of teaching. Underfunded districts are hard-pressed to provide their students and staff with PPE and other necessary supplies to make in-person schooling safe. They won't have the custodial staff necessary to increase work hours for extra cleaning, or the technology to implement instruction that allows for students who are in-person and on-line to learn together.

There is no question that funding adequacy is a major factor in determining whether a school district is able to offer in-person instruction. If funding didn't matter, why haven't at least some of the state's inadequately funded districts started offering in-person instruction? They've had the time to plan -- what they haven't had are the resources.

As I said back in September: the pandemic has surfaced the consequences of inadequate and inequitable school funding. More recent data confirms this basic truth. I know we're all waiting for the vaccine, and for a return to some semblance of normality -- but we can't go back to normal. The pandemic is a wake-up call. It is wrong to continue to deny schools what the state's own law says they need to do their jobs. 

Much more to come on what it will take to equalize educational opportunity here in New Jersey, and elsewhere. Stand by...

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Trump and Christie: Everything Teachers Stand Against

Most of what needs to be said about Donald Trump’s appalling performance last night has been said. But I want to quickly add two thoughts. 

First, as an educator, I want to make sure we acknowledge that the massive damage Trump has done to our country includes his corrupting influence on American children. Every day, teachers go into our schools and try to instill important values in our students: respect, honesty, integrity, civility, modesty, empathy. Donald Trump’s whole life, however, has been a wholesale rejection of every personal characteristic a citizen in a democracy should strive to embody.


Donald Trump can't even lift himself to the level of behavior expected in an elementary school.  His preening, whining, blustering foolishness would never be tolerated in a second grader. His inability to accept responsibility for his actions would earn him a conference in the principal’s office with his parents. His casual disregard for the truth would result in a string of Ns ("Needs Improvement") on his report card.


We’ve had many bad presidents in my lifetime; not one, however, has been so craven, so boorish, so full of contempt for others that they didn't have some positive attribute that a teacher could point to. But not this man -- there isn’t a single quality in the leader of our nation that an American student should emulate. 

The fact that a man of such low character holds high office makes it that much more difficult for teachers to convince their students that the hard work of making yourself into a better person is worth the effort. Kids need role models; foremost among those role models should be the president. Yet every time he opens his mouth, he demonstrates to our children how not to behave.


Second: for eight long, exhausting years, I watched as Chris Christie drove my beloved state into the ground. He was nearly as repulsive as Trump: he mocked women, denigrated teachers, pushed policies that were demonstrably harmful, indulged himself while others suffered, and just generally acted like a horse’s ass.


Christie was the most unpopular governor in American when he finally left office. Amazingly, someone thought that was the perfect guy to put on TV. And, true to form, last night he came to Donald Trump’s defense.


Donald Trump could not speak out forcefully against racism and violence… and Chris Christie made excuses for him. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because, like all bullies, he’s intimidated by the bigger bully. 

Maybe it’s because he thinks getting a tax break is more important than saving democracy. Maybe he has deluded himself into thinking he has a chance at reentering politics at some point, and he doesn’t want to alienate Trump’s small but vocal base. 

Ultimately, all that matters is that we see Republicans like Chris Christie for what they are: Donald Trump’s enablers, devoid of any honor or sense of shame. They should be shunned and mocked by decent people everywhere -- as much as Trump is.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Correcting the Hacks on NJ Taxes

Nothing makes me crazier than hacky discussions of tax and fiscal policy. And if you want the hackiest hacking about New Jersey's taxes, there's only one place to go: the Star-Ledger's opinion pages, where you'll find conservative Mike DuHaime and "liberal" (snort) Julie Roginsky hacking out the hackiest fiscal hacking imaginable:

Mike: Trenton Democrats will never let a good crisis go to waste. They are using COVID to raise income taxes, raise business taxes, raise taxes on healthcare and borrow billions. I am surprised Sweeney and Coughlin are supporting an income tax increase. The top 1% of earners in New Jersey are paying 40% of New Jersey’s income taxes. The top 10% pay 70% of the taxes. Wealthy people are leaving New Jersey, and as they leave, it is the middle class who keep getting more and more of the tax burden.

Julie: This deal fell into place because Speaker Coughlin was committed to provide real relief to working middle-class families and was finally able to spearhead an agreement that does just that by providing families with children with the money to pay for back-to-school expenses and other bills next year.

Mike: This is less than one-half of 1% of a tax credit for the average New Jersey household. Taxpayers deserve structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden.

Julie: I agree, Mike. But in all the years a Republican governor was at the helm, he never lowered the income tax rate for the middle class. This is the first real tax break middle class workers are getting in a generation.
Some debate: the Democrat agrees that New Jersey needs "...structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden." The assumption by both, of course, is informed by received wisdom in Trenton: New Jersey is a heavily taxed state with out of control spending.

You'll also note Roginsky doesn't push back on DuHaime's claim that the state's top earners are paying an inordinately high share of the taxes. What a real debater would have noted is that simply focusing on income taxes is wrong when the state raises revenues through a mix of taxes, including gas, sales, transfer, corporate, and so on. Further, state taxes should be considered in combination with local taxes, as various states divide up responsibilities for providing services differently.

Since DuHaim is implying that New Jersey residents are leaving the state due to high taxes and high spending, let's take a moment to cut through the hackery and look at some basic facts.

1) New Jersey collects higher taxes than the US average, but is not a huge outlier in tax collections. We're number 8 in state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, according to federal data collected from the Tax Policy Center

But remember that taxes are not the only sources of revenue for a state; across the nation, taxes only accounted for about one-half of all general state revenue in 2017.

2) When calculating own source state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income, New Jersey is below the national average. We're ranked number 31, well below the national average. 

3) New Jersey's state and local governments spend less of its citizens' personal income than most other states. On average state and local governments in the U.S. spend 18.3 percent of personal income on direct general expenditures; New Jersey, in contrast, spends 16.0 percent.

4) New Jersey is better than most of its neighboring states, and the U.S. as a whole, in tax progressiveness; however, the top 1 percent in the state still pay less in overall state and local taxes, as a percentage of income, than the middle class. In many states, the bottom 20 percent pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the top 1 percent. Thankfully, that isn't true in New Jersey; however, the top 1 percent still pay less overall than the middle 20 percent.

5) Tax flight of the wealthy from New Jersey is a myth that has been debunked for years. Let's have Sheila Reynertson of NJPP explain it:

As NJPP points out here, the number of wealthy taxpayers in the state has been growing, despite all the talk of this being a high-tax state.

To recap:
  • New Jersey isn't an inordinately high-tax state.
  • New Jersey is a relatively low spending state.
  • New Jersey's wealthiest residents pay less in state and local taxes than its least affluent residents.
  • The number of wealthy taxpayers has been steadily growing in New Jersey for years.

So please don't listen to the political hacks when they tell you we desperately need massive spending cuts. What we need is smart, targeted revenue growth that asks the wealthiest residents to pay their fair share. The millionaire's tax is a meaningful step in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Racial and Class Bias In New Jersey's School Reopening Plans

Most New Jersey school districts are starting the 2020-21 school year this week -- although the way they are starting varies quite a bit. This year, some districts are fully remote, while others are offering a limited form of in-person instruction known as a "hybrid" model. Many of the districts offering the hybrid are rotating students in cohorts that switch between in-person and remote instruction; this way, students get at least some time in their school buildings.

The Murphy administration initially wanted all districts to offer some form of in-person instruction; however, many pushed back, saying they were not prepared. A large part of the problem is staffing: many districts are having trouble finding replacements for the wave of teachers who retired early or took leaves of absence rather than return during a pandemic. Governor Murphy has since allowed districts to apply to start the year remotely.

NJ Spotlight published a list late last week of which school districts -- including charter schools and private schools approved for special education -- would be implementing which model to start the year. I thought it was worth taking some time to crunch the numbers, even if many plans are, as of this writing, still under review. The list I'm using omits almost 200 districts, including every one in Hudson County. Still, it's instructive to see where we are as of now.

I should note before I start that a hybrid program does not require a student to attend in person. Murphy made clear months ago that if a family wants their student to attend schools fully remotely, they can. A hybrid program, then, is actually the possibility of attending school part-time, if parents so choose.

Let's start by looking at how many students are enrolled in schools implementing different types of plans. I'm omitting students in private schools, but including charter school students.

About one-quarter of students are in schools where the data on their reopening is not yet available. Of the remaining districts and charter schools, only one percent are in fully in-person schools. "Combination" districts are those where some schools are remote and some are in-person or hybrid; only six percent of students are in these schools.

The remainder of students are split nearly in half: part going to fully remote schools, part going to hybrid schools. I'm going to leave out fully in-person and combination schools for clarity's sake in the rest of my charts because the numbers are relatively small. Let's take a look at what types of students are attending what types of schools.

Of all the students who are attending a hybrid program, 62 percent are white. Compare that to remote programs, where only 30 percent of students are white. That percentage is close to the percentage of unknown programs. 

When considering white and Asian students together, the differences are just as pronounced. New Jersey schools using a hybrid plan are more likely to enroll white and Asian students than schools that are fully remote. Here's the data in reverse: enrollment of Black and Hispanic students by plan type.

Hybrid schools have, in the aggregate, a 24 percent enrollment of Black and Hispanic students. In contrast, remote schools have a weighted average student population that is 56 percent Black and Hispanic.

Similar differences are found when comparing schools on the enrollments of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure of student economic disadvantage.

Proportionally, hybrid schools enroll substantially fewer students who are in economic disadvantage compared to fully remote schools. 

Now, as Bruce Baker and I have pointed out before, school districts that enroll larger proportions of Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be underfunded, relative to the target set by the state's funding law, SFRA. These districts should be receiving more money, either through local revenues or state aid; however, their actual revenues are under what they should be to provide what the state says is an "adequate" education.

So how does school funding align with reopening plans?*

School districts going fully remote are more likely to be underfunded compared to districts that offer a hybrid model. About three-quarters of the students attending a school with a hybrid model also attend a school that is funded over its adequacy target. But that's true for only 40 percent of students attending a remote district. And over 10 percent of those students are in a district that is severely underfunded -- more than $5,000 per pupil.

There are several possibilities as to why this is. It could be that more underfunded districts are responding to parents' desires to keep their children home. Perhaps parents feel this way because they don't believe the schools have the resources needed to keep students safe. Or it could be that parents would like a hybrid option, but districts can't make it work because of space restrictions or a lack of resources.

It's also possible this is all a coincidence... but I doubt it. Schools need more funding than they normally would to open safely in a pandemic. What we are likely seeing now is the logical consequence of years of inequitable funding -- even in a state that used to be one of the leaders in school funding reform.

I'm keeping an eye on all this and will update the data as soon as it's available.

* I omitted charter school students from this graph. The issue is tricky: some charter students attend schools in districts different from where they live, so we can't know if their resident district, which sends revenues to their charter, is underfunded or not. If and when we get final numbers, I'll try to dig into the issue further.