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Georgia Loses Money Earmarked For Teacher Merit Pay

With all of the talk about recent weather and traffic events, we’ve lost an important education story.

Georgia, has now become the first and only state to forfeit Race to the Top (RT3) grant money.   Officials in Georgia were warned last July to address failures in implementing a new teacher evaluation system or lose almost $10 million in funding for a teacher merit pay system.

In the letter regarding the forfeiture, federal officials stated:

On September 16, 2013, I notified the State of my intent to withhold $9,904,629, pursuant to sections 454(a)(1) and 455 of the General Education Provisions Act (GEPA) (20 U.S.C. § § 1234c(a)(1) and 1234d), until the State submitted a credible plan detailing its strategy for coming into compliance with this section of its Race to the Top grant. To date, the State has not submitted such a plan. ….. To date, the OALJ has not received an application for a hearing nor have I received a written show cause response. As a result, the Department is withholding $9,904,629 of Georgia’s Race to the Top grant award, effective with this letter.

I’m not a fan of some of the aspects of RT3 but if the state commits to it, one has an obligation to manage it properly.  Whether you like RT3 or not, this is an embarrassment at the national level for Georgia.  The headline draws attention to the poor state of affairs regarding education management in our state.  Furthermore, it removes funding that would have gone to our best performing teachers.

Georgia’s Department of Education created the very evaluation system they failed to implement.  The evaluation system had problems from the start.   The length of the 358-page evaluation handbook is a clue that the system may have failed under the weight of its own complexity.

Given that it is National School Choice Week, the story of a failed evaluation system is ironic.  The simplicity and equilibrium of parent choice in education as a metric and driver of success is all the more compelling, compared to the byzantine and lengthy teacher evaluation system created by bureaucrats.

Georgians deserve more choice and less bureaucratic failure.

DeKalb Accreditation

I am pleased to hear the DeKalb school system’s accreditation status has been upgraded from “probation” to “warned”.  I worked diligently to shine light on the poor fiscal management of DeKalb.  Some of my work was even cited in the SACS report from 2012.   Clearly DeKalb still has a long way to go.  Academic achievement and growth in many schools is unacceptable.  DeKalb’s graduation rate, at 58.9%, is far too low.  Of the 25 high schools in DeKalb, 8 have graduation rates below 50%, while only 4 have rates above 75%.  All four of these schools are specialty or magnet schools. 

I appreciate that SACS finally recognized that DeKalb needed some sort of intervention.  The entire episode exposes the structural weaknesses in our state’s accountability model.  While SACS can provide a useful and supplemental service via their third party accreditation products, Georgia must not continue to abdicate it’s role in holding districts accountable for their results and financial management.  AdvancED/SACS has 5 standards for school district accreditation.  While these standards are meant to drive improvement in various processes for a school district, not one standard measures outcomes for children. There is no minimum graduation rate or achievement level necessary to earn accreditation. 

In many states, the accreditation status of schools is determined by their Department of Education or comparable public agency.  Texas and Virginia both accredit their schools based on defined, measurable performance results.  Their graduation rates are 87% and 89% respectively.  These states are rewarding success with autonomy and no longer accept failure without consequences.  Additionally, Texas has a Financial Integrity system that has 20 indicators that measure the financial health of a district and push money to be spent in the classroom.   

From the Texas Education Agency’s website:

“The purpose of the financial accountability rating system is to ensure that school districts and open-enrollment charter schools are held accountable for the quality of their financial management practices and achieve improved performance in the management of their financial resources.  The system is designed to encourage Texas public schools to manage their financial resources better in order to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instructional purposes.”

Georgia has 0 financial integrity measurements for our school districts.

If Georgia had a system for financial integrity, like Texas, DeKalb county could not have engaged in the deceptive budgeting practices I uncovered.  School districts would be forced to allocate money to instruction and not a bloated bureaucracy.  If Georgia’s Department of Education had an accreditation system like that of Texas or Virginia, our schools would be rated and accredited based on measurable performance outcomes. 

I am running to be the State School Superintendent to bring these types of structural reforms to our state.

The Real Story of Per Pupil Spending

Grad Rates Per Pupil SpendingMap
In October, the Marietta Daily Journal published an article I wrote about Common Core, Common Core is No Path to Prosperity. Subsequently, Politifact ran a piece examining my comments about Georgia’s aggregate spending on education.  They confirmed that, indeed, Georgia does spend in the top ten on education in the nation.  Click here to review the U.S. Census data on that.  The Politifact article went onto discuss per pupil spending by state – a topic that I did not address.  Their point was that if one reviews per pupil spending, Georgia’s ranking drops significantly.  They further indicate that ranking drops, “when adjusted for regional costs of living…”.  The citation embedded in their article for this claim doesn’t given the adjusted per pupil data, rank or methodology used for adjusting the figures.  It’s fair to assume that their per pupil spending data is adjusted using CPI information by region (their stated level of adjustment).

I was pleased that Politifact noted that my fact on aggregate spending was correct.  Pursuant to their further critique, they would have preferred I discuss per pupil spending.  The main reason I did not discuss per pupil spending is there are significant differences in the wage structures for education professionals and their benefits between states.  The largest components of costs in K-12 education are salaries and benefits so adjusting each state relative to each other would be necessary for an accurate comparison.

I downloaded the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most current Occupational Employment Statistics to gather salary/wage data for each state.  I isolated those occupational profile codes specific to K-12 education in each state.  I averaged these wages to determine an average salary.  I then compared this average salary to Georgia’s average salary.  As you would expect, some states have significantly higher salaries than Georgia.  These states are often those that we think of as having a higher cost of living.  For example, adjusted against Georgia’s salaries, New York’s educational salaries are 31% higher; Massachusetts are 17% higher.

After developing a measure between Georgia and every other state, I used this to adjust each state’s per pupil spending relative to Georgia’s and then ranked the states’ adjusted per pupil spending.  The result is that Georgia’s per pupil spending is in the middle of the pack.  We rank 25th in per pupil spending on instruction and 28th in total per pupil spending.

I’ll leave you with this.  Every state that borders Georgia has a higher graduation rate.  And, every state that borders Georgia spends less per pupil than Georgia.  You can go west to Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas and you will find that they too, also have a higher graduation rate and all but Louisiana spend less per pupil than Georgia.

Common Core Is No Path To Prosperity

By: Nancy Jester
Marietta Daily Journal (October 10, 2013)

Depending on who you ask, Common Core is described as something from voluntary national standards to a federal takeover of education. So, what is it and what’s really going on?

Common Core is an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn … reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”

No one would argue with these groups developing a set of voluntary standards that are rigorous and helpful for students as they prepare for college or the workforce.

The NGA and CCSSO may have had the best intentions, but as the process unfolded, political motivations and agendas took over. A recessionary economy and falling property values created budget crises in school districts across the country.

In the category of “never let a crisis go to waste,” those with agendas saw an opportunity to leverage school districts’ need for money with their vision for education.

Into this situation, President Obama’s Race to the Top grants offered a much needed infusion of federal money conditioned on adopting Common Core. At that point, Common Core ceased being voluntary and was no longer an effort to define rigorous standards with broad acceptance.

Once linked to grant money, the power over education standards shifted from states and districts to the federal level. Even though the NGA and CCSSO were responsible for the initiation of common standards, the use of federal grant money changed the nature of this effort.

Those who favor Common Core in Georgia still see it through the original lens of good intentions and dismiss or ignore the political appropriation of their efforts. Their reticence to acknowledge the usurpation of Common Core by the federal government is understandable given that most of the advocates invested their time and reputation into the initiative.

With states adopting Common Core under the lure of federal money, groups with political agendas regarding K-12 curriculum can target and obtain influence or control over the standards.

For example, Common Core displaces some traditional literature with informational texts to prepare students for workplace and technical writing.

That sounds innocuous enough, but what informational texts will they read? Perhaps they will be given EPA regulations on carbon emissions, DOJ writings on hate crimes or Department of Labor surveys on workplace diversity.

The politicization of learning is embedded in this standard. Centralized control also curtails innovation. It’s like going back to Ma Bell and doing away with the communications revolution brought to us by a competitive marketplace.

With Common Core in Georgia, we’re told that the standards are closely aligned with Georgia’s existing standards, as if that should make us all feel better.

In the early 2000s, the Georgia Department of Education adopted a social studies curriculum that is almost completely devoid of education on The Bill of Rights in elementary school. Yet, in third grade, we teach our children about the nine important people who “expanded rights.” Those nine people are: Paul Revere, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mary McLeod Bethune, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Lyndon B. Johnson, and César Chávez.

The same Georgia Department of Education asks us to trust them on adopting Common Core standards. The Georgia DOE that has been at the helm as we performed so poorly as a state on most education metrics. When some of our elected officials say they are being informed about Common Core by the experts from our DOE, I’m concerned about the advice they are receiving.

Our state spends in the top 10 nationally on education, yet, most of our education metrics hover in the bottom five. We have to admit that we need a change in leadership on educational issues in Georgia. Rigorous standards need to be adopted, but they must be part of a process that continues to innovate and is not beholden to a central authority. Georgia has a long road ahead but Common Core is not a path to prosperity.

Optimal School District Size

We had some fascinating education headlines last week.  Perhaps none more interesting than the report of comments made by Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, the accreditation conglomerate that owns many regional accreditors including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Here’s some background – Georgia is constitutionally limited in the number of school districts to 159 county districts and 21 city district.  Last year, Rep. Tom Taylor filed HR 486; a bill calling for a statewide vote to amend the constitution to allow new school districts to form under certain conditions.  A feasibility study was commissioned for the City of Dunwoody to determine if an independent school district was viable from a revenue standpoint.  The study’s results indicate that a city school district would be financially feasible and, at current millage rates, would produce a healthy surplus.

Speaking before the Buckhead Business Association days after the feasibility study was made public, Dr. Elgart stated the current 180 school districts in Georgia are “far too many.” According to The Reporter Newspaper, he went on to state, “Georgia does not need to expand the number of school systems it has in the state, … It needs to contract it so it can use its resources differently than it currently does.”

I’m puzzled why the head of an international accrediting agency would comment on a state political subdivision matter.  The organization of school districts is a self-determination made by the good citizens of our state.  Notwithstanding that fact, the suggestion that Georgia has “far too many” school districts is not supported by the research on the topic of optimal school district size.

Here are just a few quotes from scholarly articles on the subject of school district size that support the need for Georgia to break-up its large districts.

  • In a study to examine if consolidating smaller school districts in Michigan would save taxpayers money, Andrew Coulson estimated the most cost-effective school district size in Michigan and the cost savings that would result from merging small districts and breaking up excessively large districts. From his analysis, Coulson found that the most cost-effective district size for schools in Michigan was 2,900 students. Districts that were either larger or smaller in size would generate higher per-pupil costs (Coulson, 2007). Consolidating smaller school districts to achieve this optimal size was estimated to result in a cost savings for the state of Michigan and local governments of approximately $31 million annually. In comparison, breaking up large school districts would produce an annual savings of $363 million. The savings from breaking up large districts is estimated to be 12 times greater than the savings that would be generated from merging small districts.

Center for Evaluation and Education Policy
Education Policy Brief
VOLUME 8, NUMBER 3, SUMMER 2010
Revisiting School District Consolidation Issues
Terry E. Spradlin, Fatima R. Carson, Sara E. Hess, and Jonathan A. Plucker

  • Small size is good for the performance of impoverished schools, but it now seems as well that small district size is also good for the performance of such schools

The Influence of Scale on School Performance: A Multi-Level Extension of the Matthew Principle
Robert Bickel, Marshall University; Craig Howley, Ohio University and AEL, Inc.

  • A study of Pennsylvania districts found that the lowest costs per student were in districts enrolling between 2,500 and 2,999 students (Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, 2007).
  • A North Carolina report compared the district sizes of the five states with the best and worst SAT and ACT scores, high school graduation rates, dropout rates and retention rates. The study found that the states performing at higher levels on these performance indicators had smaller average district sizes (Sher & Schaller, 1986).
  • A Nebraska study demonstrated that smaller school systems academically outperformed larger ones within the state (Johnson, 2004). Researchers in Maine found that their 15 smallest districts produced higher graduation and post secondary enrollment rates than their 15 largest districts (Bowen, as cited in Driscoll, 2008). In Massachusetts, a task force found that smaller districts had lower average dropout rates, higher attendance rates, greater extra-curricular participation, and were more likely to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) targets than the state average (Driscoll, 2008). A study of small rural districts in New York found that students in these small districts tended to learn the basics at average or above average levels, when compared to students in other districts (Monk & Haller, 1986). In a series of five studies, researchers found that smaller districts and schools had greater achievement equity than larger districts and schools (Howley, 1996; Bickel & Howley, 2000).

An Exploration of District Consolidation:
By:Kathryn Rooney and John Augenblick
Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc.
May, 2009

The abundance of research indicates that the optimal district size is certainly much smaller than DeKalb’s current enrollment.  That research shows us that per-pupil costs are minimized in much smaller districts; completely negating the argument of economies of scale with large districts.  Furthermore, academic achievement measurements are better in smaller districts, particularly for the economically disadvantaged.  In the face of this type of evidence it is difficult to understand any defense of the status quo or advocacy for even larger districts.  The evidence is clear and compelling that our students and taxpayers would benefit from breaking up large districts.

Follow The Money

Follow the money.  That phrase was popularized during the Watergate tumult.  It is also a wise directive for all taxpayers in our state and beyond when it comes to how we spend your tax dollars on education.

So, what happens when you can’t “follow the money” because the government and the Iron Triangle Education Bureaucracy puts obstacles in your way?  The Cato Institute has released a study about the transparency in spending by departments of education.  It turns out Georgia earned an “F”.  Click here  to see their study. About Georgia, Cato points out, “Georgia is missing the most recent year of expenditures and fails to provide a table or graph that would allow citizens to easily compare changes in spending over time.”  In fact, Georgia is missing the most recent 2 years.  The financial data that is provided through the state DOE website is the 2010-2011 school year – a full 2 years behind our current fiscal year. (School districts have fiscal years that run from July 1 through June 30.  The fiscal year is referenced by the year in which it ends.)  So we are missing FY12 and FY13 on the fiscal reports.

Until we fix the financial issues that plague Georgia’s educational spending, we won’t fix education in our state. Unfortunately, Georgia’s Department of Education has not held districts accountable for how they spend your tax dollars.  It appears the DOE’s only retort is to ask for more of your money.  Our DOE continues to send hundreds of millions of your dollars to districts that do little to improve the educational lives of our children or even provide transparency in their expenditures.  It’s all a bit cozy.  Sadly, administrators have grown their take of your money over time and let smaller amounts accrue to the teachers in the classroom.  Dr. Scafidi’s study, The School Staffing Surge, on how administrative staffing has grown over time in excess of student growth.  In an upcoming “Coffee Talk”, we’ll cover the finances of education in Georgia and how they have hurt taxpayers, students and teachers all while benefiting the educational bureaucrats.  Follow the money, indeed.

Coffee Talk Highlights

We had a terrific Coffee Talk last week.  Thank you to all of our speakers and attendees!  We recorded the speaking segments so you can catch up if you missed the event.  Click here to view the videos and summaries.  Here’s my rundown of our speakers and topics:

Thank you to Congressman Kingston for talking with us about his work at the Federal level.  Congressman Kingston is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.  He is Chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.  He works to rein in Federal spending and hold the government accountable for how they spend your tax dollars.  Rep. Kingston’s discussion at Coffee Talk showed how he uses data to inform his decisions.  I’m thankful we have Rep. Kingston serving our state in Washington.  He is also running for the U.S. Senate.  Click here to learn more about his campaign.  I am thankful that Rep. Kingston joined us for Coffee Talk and look forward to seeing him again soon.

We were also fortunate to have Sen. Fran Millar and Rep. Tom Taylor, update the group on educational issues that will be important for the next legislative session, beginning in January 2014.  Rep. Taylor discussed H.R. 486 – a resolution that proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow independent school districts to form in Georgia.  Currently, the Georgia Constitution prohibits the formation of new school districts; capping the number of districts to the 159 county districts plus the 21 city school districts that were grandfathered in with our latest Constitution, adopted in 1983.

Kelly Cadman, VP with Georgia Charter School’s Association, Michael O’Sullivan, Outreach Director for StudentsFirst Georgia and Rich Thompson of 100Dads, gave us valuable information about Charter Schools in Georgia and the roll of parents and citizens to effect needed changes in our state’s educational structure.  Ms. Cadman updated Coffee Talk on the recent submission of the first Charter School Cluster application in our state – the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.  The application is now before the DeKalb County Board of Education.  The Board must render a decision on the application within 90 days.  Mr. Sullivan discussed the importance of parent empowerment and how you can make your voices heard at the Capitol.  Rich Thompson told Coffee Talk we must improve rigor for all of Georgia’s children.  He reminded us that we should be talking about “raising the bar” for all of our students rather than “closing the gap”.

Tying all of the subject matters together, Melvin Everson spoke to Coffee Talk about the connection between education and economic development.  As a former Exec. Director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development and the current Exec. Director of Georgia’s Commission on Equal Opportunity, he has seen first-hand when education works to unite students with a meaningful career and when our system fails to train workers for high-paying jobs that go unfilled across our state.

Stay tuned for upcoming Coffee Talks!  If you would like me to come speak to your group, please email or call me.

For your calendars…

Dunwoody Chamblee Parent Council (DCPC)
September 11, 2013 at Dunwoody High School
(Note the September meeting date has been changed.)
October 2, 2013 at Huntley Hills Elementary
November 6, 2013 at Dunwoody Elementary
December 4, 2013 at Kittredge Magnet School
February 5, 2014 at location to be determined
March 5, 2014 at location to be determined
April 2, 2014 at location to be determined
May 7, 2014 at Chamblee High School

RunDunwoodyOctober 20th!

Click her to register for this 5K race!  It’s a qualifier for the Peachtree Road Race.  You can also sign-up to be part of a team challenge.  The proceeds from the race go to support Rotarian efforts in local schools and law enforcement and to the world health efforts supported by Rotary.  Click here to read about the specific groups and areas that benefit from this event.

–Nancy