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Measuring 'Adequacy' Is Desired, And Elusive, Goal of School-Finance Reformers

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Washington--One of several discussions of "adequacy" at the American Educational Finance Association (aefa) meeting here this month centered on a presentation of statewide average per-pupil expenditures, adjusted for regional differences in the price of goods and services, and compared to the national average. On that basis, the presenter concluded, New Jersey spent 30 percent more than would have been needed to meet the definition of adequacy, while Mississippi was right about on the mark.

Well, it was a start, some of his fellow scholars conceded. But the project was roundly criticized for equating "adequacy" with a national average, for basing conclusions on dated estimates, and for using statewide figures that did not account for disparities between districts. One panelist referred to the figures as "funny numbers."

The episode illustrates one of the most pressing problems in attempting to determine an "adequate" level of expenditures for education: The prerequisite is an acceptable definition of an "adequate" education. And that, in turn, requires a closer examination of programs and ser-vices provided locally than many legislators, economists, and political scientists engaged in the study of school finance are accustomed to undertaking.

Resource Cost Model

One approach to the adequacy question that has received a great deal of attention is the Resource Cost Model developed by Jay G. Chambers of the Institute for the Study of Educational Finance and Governance at Stanford University, and Thomas B. Parrish of the University of Utah.

The conference offered two sessions on the model, which provides a process for determining what constitutes an "adequate" education and for arriving at a level of financial support that reflects the differing needs and economic conditions in school districts. The model, which uses a detailed checklist and a computer program to calculate the materials, personnel, and other resources a given district needs to operate an "appropriate" program, has been offered as a more rational basis for allocating funds than prevalent finance mechanisms. The Illinois State Board of Education is ex-perimenting with the model, and policy makers in several other states, as well as scholars, have shown a keen interest in the idea. (See Education Week, Feb. 2, 1983.)

The Chambers-Parrish model views defining "adequacy" as essentially a political process relying on both technical expertise and practical compromise. In Illinois, for example, task forces of educators and policymakers were convened to determine an "appropriate" level of services in each of eight program categories, such as elementary, secondary, vocational, and special education.

In other instances, such as the Washington State school-finance case, legislators have been forced to ponder the elements of a "basic" education. And, as David C. Long, a Washington lawyer active in school-finance litigation, pointed out, "That's exactly what we tried to do in West Virginia," where a judge has set out his definition of educational "quality" based on expert testimony.

Even in the absence of such sweeping court orders that forced the issue in Washington and West Virginia, many of those attending the conference believe, the adequacy question will pervade the deliberations of state boards of education and legislators who are seeking to meet their constitutional obligations and bring some order to the budgeting process in difficult financial times.

"Adequacy may replace accountability as the school-finance issue of the 80's," asserted Margaret E. Goertz, of the Education Policy Research Institute, a branch of the Educational Testing Service.

"From a policy point of view, there's a lot of interest [in such approaches as the Resource Cost Model]," she said. "It's an attempt to understand why we're spending what we're spending on education. I think a lot of this has been driven by the growth of special education. Initially, it was an attempt to understand costs in a time of declining enrollment. The next step is to apply it to formula development."

Somewhat Skeptical

James A. Kelly, formerly of the Ford Foundation, and William Harrison of the National Conference of State Legislatures are somewhat skeptical about that next step.

"Increasingly, the cognoscenti are trying to address this," Mr. Kelly said. "I think it's an important issue to look at and think about. But I'm not as overwhelmed by it as some other people are. The average legislator still looks at it in terms of dollars. He doesn't know if it'll buy more books or fewer books."

Mr. Harrison added: "Even though it may be fairer in some abstract sense, people might not feel confident about it; it may not relieve conflicts, which is one of the functions of government. There's the feeling that no one is in control, that it's not susceptible to intelligent guidance. The system can't be perfectly mechanical."

Albert Burstein, a former New Jersey legislator who has maintained an active interest in school-finance reform, contends that defining adequacy may be a divisive, if necessary, process.

Nonetheless, said Walter I. Garms of the University of Rochester, "The idea that the state in one way or another figures out how much money is needed to provide an adequate education is certainly a better way than pulling out an arbitrary number."--pc

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