Archive for March, 2018

When equal isn’t equitable

Budget season is upon us and as a first time board of education member, it has a different meaning this year. As a consultant, I often deal with the aftermath of city or state negotiations. As a taxpayer, I pay the bill, sometimes disagreeing with how effectively some of those dollars are spent. Now, as a consultant, taxpayer, board of education member, and a mother – the discussions and negotiations have a whole new impact.

(Heads up for Norwalkers reading this – I will not discuss politics, the “he said, she said,” or the blame game that is so easy to get into. This piece is about the higher level realities of the term equity and what a budget represents.)

The Background: Like many states, Connecticut is not in a great financial situation – revenue is stalled or is declining, contractual obligations are rising, and costs for everything continue to increase. In Norwalk, which lies along the “Gold Coast,” essentially the far-reaching suburbs of New York City, we receive a disproportionately low share of the state’s education cost sharing formula (long story about the history of ECS and how high real estate prices make it seem that our community has more wealth than it actually does). The city and the state have underfunded the school district for decades.

The school system is finally on a successful trajectory, there is a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) guiding the work of the district, a Superintendent and Board of Education that believe in and are actively working to fix many of the structural systemic legacy issues, while also moving the district forward to increase college and career readiness for all students. The results of the first few years of SOP implementation have been profound. The district jumped to the top of its district reference group (comparing “like” districts), and the new state accountability metrics, which value student growth, demonstrate major improvements.

Then, budget season comes around. Without going into the nitty gritty of politics (which don’t really matter for the point of this piece, and noting that similar situations occur across the country every year), the bottom line is that the district’s original budget request will not be fully funded. There is a desire to limit tax increases (legitimately so), tax payers want to limit spending while also wanting more and better services, increasing unfunded state and federal mandates cost more each year, and limited state grants add to the complexity of the situation. The result will be the delayed implementation of many of the SOP initiatives, along with some major reductions to current district spending as well – which will include removing staff and cutting programs – when combined, will inevitably impact academic growth and social-emotional learning. Which, eventually impacts property values and the cycle continues…

Is equity equal? In this city, we often compare our per pupil costs to our neighbors – all of whom spend more than us. While I fully support the sentiment of this approach, it is not the entire story. We not only compete with surrounding towns that fund more per student for staff and for families, but we also have a student population that costs more to educate. We have higher rates of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced price meals (approx 50%), and students that require special education services than many of our competing neighbors. This valuable diversity is a huge advantage to our city and the very reason that many families (including mine) move here in the first place, but it does come with a cost. Our assets increase our liabilities. It is our reality.

Nationally, we talk a lot about equity. But, what does equity mean? Equity does not mean equal resources. Equity is more about the outcomes of those resources. When two students start in different places, they may require different resources to achieve the same outcome. Equal funding for Norwalk students does not necessarily equate to equitable educational opportunities.

A Budget’s Significance: I first heard the statement “a budget is a moral document” when I was in graduate school studying public administration. I don’t know who first stated it, as it’s been attributed to many politicians and community activists (including MLK Jr), but that mindset has stuck with me. A budget truly is a moral document. Where we put our resources demonstrates our priorities. Our priorities should reflect our needs (hat tips to good data collection and root cause analysis to determine those needs!) and the values of our community.

Should we throw money around? Absolutely not. I have seen millions of dollars of federal funds used ineffectively in the school improvement world (often due to lack of fidelity of implementation, lack of alignment between programs and needs, lack of monitoring, and the absence of performance contracting). More money does not necessarily fix a problem. Money that is used efficiently and effectively to target improving systems and structures, and provides appropriate supports to students (and staff) does transform the educational opportunities for students.

Takeaways: There are few easy solutions here and my city is not isolated in this struggle. I see similar scenarios play out across the country. That said, this district has made tremendous growth in just a few short years and I hope that we can continue to value and support that growth. Aside from local politics and the cuts that my fellow board members and will have to make over the next few months, my lasting takeaways include: 1) budgets are moral documents that represent our values and priorities, and 2) equal does not always mean equitable.

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School quality by zipcode

I recently read this opinion piece on the74million.org and it really hit home. (It’s a great and well-written piece and I highly recommend the read). A quick summary is that the head of DC Public Schools used his position to manipulate the student lottery and confirm his daughter a spot in a higher performing and better perceived public school (as opposed to the neighborhood school she was supposed to attend). The author explores enrollment practices in DC and how real estate and quality schools are intrinsically tied. At one point, he questions, “Why is this? Why is money — specifically, money spent in the real estate market — the only form of privilege we allow free rein when it comes to accessing high-quality schools?” He responds, “Partly, it’s because the real estate market provides a patina of respectability on privilege. Presumably the wealthy have “earned” their resources through their diligence and hard work and “deserve” the rewards — including automatic access to great schools. Real estate in expensive neighborhoods with guaranteed entry to good schools is just another of the benefits of bootstrapping your way up the American socioeconomic ladder.”

This is not an issue isolated to DC. It happens all over the country —  in the suburbs, in big cities, and even in some more rural areas. Good schools drive up real estate prices and can often lead to housing shortages, and especially affordable housing shortages within the catchement area of a “good” school. Families with means will do whatever it takes to ensure their students attend those “good” schools – including moving across town or to a nearby surrounding town. Now, here lie several issues.

  • A zipcode should not determine the future educational or life opportunities for a child. All schools should provide students with equitable access to academic, extracurricular, and social programs. Equitable does not mean equal, some students require additional supports and some students are ready for enriched opportunities as well. Until school districts are able eliminate low-performing schools, there will always be the good and the bad schools. Attempts at bussing have created their own share of issues (including decreased parent/family engagement, long transit times for kids, and increased transportation costs for districts).
  • And a bigger philosophical question – Beyond ensuring that students receive appropriate academic growth and opportunities, what constitutes a good school? Across the country accountability indexes and report cards are just starting to quantify the value of other academic and social factors (besides the percent of students proficient in an academic area). But, we are still a long way away from being able to really quantify the value of a school – Do the students feel safe? Do the students feel at least one adult cares about them? Is the student population diverse (culturally, ethnically, linguistically, socio-economic, religious)? Is diversity valued? Do the students have fun and are they engaged while learning? Are the students building life skills? Is creativity valued? Do the students have a balanced life?

Often times it takes a few years of improved academic performance and a positive learning environment for the community perceptions of a school to change. Which means it takes a few years for local real estate prices to increase, and thus starting the cycle again.

This article struck me particularly hard as the district I live in is currently fighting for an additional $4M to fund our proposed education budget. At a recent council meeting, taxpayer after taxpayer (mostly parents) identified how much they care about this city, why they chose to live here (diversity was frequently cited), the great programs and learning going on in their schools, but how much they struggle with the annual battle to fight for funding from the state and the city. Many of these outspoken families are the ones who have the means to move just a few miles over to a competing town with “better” schools. If these families leave, what does that mean for the families of students who are unable to move?

A healthy school district would include magnet options for some students and families who aspire for specialized programs or approaches, in addition to strong neighborhood schools. In effect, students have choices and all students have access to a high quality education, regardless of their home address. Until all schools perform at a level deemed satisfactory, the adults with means or with power will continue to game the process for their children. Changing the rules isn’t going to fix the problem. Instead, we have to change the whole system.

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