The Age of (Relative) Efficiency and/or Austerity: It’s Already Started

September 16, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The early 1980s punk rock band Fear famously destroyed the set of Saturday Night Live (the gif above is from their SNL performance-SNL’s invitation to Fear to perform and bring some fans having been one of the greatest really terrible decisions of all time). In any case, Fear had a song called Let’s Have a War. Like most punk bands of the era Fear was out to frighten the parents of 15 year olds and draw attention to themselves with outrageous antics. The lyrics of Let’s Have a War (not to be confused with another Fear classic Bomb the Russians) as I recall went something along the lines of:

Let’s Have a War!

Jack up the Dow Jones!

Let’s Have a War!

It can start in New Jersey!

Ok Ladner where are you going with this? Right, so a refrain in the song:

It’s Already Started!

So out here in the Arizona cactus patch, the looming age of (relative) financial austerity and efficiency has already started. The people who work in the school system feel very grouchy about it, but where things stand today is much better than the recent past.

AZ NAEP

So let’s go back to the world of 1992 Arizona (blue columns). Arizona operated as a high-tax state in those days and the school districts were almost the only game in town (Arizona has always had a low rate of private school attendance).  The state had a majority Anglo K-12 population in those days, but unfortunately those Arizona Anglo students weren’t terribly skilled on average at reading English. Now mind you, they had proficiency rates 2.8 times higher than Arizona’s Hispanic student population at the time, but that provides little comfort.

What does this translate to today, in 2015, now that the class of 2000 have aged into the prime working years of their mid 30s? Let’s just say that many firms find it necessary to recruit nationally when searching for job candidates. No one was hoping for an overall reading proficiency rate in the low 20s in 1992, but we got it anyway.

Now let’s look at the 4th grade reading scores for the Class of 2021 (red columns). While these results leave a great deal to be desired, they are profoundly improved over the 1992 4th grade results. Arizona closed the gap for Anglo students with the national average, but failed to do so with Hispanic students.

Hispanics now constitute a plurality of Arizona K-12 students. A 17% reading proficiency rate constitutes a looming catastrophe for the Arizona of 2030 and beyond. Thus while we should recognize the fact that Arizona’s academic outcomes have improved greatly, we should also recognize that the state has a desperate need for still greater gains. Note however that all of those nasty policies that Diane Ravitch hates: standardized testing, charter schools, private school choice, etc. all started phasing in around 1994 in Arizona, and that the 2013 NAEP had the highest average scores in state history despite funding cuts and a large transition in student demographics. This does not constitute final glorious victory, but certainly progress.

Arizona is a relatively poor state with an unusually small working age population (lots of old retirees and young kids). Rapidly growing states tend to rank towards the bottom of state rankings of per pupil funding, and will do all the more so if lots of the state has either retired or is still in school. Arizona does have a large number of wealthy retirees, but let’s just say that many of them have other residences in addition to their get out of the cold spot, and this means they have the opportunity to avoid paying Arizona income tax.

The Great Recession was an elbow in the face to Arizona’s housing dependent economy followed by a swift kick to the head. (To you non-Gen X readers this is mosh-pit imagery consistent with the punk rock theme of this blog post). Once the federal stimulus money ran out real declines in per-pupil spending commenced. This document from JLBC shows that the inflation adjusted spending per pupil in the Arizona public school system dropped from $9,438 in 2007 to $7828 in 2014. 

Outrageous! Horrible! Get a rope!

Slow down on the lynch mob. The 2007 number basically represented the height of the property bubble and all of the funny money that it brought flowing into state coffers. Arizona had spent far less than that per pupil in the past, and the height of a bubble does not make for a good mental entitlement point. When the state had money, it increased K-12 spending. There has been joy before, there may be joy again, but the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have.

Of course we could raise taxes. This however is governed by a little thing called democracy. We had a governor’s election in 2014. One candidate promised to balance the state’s spending and revenues without raising taxes. The other claimed that he would not raise taxes but also campaigned on increasing K-12 spending. Arizona elected candidate A (Doug Ducey) by an overwhelming margin. A few years earlier, the school district industrial lobbying complex put a painfully convoluted ballot proposition to increase taxes for education spending on the ballot. The public rejected it by a huge margin. We have regular elections for state legislature. The voters have continued to elect a pretty conservative bunch and well, they had other options available to them.

Arizona voters did endorse a sales tax increase almost a decade and a half ago to increase the state’s base funding amount to inflation. The interpretation of this provision is currently a matter of legal dispute between the legislature and the industrial complex, but the resolution seems unlikely to result in a game changing amount of funding regardless of the outcome. Arizona doesn’t have a game changing amount of money to give to schools within the tax structure that voters have both explicitly and implicitly endorsed.

More importantly, Arizona’s 2013 NAEP scores were not only higher than 1992- they were higher than 2007. Between 2007 and 2013 Arizona NAEP trends: 8 point gain in 4th grade math, four point gain in 8th grade math, three-point gain in 4th grade reading, five point gain in 8th grade reading.  The proper term to describe an increase in outputs with decreased inputs: efficiency gain.

The folks working in the schools feel very grouchy. Unlike the risible bellyaching before the onset of the Great Recession (when spending increased and everyone had enrollment growth) they have a much more serious case to make in the current context. Running a school district in Arizona right about now is not an easy task- your per pupil funding has declined and your student count is more likely than not to be dropping. Tough decisions lie ahead on a worryingly large number of half-empty district facilities. You are having a tough time finding teachers as your Baby Boomers retire.

It’s already started in Arizona. Currently we are in year 5 of what you can either view as an age of austerity, or an era of improving efficiency depending on whether you view matters through a provider or a taxpayer lens. The Census Bureau projects large increases in Arizona’s youth and elderly populations over the next 15 years.

It’s not likely to get any easier. Arizona’s need for more effective and cost effective education delivery will continue to grow over time regardless of how much we choose to lament the need for change.

 

 

 


Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

September 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Tucson AZ based Arizona Daily Star put out a story on 60 Southern Arizona students being names National Merit Semifinalists.  The author didn’t seem to notice what I found most interesting about the story.

For a little perspective, Arizona has five or so percent of students attending private schools, around 18% in charters. So about 70-75% of students attend districts.

A quick run down of the list of students and their students however reveals that about 49 out of the 60 National Merit Semifinalists attend choice schools: charters, magnet, private and home schools. Suburban districts and magnets earned all of the district semifinalists. No one attended a non-magnet Tucson Unified high-school, which is the by far the largest school district in the region.

This is usually the part of the conversation where my enthusiastic union affiliated Tucson friends will dust off their talking points about evil charters creaming students, etc. Note however that Arizona law requires random admission lotteries, a law that does not apply to magnet schools. Thus the school most obviously creaming students (read all about it here on their admission page) is University High, a magnet school run by Tucson Unified. University High had more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school, but you know that minimum GPA, admission test and other criteria just might have something to do with that.

Personally I don’t have a huge problem with an occasional magnet school with exclusive admission policies as long as parents keep the place afloat, but I certainly respect the views of those who do. I do however have a huge problem with people running the most blatantly exclusionary school in the state accusing others of doing covertly what they are doing openly without so much as a teaspoon of evidence.

Just as a thought experiment let’s assume for the moment that all of these charter, suburban district, magnet, private and home schools all represent some sort of student creaming conspiracy and this entirely explains their monopoly on National Merit Semifinalists. I don’t for a moment believe this to be the case, but if it were, er, why did the parents of these bright children choose to enroll them in choice schools? After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right?

I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet. If you take the position that a house in a well to do suburban district represents a form of parental choice (I do), the final score is Choice 60, Assigned 0 in the Southern Arizona PSAT Bowl. That goose egg represents a looming catastrophe for Arizona’s future btw- as the number of potential National Merit Semifinalists attending TUSD stood vastly larger than either zero or sixty. I have met some incredibly dedicated TUSD educators who practically kill themselves to effectively extend the school year for disadvantaged students. I don’t think that anyone wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and enthusiastically drives to work so that they can make sure that kids fail to reach their potential- that’s not how this works imo.

Every system however is perfectly designed to achieve the results it produces. This system needs a reboot.

 

 

 

 


Mediocre is Closer than it Appears, MUST GO FASTER!

March 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In Mediocre May Be Closer than it Appears, Jonathan Butcher cross listed the Arizona Board of Regents Report showing massive, widespread failure of the Arizona High School Class of 2006 to graduate from college by 2012 with the state’s A-F grading system.  He found that 75 percent of graduates of A rated schools did not complete a BA in six years.

Outside of a few islands of excellence, how close is mediocre in AZ? Try 2:40 through 2:45 close:

Note for the record that there have been conversations about raising the standards of the grading system, but right at the moment we have no idea even what test the public schools will be using for accountability purposes next year.  The AIMS statue is long overdue for demolition so that the townsfolk can beat it with their shoes, but we sadly have a few things to sort out before making adjustments to the grading system.

Meanwhile, T-Rex will continue to feed on T-Gen employees, blood sucking lawyers and unfortunate kids who are not getting the education they need to succeed in life.

The school choice tribe has been getting a great deal of grief in Arizona, as if we were the cause of the funding declines here in our pleasant patch of cactus. Despite rumors to the contrary, we did not induce the housing crash to go on a rampage to gleefully cut public school budgets. Charter schools for instance have never received as much total funding per pupil as the district schools and they have had to suffer along with the districts.  Say what you will about Arizona conservatives in the legislature, but it is a simple mathematical fact that last year’s Medicaid expansion will do more to constrain growth in K-12 district spending once the temporary federal bonus money runs out than the ESA program ever will.

It’s also worth noting that public school groups went to the ballot with an initiative that would have prevented cuts. The accounts I have heard of the enterprise had prominent business leaders abandoning the effort in disgust during the formative stage. Various interests, most notably the road construction guys, log-rolled their way into the package and well-meaning but inexperienced people played prominent roles in the campaign. It wasn’t exactly a shock when the voters soundly rejected the measure. A lack of confidence that the money would make it into the classroom seemed decisive.

I can see why people might suspect that school choice sleeper agents infiltrated this effort in order to sabotage it from the inside, but I can assure you that this did not in fact happen.

Meanwhile, second by second by minute by minute Arizona continues to get older, our dependency ratio gets larger, and our prospects for growth dimmer.

A grand bargain might look something like this: a revamp of the state’s tax system to ditch the income tax and replace it with consumption taxes.  This would address the fact that two large groups- Snowbirds and undocumented immigrants-have ways of avoiding income taxation but still consume state services.  You could hope to get this to be pro-growth and thus pro-revenue.  If anyone in Arizona thinks they don’t need a top-notch tax system to compete, look over there, I saw Texas holding hands with your girlfriend.  She was gazing admiringly into his eyes with a blissful expression on her face while gently brushing his cowboy hat.

The second part of the grand bargain would be to tie increased funding to quantifiable improvement.  Florida’s program to provide a $700 bonus to schools and teachers that get a child to pass an Advanced Placement exam for instance seems like a great idea for a state in which only 19% of the Class of 2006 earned a BA degree.  I think many Arizonans would be willing to invest more in public education. I am potentially one of them, and I am potentially willing to pay higher taxes to do it, but many of us are not willing to simply pay more for the same bad results.  Some pilot programs that show improvement associated with increased funding could be the only realistic place to start.  At the moment, many don’t want to put more water into what they regard as a leaking bucket.

Finally there are some fundamental questions that the public school groups need to confront.  Such as: why can charter schools receiving $1600 less per student often crush the results of nearby district schools with more money and similar student demographics?  Two main reasons: charter school kids are all there by choice and have bought in to the culture of the school. Second these schools efficiently remove ineffective instructors from the classroom in a way that most district schools do not.

The hour is later than most realize and we do need to embrace improvement strategies beyond expanding choice.  Everything should be on the table and we need to get serious.