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School Aid: Where's the Logic?

June 1997

by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D.

In late March, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 landmark decision that Ohio's system for funding public schools must be totally revised. Writing for the majority, Justice Francis Sweeney said, "Ohio's public school financing scheme must undergo a complete and systematic overhaul ... we admonish the Ohio General Assembly that it must create an entirely new school financing system."

The General Assembly has answered with a new budget starting July 1. The Dispatch carried a revealing table on June 24th detailing the percentage of change in state aid for each Franklin County school system, based upon the new budget. We were sitting together in a breakfast meeting when a colleague brought the Dispatch chart to our attention.

We were amazed, startled and confused. The chart showed prosperous school districts serving well-to-do families like Bexley and Worthington near the top and those which struggle with large numbers of children living in poverty near the bottom.

We thought it would be of value to explore the relationship between the increase in state funds and the districts' community education level, percentage of children living in poverty and average community income. Before doing so, however, some background information might be helpful to the reader.

Ability levels of children

Empirical research based on the study of identical twins, separated at birth, has consistently proven that when children are born their intelligence range is very similar. Unless a child has a serious disability or is profoundly gifted, most children are born with remarkably similar ability.

Studies indicate that stimulation in the early years and a proper diet can have a major positive impact on the ability (cognitive level) of children in the first few years of life. This is particularly important since brain cells continue to multiply and grow and neurons continue to extend themselves out of the cells until the child is about age seven. For example, if children are not provided sufficient stimulation or protein in the diet, the speed by which the cells multiply is reduced and the cognitive ability is impaired. Consequently, when the same children who were similar in intelligence at birth enter school, they have a wide range of ability. (Please see chart.)

In other words, the neuro-development of children is not highly differentiated at birth, but changes greatly before the child enters school. If children were all given the same nurturing parental attention, proper stimulation such as computers in the home and a good diet, kindergarten teachers would greet incoming classes of youngsters ready to learn at the same pace.

School and government officials have no way of knowing what happens in the home in terms of child-parent relationships, technology or diet. Researchers can, however, use statistical techniques (such as correlation analysis) to best predict which children will create a greater challenge for classroom teachers striving to maximize student achievement.

Study after study has indicated the greatest predictor of child success in school is the education level of the adults with whom that child has contact. Moreover, it has been proven that children living in poverty have a great disadvantage in their ability to do early-grade schoolwork. Such demographics are the best predictors of time and resources which have been provided to students in the home prior to school entry. Many in the general public seem to believe there is a relationship between family income and school success, but only weak correlations exist here. The data from schools located in college towns like Athens and Oxford, Ohio, clearly indicate community education level is a much better predictor than income.

If the leaders of the State of Ohio are interested in creating equity, it would seem to be important to look at the populations in the state which need the most assistance. Research indicates that time and resources are important factors in helping children catch up when coming from disadvantaged homes. An argument can be made that more state aid should be directed to those school systems with low community education levels and high levels of poverty.

The purpose of additional funds

Currently, school districts in Ohio spend as much as 80-90 percent of their budgets in staff salaries and benefits. If districts are given additional dollars by the state without specific rules regarding where the funds may be spent, the dollars will undoubtedly go primarily to salary increases. But, is merely paying already employed staff higher relative salaries going to enhance the education of students in "tax-poor" school districts?

If the equity issue is really related to a difference in staff quality, then it apparently makes sense since the quality of teaching and support staff is important to student learning. Perhaps the desired solution, in these times of little teacher mobility, is not to only pay staff more, but actually to move some teachers from district to district. As strange as this concept may sound, it is exactly what America's best companies do when they relocate staff members to the places they are needed most.

If the issue is not related to a difference in the quality of staff, what is the point? Perhaps personnel costs should be separated from other costs. Eighteen years ago, we suggested in a Dispatch column some form of "grandparent clause" for existing staff. Staff new to districts could be cost equalized through a statewide salary schedule with special consideration given to districts with large numbers of students who have poorly educated parents or high levels of poverty.

Obviously, pouring money into the problem without specific controls won't work.

The quadruple whammy

There is no doubt some children are educationally disadvantaged because their parents do not have much education. Others are disadvantaged because they come from homes below the poverty level. Still others are disadvantaged because their school systems have few resources. The logic that has been suggested by some legislators which ties state funding to community behavior in school financial elections creates a fourth disadvantage. Even the poorest districts in Ohio are currently required to pass a bond issue in order to receive state building assistance funds. Why should children be penalized because voters in the district where they live are unwilling to support additional taxes? There is a significant body of research to indicate that districts with high parent education levels pass levies more readily than others. Apparently, in districts where the education level of residents is low, it is more difficult to make strong case for the value of education.

Monitoring effective schools

Early studies by Yale psychiatrist Dr. James Comer and Harvard's late Dr. Ronald Edmonds formed the framework for creating a system to monitor school effectiveness. These "correlates of effectiveness" have been used as part of over 600 SchoolMatch audits in school systems nationwide including the October, 1996, study of the Columbus Public Schools commissioned by the Dispatch. The correlates of effectiveness have proven to be extremely helpful in monitoring schools. Generally, when these characteristics are apparent in the school district, the district can be considered effective. These characteristics are based on what happens in a district, not on how much money it spends or receives. The State of Ohio could use these in a systematic way to "benchmark" school improvement. The correlates of effectiveness are:

LEADERSHIP: Clear efforts are being taken within the district to improve school effectiveness and student learning. The district is well organized in support of student priorities.

EMPHASIS ON LEARNING: It is clear through the allocation of resources, structure of the school and rationale for decisions that the school's main priority is the learning of students. Distractions and interferences with instruction and learning are minimized.

SCHOOL CLIMATE: Students and parents should exhibit pride and loyalty to their school. The entire community should possess a commitment to the school's goals. This quality is manifest in student respect for the physical plant, strong parent involvement and positive staff and student morale.

MONITORING: Systematic procedures exist for measuring the achievement of students across a wide specture of their learning experiences. Such procedures document the change in student achievement in specific areas, curriculum areas in need of improvement and priorities in the allocation of resources.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS: The school staff is dedicated to having each student reach his/her potential in terms of learning and personal growth. Challenging experiences are conducted to have each student reach this goal.

Analyzing the data

The level of education in the community, number of children living in poverty and income level of residents are the best predictors of differences in cognitive levels of school-age children. We thought it would be helpful to look at the increases in state aid in the 1997-1998 budget compared to these three vital demographic indicators. It is important to note that due to pockets of poverty in middle class or affluent school attendance areas, the poverty level indicator is quite different from the average income percentile.

To make the analysis more readable, SchoolMatch developed a ratio of increases in state funding compared to each of the critical demographic variables for Franklin County public school districts.

Since the level of education of adults associated with children, particularly mothers, is the greatest predictor of student success in school we first looked to see if the General Assembly had awarded greater increases to districts with lower community education levels. It would seem appropriate if the issue is equity to consider the group of students associated with the least educated adults as the principal target group for increased funding. As you can see in Graph 1, at least in Franklin County, there is apparently no relationship between community education levels and increased state school support. On the one hand, the Hamilton Local School District with a very low community education level received a moderately high increase from the state (12.5%). On the other hand, Bexley and Worthington school districts which enjoy among the highest community education levels in the area each received an increase equal to or greater than Hamilton's.

We next turned to the issue of school districts with a high number of children living in poverty as depicted in Graph 2. Perhaps here we would find the logical correlations we hoped to see. The Pickerington City School District has among the lowest poverty levels in the State of Ohio (1.6%), while Columbus City has, obviously, a high poverty level (30.3%). This indicator of student need also didn't work, since Pickerington's state aid increase was 4.2 percent more than the City of Columbus school system with its high poverty level.

Finally, since many people like to compare school needs with community income levels, we thought we would take a look at that variable. The results again seem to make no sense based upon predictors of the readiness of children for school. In this case, we have Hilliard with a community income level ranking in the 89th percentile in the United States receiving a 17.3 percent increase. This is 14.6 percent higher than Groveport where the community income level is only in the 69th percentile nationally - a full 20 points lower.

Obviously, we could have examined equity from the standpoint of total revenue per student. A quick glance at those numbers, which appear on Chart 2, provides no more sense of equity adjustment than did the demographic indicators.

If the state legislature is not looking at school needs based on community education level, the percentage of children living in poverty or community income levels, what are they looking at? Once again we return to the "dog chasing his tail" concept of penalizing children for the behavior of local voters.

Since Ohio has not adopted a statewide effectiveness-based system, as mentioned above, for monitoring schools we know that the allocation of funds is not based on that type of measurement. If it were, we regret, we would be creating the "fifth whammy." Under that system, students would be penalized for living in a school system with less effective school staff or rewarded for living in one with a more effective school staff.

It appears that one answer to our problem of equity in Ohio is to remove the allocation of educational resources for children from the political process which takes place at Broad & High Streets and in the voting booth.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

Steven M. Sundre is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is Executive Vice President of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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