Current Events: In Brief

May 01, 1994 19 min read

Money Does Make A Difference, Researchers Say

For years, leading conservative critics of the public schools have argued that increases in education spending do not translate into improved student performance. In making that argument, many cite the research findings of Eric Hanushek, an economist and political science professor at Rochester University.

But now, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago maintains those oft-cited findings are not supported by the studies Hanushek analyzed. In fact, they argue, the studies actually demonstrate the opposite: Higher spending on schools does produce higher student achievement.

"[Hanushek’s] work has been the pillar upon which the counterintuitive notion that money does not matter in schools has been constructed,’' write Larry Hedges, Richard Laine, and Rob Greenwald in the April issue of Educational Researcher. “Yet the data upon which this conclusion is based support exactly the opposite conclusion and demonstrate that expenditures are positively related to school outcomes.’'

In their examination of Hanushek’s research sources, Hedges and his colleagues found strong ties between student achievement and both per-pupil spending and teacher experience. Other factors--such as class size, teacher education, teacher salary, administrative staffing, and facilities--show less connection to achievement, the researchers say. But they note that none of the studies examined shows that improvements in any of these areas have a negative effect on student performance.

“The evidence is pretty strikingly in contradiction with the standard conclusion,’' says Hedges, a statistician and education professor. “In fact, the typical size of the relationship is enough to be of importance for making policy.’'

Hanushek concluded that no systematic relationship existed between resources and results after examining several dozen previous studies and finding that only 20 percent of them proved a significant correlation. But the Chicago researchers argue that a closer examination of the studies finds a greater connection, one that is far more than would exist by chance.

In a written response to Educational Researcher to be published in May, Hanushek notes that, in recent years, schools have seen both significant funding increases and lower test scores. He says he stands by his findings and points out that his work has argued for more sophisticated education policy rather than pouring more money into the system to create improvement.

To observers who have seen Hanushek’s research as ammu- nition for the foes of public schools, the new findings offer a balance that has been lacking in previous debates.

“This plays a useful role,’' says Richard Murnane, an economist and professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “It is a mistake to say dollars don’t make a difference, and it is also a mistake to say that across-the-board increases in a school district are an efficient use of money.’'

Indeed, the money-achievement conundrum is most likely to be solved, experts say, when researchers can trace the ways money and authority are best used within school districts and buildings.

“In a gross sense, it is not how much you spend that matters but how much you spend in the classroom,’' says Bruce Cooper, a professor of education and urban policy at Fordham University. “If we knew where the money was going, we would be closer to understanding whether it matters.’'

Goals 2000 Becomes Law

As President Clinton signed his education-reform package into law in March, he set in motion a process that proponents hope will transform the federal role in education and raise expectations for American students and schools.

Hailing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act as “a new and different approach for the federal government,’' he said the measure will establish “world class’’ national education standards and rely on school districts at the “grass roots’’ to help students achieve them. The White House and Congress, he added, now have a “practical and moral obligation’’ to put their weight and influence behind the standardssetting movement.

The centerpiece of Goals 2000 is a new program, authorized at $400 million a year, that will provide grants to states and districts that adopt reform plans. The plans must call for setting high standards for curriculum content and student performance. They must also include opportunity- to-learn standards or strategies, which would ensure that school districts offer their students the services needed to meet high academic benchmarks.

The administration views Goals 2000 as a framework for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is expected to be approved later this year. In its proposal to reauthorize the ESEA, the administration would require states and districts to set similar standards in exchange for Chapter 1 funds, an idea the House endorsed in passing its ESEA bill.

All this represents a dramatic shift in the federal role in education. For the first time, the federal government is taking an active part in school reform, and some educators and policymakers say it is about time. “We now have a compact and partnership that will begin to allow us to work collaboratively,’' says Pascal Forgione Jr., superintendent of public instruction in Delaware. Goals 2000, explains Thomas Boysen, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, is “as important as anything that’s happened [in federal education legislation] in the last 30 years.’'

But others--including some Goals 2000 supporters--are more skeptical, fearing that the program may lead to increased federal and state control over schools. John Bonaiuto, South Dakota’s secretary of education, said the legislation “sounds appealing’’ but that the voluntary nature of participation in the program could slip away “once people begin to move in the same direction. I would be really disappointed if this were the first step toward having a national curriculum framework.’'

Still others say if the federal government increases its role, it should step up its financial support, as well. “Schools have a tough time doing the three R’s without doing the stuff that’s in Goals 2000,’' said T. Chris Mattocks, superintendent of Idaho Falls (Idaho) School District 91. “There’s not enough seed money to paint everybody the same color.’'

Enactment of Goals 2000 is essentially the culmination of a process that began when the National Governors’ Association and President Bush agreed at a 1989 summit to set national education objectives. President Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, was a key player in drafting the goals and in setting up the National Education Goals Panel to monitor progress toward them.

Innovation: Deferred Salaries Finance Leaves

Two U.S. school districts have become the first in the nation to offer an innovative teacher-leave policy long used throughout Canada. The policy--which will be put into place in Muskegon County, Mich., and Rochester, N.Y., next fall--allows teachers to defer part of their salary for several years to finance a planned leave of absence, with the guarantee of a job when they return.

The leave plan has been promoted by union leaders, school officials, and experts on teacher compensation as a way to reduce teacher “burnout’’ and cut costs. Although many school systems in the United States already have paid-sabbatical leaves, the competition for them can be stiff due to budget constraints. Deferredsalary leaves offer many of the same benefits as a sabbatical but have the advantage of not requiring teachers to justify their time off, since they finance the leave themselves.

The concept first took hold in the Lakehead school district in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the late 1970s, as schools across Canada and the United States were experiencing declining enrollments. Looking for a way to avoid sending out pink slips, the Lakehead schools turned to salary deferrals. “Professional athletes defer money all the time,’' says Wallie Beevor, the district’s director of education at the time the plan was adopted. “We thought surely there should be an arrangement for other people.’'

Today, teachers in more than 90 percent of Ontario’s schools can defer their salaries, as can most educators and public employees in Canada’s other provinces. In Thunder Bay alone, more than 300 teachers have done so over the last decade.

The plan works this way: A teacher takes a 20 percent cut in pay for four years and then is paid 80 percent of his or her salary during a fifth-year hiatus. Participating teachers continue to accrue pension benefits and seniority. They also receive interest on the deferred portion of their salary, which is held by the district. The Canadian revenue service taxes teachers only on the income they receive and not on what they would have earned had they not participated. (Some of those details have not been worked out for the two U.S. districts, since officials are not sure how federal tax authorities will react to the plans.)

Districts reap a small saving from deferrals, as long as the teachers on leave are at the top of the career ladder and those replacing them are lower-paid substitutes or trainees. But the possibility for renewal is the real boon to a district and its teaching force, says Stephen Jacobson, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo who has researched Canada’s deferred-pay model.

Notes Stan Fortuna Jr., superintendent of the 2,000-student Oak Ridge Public Schools in Muskegon County: “It’s a way to improve morale and save money. Either way, it’s benefiting kids.’'

In Rochester, the teachers’ union finally worked out a deferred-leave plan with the district this winter after proposing it for several years, according to union president Adam Urbanski. “One of the biggest problems, I think, in our profession is that the system is set up with the temptation to stop learning once we start teaching,’' Urbanski says. “I think we ought to support members to take time out to rejuvenate their commitment.’'

Documentary On Urban School Wins An Oscar

For the second year in a row, a documentary about education has won an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School, a 90-minute film produced last year for the Home Box Office cable channel, won the Academy Award for best feature-length documentary.

The film follows one year at M. Hall Stanton Elementary School, located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Philadelphia. Television critics hailed the film as a sobering examination of how social ills spill over into the classrooms of urban elementary schools. Critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post called the film “as emotionally involving as it is socially conscientious.’'

Veteran filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond--perhaps best known for An American Family, the 1973 public-television series about the Loud family--made the documentary. “We wanted to put a face on the statistic of the number of children that grow up in poverty,’' Alan Raymond said. “The so-called education-docu- mentary model we’re used to seeing tends to be a rather dry survey of two or three schools. They don’t have much emotional impact. The strength of this documentary is that it makes people care about these children.’'

I Am a Promise spotlights several educators and students at Stanton Elementary. The school’s principal, Deanna Burney, is shown at the start of the year enthusiastically telling the children that they are all “talented, intelligent, and gifted’’ young people. By the end of the year, however, she announces her resignation, citing frustration over a lack of support and funding. Raymond said one of the film’s central messages is that “no one individual, no matter how well-intentioned they are, is the answer to this problem.’'

Last year, Educating Peter, a 30-minute film about the inclusion of children with disabilities in the regular classroom, won the Oscar for best short-subject documentary.

I Am a Promise is available from Video Verite, 927 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021; (212) 249-7356. Prices vary for individual, library, and school sales.

States Bet On Riverboat Casinos For School Funds

Thanks to the public’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for waterborne games of chance, Mississippi educators these days are savoring a heady brew of pay raises, health benefits, classroom air conditioners, new textbooks, and bus and building improvements.

What was once a wish list for Magnolia State schools is nearing reality, as lawmakers worked in March to put the final touches on a state budget that has the rarest of attributes--money aplenty. Current plans would raise education spending by nearly $270 million in a state where school funding has held steady at about $900 million for several years.

Much of the state government’s prosperity can be traced to the growth and popularity of its newest industry: riverboat gambling. States have long been interested in sanctioned gaming as an alternative to general taxes, and floating casinos are the latest fad, especially in the South and Midwest. Like the state lotteries that preceded them, the casinos are being touted as a way to help fund schools.

Mississippi has made the most of the trend, imposing some of the lowest taxes on boat operators and offering them the greatest opportunity. Since a casino opened in Biloxi on the Gulf of Mexico in 1992, 20 more have opened on the Gulf or the Mississippi River, and 48 additional licenses are pending. First-year state taxes on the boats, initially estimated at $15 million, easily doubled that figure. Halfway through the current fiscal year, the $40 million annual estimate has been eclipsed by the $55 million state officials have already taken in.

The casinos are also bringing indirect fiscal benefits; analysts credit them with spurring a surge in both jobs and sales. A 1 cent portion of the state sales tax earmarked for education accounts for the bulk of the school-appropriations increase.

“We have never been, at least in recent memory, in the situation we are in right now for education,’' says Andy Mullins, a special assistant to the state schools chief.

While no other state expects results on the scale of Mississippi’s, many are showing interest in riverboat casinos as moneymakers. A new law in Indiana, for example, allows for 11 vessels on the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and an inland lake.

Other states, meanwhile, are expanding their riverboat gambling. Iowa, which sparked the current wave of interest when it approved a boat in Davenport nearly three years ago, now has three. Illinois officials have granted the last of their 11 licenses. And seven boats have been licensed in Louisiana, where up to 15 are authorized.

Mississippi officials have set no limit on the number of riverboats the state will allow, choosing instead to let the betting market find its equilibrium. “It won’t be long before you can walk down the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans on riverboats,’' quips Bill Howell, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

One sure bet is that before a balance is found, other states are likely to try to cash in. The trend is being driven, observers say, by states’ need for new revenue and lawmakers’ reluctance to pay for new services with general tax increases.

“Legislators are looking for a source of funding that will not be related to their given constituency,’' explains David Honeyman, a school-finance expert at the University of Florida. “With gambling, these are always somebody else’s revenue sources.’'

Pay Plan Sinks, At Least For Now

The Minneapolis public schools’ new “corporate’’ superintendent was dealt a major blow in March when an arbitrator awarded standard pay raises to district teachers rather than linking their pay to student performance.

During contract talks, the teachers’ union rejected superintendent Peter Hutchinson’s payfor-performance plan until it can be studied more closely. The arbitrator overseeing the talks agreed with the union and awarded teachers raises of 1.25 percent and 2.5 percent over the next two years.

The recent developments appeared to undercut Hutchinson, whose St. Paul-based consulting firm, Public Strategies Group Inc., was hired by the school board last year to provide leadership services to the 44,000-student district. One of Hutchinson’s key strategies for transforming the district has been to build in incentives for students and educators. The proposal to reward teachers with an across-theboard 1 percent bonus for helping the district meet achievement goals was just one of the superintendent’s ideas for building accountability into the system.

Hutchinson and his company have a pay-for-performance contract with the district under which he receives a six-month base salary of $30,000. The firm receives additional funds only if it meets such goals as improving student achievement or increasing community involvement.

The superintendent, who also unsuccessfully proposed adjusting teachers’ “step’’ pay raises so that they would be more evenly distributed, has not given up on the performance-payment plan, according to Katrina Reed, associate superintendent for human resources. “This means we just have to step back and look at how we can continue this discussion,’' Reed said. “I think the teachers are still interested.’'

Union leaders, who were seeking pay increases of 2.7 percent for both years of the contract, have said it was not performance pay that turned them off but how it would have been adopted under the proposal. The superintendent “wanted to mandate this instantly,’' said Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “We wanted to go into a thoughtful analysis, much as our colleagues have in other districts.’'

AFT Blasts Privately Run Public Schools

The American Federation of Teachers has issued a report harshly criticizing the management of nine Baltimore public schools run by Education Alternatives Inc., a private, for-profit company under contract with the district.

At a news conference at their Washington headquarters, union officials accused the company of sacrificing children’s educations for profit and announced that it had sent letters to the U.S. Education Department urging an investigation of the company’s compliance with federal regulations governing compensatory and special education programs.

“EAI promised a better education at the same per-pupil cost as the public schools, but they’re not doing the job,’' said Greg Humphrey, executive assistant to AFT President Albert Shanker. “The bottom line is that the bottom line is EAI’s main concern.’'

EAI President David Bennett dismissed the union’s criticisms as “propaganda’’ and said his company has complied with federal regulations in its management of the eight elementary schools and one middle school. [See “Bullish On Schools,’' April 1993.]

The AFT’s report and statements also drew a quick response from the Baltimore school system, which gathered much of the data the union used for its report. A statement issued by the district accused the AFT and its af- filiates of using “inaccurate information and manipulated data’’ in an effort to paint a falsely negative picture of EAI’s efforts in Baltimore and to prevent private firms from gaining public school contracts elsewhere.

The AFT report says standardized-test scores in the elementary schools run by EAI “dropped substantially,’' and it blames various cost-cutting measures.

Company and district officials, however, contend that the tests cited in the report were administered in March 1993, just half a year after the company took over the schools and before EAI had a chance to have its program up and running.

Courts Can Find Principals Liable In Abuse Cases

A federal appeals court has ruled that a high school principal can be held liable in a federal civil rights lawsuit for showing “deliberate indifference’’ to evidence of a teacher’s sexual abuse of a student.

In an 8-6 decision in March, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that students have a “substantive’’ due-process right under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be free from sexual abuse by school employees. The court further ruled that school administrators can be held personally liable if they learn of a pattern of abuse by one of their employees and show “deliberate indifference toward the constitutional rights of the student by failing to take action that was obviously necessary to prevent or stop the abuse.’'

Last year, the full court vacated a decision by a three-judge panel that had alarmed lawyers for school boards and administrators. The panel ruled that school principals and superintendents “have a duty to police the halls of our public schools to insure that schoolchildren’’ are free from such harms as sexual abuse by teachers.

Lawyers on both sides of the case said that, while the majority opinion of the full 5th Circuit was more conservative than the panel’s decision, it was still significant. “This is a victory for people trying to protect students,’' said Brian East, a lawyer for the former Taylor, Texas, high school student who brought the suit, identified in court papers as Jane Doe. “It reaffirms that the right of a student to be free of sexual abuse at school is a constitutionally protected right.’'

August Steinhilber, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said he did not view the decision as a complete defeat for school administrators. “The plaintiff still has to show there is a violation of substantive due process, which is a hard standard,’' he said. “I do view it as sending a strong message to principals and other school employees that they can be held personally liable in cases such as these. This is probably the most important case we have seen at the court-of-appeals level in a long time.’'

The case centers on the sexual abuse of the Taylor student by one of her teachers, Jesse Lynn Stroud. Stroud has been convicted on criminal charges stemming from the abuse of the girl, who was 15 years old at the time.

The girl’s federal lawsuit charges that the school principal ignored an abundance of evidence that the teacher had used his position to form a sexual relationship with the student, including frequent complaints from other teachers about Stroud’s inappropriate behavior. The girl sued the teacher, the principal, the superintendent, and the district under a Reconstruction-era civil rights law that allows for the recovery of civil damages when constitutional rights are violated under state authority.

While the case has not yet gone to trial, the principal and superintendent appealed a federal district judge’s decision against granting them immunity. The three-judge panel of the circuit court upheld the potential liability of both officials. But the full circuit court unanimously cleared the superintendent, since he did not have as much information as the principal did about the pattern of abuse. The majority opinion states that the principal, Eddy Lankford, showed “deliberate indifference’’ by ignoring or failing to fully investigate the repeated reports of abuse.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Current Events: In Brief