Funding fight

New York spends more per student than any other state. A new study suggests it should spend more.

Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity gather before their 150-mile walk from New York City to Albany.

Education advocates have insisted the state has skimped on funding its schools. But New York State already has the highest per-student funding rate of any in the country — could moving that number up make a difference?

The answer is yes, according to a new study of over 600 districts across the state — the first of its kind to look at the recent effects of increased school spending in New York. The researchers found that increased per-student spending led to higher math and reading scores on state tests.

The findings add new evidence to a heated debate that has raged for decades about whether the state’s schools are adequately funded, an issue that actress Cynthia Nixon has made a pillar of her underdog campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Set to be published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, the study takes advantage of a provision in the state’s funding formula known as “Save Harmless” that allows districts to maintain their funding even if they lose students. Since many districts across the state have suffered enrollment declines, they have boosted the amount of money they spend per student. (New York City was excluded from the study because of its unusually large size and technical issues matching its data with other districts.)

By comparing districts that lost students — resulting in more money spent per remaining student — with those that saw smaller declines, the researchers were able to isolate the effect of the funding increases. Using data from 2007 through 2015, they found that a $1,000 in increase  per student corresponded with an increase of one-seventh of a grade level in math and one-ninth of a grade level in English. (On average, districts spend just over $23,000 per student across the state, a 15 percent increase since 2007.)

“The fact that we find positive effects of increased spending even in New York State, which boasts the highest per-pupil spending in the country, suggests that resources are important even above some adequacy threshold,” wrote co-authors Philip Gigliotti and Lucy Sorensen, both affiliated with the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany.

Their research is the latest evidence linking increased school spending to positive outcomes for students, including graduation rates, lifetime wages, and college attendance. State-level studies in California, Massachusetts, and Ohio have also found benefits of increased spending. On the flipside, Great Recession spending cuts appeared to have negative consequences on students.

The new evidence bolsters the case of education advocates in New York who have argued the state owes schools billions of dollars under a 2006 legal settlement that found the state needed to pump more money into schools so they could offer a “sound basic education.” That has been a centerpiece of Nixon’s campaign for governor, and her education plan calls for $7 billion in new funding. For his part, Cuomo argues that education spending has increased under his watch and that the overall amount of funding is not the key issue.

“It’s not about how much money we spend,” Cuomo said earlier this year. “We spend more than anybody else in the United States of America. It’s who gets the funds and what is the racial equity, the geographic equity?”

Still, the authors note that their findings come with some caveats.

First, their study focuses on districts that lost enrollment, mostly in upstate New York. That means their findings could be less relevant among districts that have seen enrollment hold steady or even increase.

Second, there could be factors associated with declining enrollment that the study doesn’t account for. While the authors control for changes in student demographics associated with the enrollment declines, other factors that could contribute to changes in performance, such as student motivation, are more difficult to measure.

Third, it’s hard to know why the spending increases boosted student achievement. One possible answer is that many of the schools reduced class sizes, the authors note, which has been linked to gains in student achievement. But the study does not focus on how the funding was spent and what drove the gains in student learning.

One national study showing benefits of court-ordered spending found the new money went toward lower class size, higher teacher pay, and longer school years. (The study also doesn’t look at whether maintaining funding for districts that lost students, typically more rural districts, is the most effective use of that money.)

Finally, the authors caution against interpreting their results as evidence that increased funding is a silver bullet, especially in reducing disparities in student achievement between students of different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. Increasing per-student spending by $1,000 would only close the national gap between rich and poor students by roughly 5 percent, Gigliotti said.

“These effects are moderate,” he added. “They don’t imply that achievement gaps are something we can overcome by just spending our way out of the problem.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.