GEEPers, More Money for the Rich

You’re not going to believe this. But in his budget proposal next week, Governor Corbett is apparently planning to increase funding for public schools by – wait for it – giving wealthy districts more money. OK, it’s not as simple as that. But in effect, this is exactly what he is proposing.

As we learned two weeks ago, the Governor has been talking about finding $100-$200 million more to put into public education. [“New Year Cheer”] That would be great, though sources close to Corbett say “a decent chunk of that funding will be the state’s share of the pension payments for school employees.” They also report, “One thing is certain, little-to-none will be in the form of an increase of the state budget’s basic education line item.” [Capitolwire, 1-29-14 (paywall), see summary on Keystone State Education Coalition, 1-30-14] In other words, that money is not going to help our public schools hire back teachers or restore any of the programs our students have lost.

Instead, at an event on Tuesday Gov. Corbett let it slip that he would create a new competitive grant program called “The Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program.” (GEEP?) You know, because we don’t have enough excellence. So those schools that are already excellent, can compete for money to spread their excellence. Geepers, nothing spreads excellence like making schools compete for money. Why, this is right out of the (failed) federal policy playbook: turning funding for schools into a competition, with winners and losers. Race to the Top, anyone?

So how do we know if a school is excellent? Why they scored 90 or above on the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP), of course. That would be the new SPP system that is 90% determined by student test scores. (See why I dubbed it Stupid Public Policy in “From AYP to SPP” – and while you’re there, check out our “Eight Reasons Why Scoring Schools Doesn’t Work.”) Never mind that these scoring systems don’t work. We just care that a school scored over 90, which makes it excellent, see?

Too bad that what standardized test scores, such as those used to calculate SPP, are really good at measuring is not excellence, but family income. I’ve shown you this graph of last year’s SAT scores before, but check it out again – this is a great visualization of the correlation between test scores and income:

So there’s no surprise that in Allegheny County, those schools scoring over 90 cluster in the wealthier suburbs. I said cluster – there are exceptions – but the over-90-SPP districts are no surprise: Fox Chapel, Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] Not a single Pittsburgh Public School is on that list. Nope, no excellence happening in the city apparently. (Tell that to my kids and the other families at some of our district’s outstanding public schools, but I digress …).

Now here’s the really neat part of Governor Corbett’s plan. After excellent schools compete for and win GEEP money, they are supposed to “analyze and share best practices that have proven to raise student achievement” and then they “will be responsible for supporting schools across the state that strive to replicate these strategies and techniques.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 1-30-14] Are you kidding me? Does the governor think that struggling school districts simply don’t know about best practices for raising student achievement – like smaller class sizes, extra support staff, and rich arts programs?

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the education my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, provides to its students and would love to see its programs replicated here in the city (you might recall me gushing in an earlier post about the gorgeous library resource-room staffed every period of the day with a teacher from every subject to give students any extra help they need). But is USC going to donate its GEEP money to paying down the crushing debt service that is preventing Pittsburgh Public Schools from implementing such a program? Pittsburgh knows full well that two of the most thoroughly researched and evidence-based programs proven to raise student achievement are investment in early childhood education and smaller class sizes. Guess what it has been forced to do because of state budget cuts – close six entire early childhood classrooms and increase class sizes.

The fact is, the Upper St. Clairs of the world don’t have magic silver bullets that create excellence. They have great teachers, strong leaders, communities that support their schools, amazing facilities, and perhaps most importantly, families with adequate resources to support student learning. I’m all for sharing good ideas, but wouldn’t it be more expedient to actually award GEEP money to the neediest districts? What if it wasn’t a competition at all? What if the neediest districts – the least “excellent” – received the extra help they need?

Geepers creepers. How about if we just adequately and equitably fund all public schools and stop playing games with the budget?

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