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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Income, Educational Attainment, and Achievement

The Buffalo based "Business First Guide to Upstate School Districts "was published on-line this week. It was titled, Income data for Upstate New York school districts. Business First will be releasing additional reports in the coming days and weeks on other rankings of the 430 school districts in the region they have defined as Upstate New York.

I am not writing this Blog entry to discredit or question the statistics or the interpretation that Business First reports. Regardless of what one feels about their construct, it is consistent across the years of their studies. If nothing else, that offers some opportunity to view the data in a longitudinal perspective.

The Business First website produces a section entitled, Frequently Asked Questions. The following question was extracted from that list (in italics and underlined for emphasis).

QUESTION: Your ratings seem to be biased toward affluent suburban schools. Williamsville and Clarence, for example, always do well in your Western New York report. What does that prove?

ANSWER:It proves that the educational climate in those districts is consistently excellent. No one denies that socioeconomic factors give some suburban districts an advantage. But that advantage can’t be ignored. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way of the world.

Employers don’t give a break to graduates from districts with bad ratings. Colleges don’t lower their admission standards for students from substandard schools. The state doesn’t reduce its Regents requirements for teens from poor districts. Our rankings, likewise, apply evenly to everyone.

The same link between money and quality exists in college ratings. U.S. News & World Report annually ranks Ivy League universities among the nation’s best. A large number of their students are affluent, yet no one disputes the quality of those institutions.

With that issue in mind, I reviewed the data base that Business First provided in their report on income data and it reaffirmed the widely held and thoroughly researched correlation between family income and learner achievement. Of the top 50 highest performing school districts in upstate New York, 33 of them were also represented in the top 50 highest income districts on last year's report on the highest achieving school districts in their coverage area. I used last year's data since Business First hasn't yet published their findings on performance. I believe it's a very safe assumption that the rankings in school district performance will closely resemble rankings of the previous year. Just as interesting are the results of educational attainment levels of adults (also from last year because they haven't published new data yet) sorted by school district community. Of the top 50 in that category, 39 also appeared on the top 50 list for overall school district achievement levels. That's a pretty strong link between educational attainment and income in a community and the ability of that community to provide substantial resources that promote achievement.

There appears to be an inverse relationship between poverty levels, as measured by the percentage of learners eligible for free and reduced lunch, and achievement levels. In other words, the higher the percentage of learners qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the lower the level of school district performance. This was referenced in the Business First FAQ response noted earlier in this Blog - No one denies that socioeconomic factors give some suburban districts an advantage.

Oh well. As Business First explained in the first paragraph of their FAQ response, "It's unfortunate, but it's the way of the world."

It is unfortunately, for too many underserved and unprivileged children and those committed to educate them, "the way of the world." But public school education doesn't have to be like that. It doesn't have to remain like that simply out of custom or disproportionate political leverage exerted to maintain the gap between the fortunate and the unfortunate - a gap that appears to be growing. However, politicians at the state level are resistant to right the wrong at a time when new money in the form of a budget surplus eludes their grasp. (ALTHOUGHT THERE IS PRESENTLY A FAIRLY SIGNIFICANT SURPLUS AT THE STATE LEVEL AWAITING THE LEGISLATURE WHEN THEY RECONVENE IN THEIR NEXT SESSION) Unless added or new revenue emerges (see above) the existing funding formulas will stay intact. The only alternative, beside complying with the court ordered results of the litigation brought on by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity 
would be to reach in and adjust the funding formula to be equitably distributed and address the needs or school districts lacking resources due to low property and income wealth - the CWR (Combined Wealth Ratio). This would require a "Robin Hood" strategy of redistributing money by reducing state aid to affluent schools and providing the excessed amount to districts identified as high need school systems. Such a plan would be political suicide for those politicians seeking to remain in office. Sadly, I suspect that the percentage of socio-economic groups within the voting population is also skewed, with more advantaged people casting ballots at a far higher rate than those in need. If that's true, it shouldn't victimize the children of the economically disadvantaged, who can't vote.

I am reminded of an exchange witnessed 23 years ago, at a time when the state intervened during an ongoing school year and withheld funding to public schools in response to a budget shortfall at the state level. The superintendent of the district I worked for (a rural district of 1,700 learners) reached for his phone and called our area representative at the state level, a politician of considerable clout, and requested financial assistance in the form of discretionary "member money" (i.e. pork barrel) that the superintendent had received when working as a business manager in his previous job at a large suburban/affluent school system (approximately 10,000 learners). The rejection was swift and blunt - "Sorry, I don't get my votes from there."

"It's unfortunate, but it's the way of the world" and "Sorry, I don't get my votes there." form an epitaph to be inscribed on the gravestones of high need schools throughout New York.

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