Friday, April 4, 2014

Operational Cost #4: How to control for special education and at-risk funding?

I've been doing a series on operational costs in the Iowa City Community School District  (ICCSD). Part 1 gave an introduction to my methodology and general approach, Part 2 discussed 7 of the ICCSD elementary schools arguing that 4 smaller ones were significantly more efficient than the larger ones, and Part 3 compared the newest school with two of the smallest schools in the ICCSD -- and the newer school didn't fare so well.

A concerned reader has argued that I am distorting the numbers. The problem, according to this reader, was that I was inappropriately controlling for special education and at-risk funding. As I argued previously, there are three separate funding categories for general education, special education, and at-risk funding. The state allocates a certain amount per student for general education purposes (that figure was $6,018 for the 2012-2013 school year), a different amount for special education depending on the needs of the students in the district, and another amount for at-risk funding (which is only funded at 75%, so 25% comes from the general education budget). The reason I wanted to control for special education and at-risk funding is that it is misleading to compare the $6,018 figure to how much a school costs to operate in general. It doesn't take into account the sources of those funds.

Why is it important to take into account the source of funds? The primary challenge our district has financially is not the ability to raise funds. Rather, it is a problem in being allowed by the State of Iowa to raise funds. In other words, the primary limitation is related to spending authority. The idea behind spending authority is that it ensures that all students in the State of Iowa basically get the same type of education -- and wealthier areas don't get more funds simply because they are from a wealthier area. And that's a good thing.

For the most part, ICCSD's special education funds and 75% of its at-risk funds come from sources that don't count against the spending authority related to the $6,018 figure. Furthermore, they are not a true measure of how costly it is to operate a school. Rather, they are a measure of how costly it is to operate that school given certain decisions about special education and at-risk funding that the district has made.

But why should we control for these funds? It turns out that special education and at-risk funds aren't equally distributed at all in our district. I know what you are thinking! Surprise, surprise! So, to really compare our schools apples to apples, we need to control in some way for this variance.

Now, my well-informed and well-meaning reader was concerned with my method of controlling for these other funding sources. In short, I had zeroed out special education funds and at-risk funds for all 19 of our elementary schools. This concerned reader argued that this isn't the best way to control for those sources and it advantages the smaller schools. I thought there was something to my interlocutor's point, so I crunched the numbers a bit more.

In my first attempt, I took the mean of all 19 elementary schools special education and at-risk funds, and I put that amount in for each school. Under this way of controlling for those external funding sources, larger schools tended to fare better. They had a larger base to distribute that average over and they did quite well because of that. Here is the graphical representation of the data:

A few notes: first, we need to be clear that the cost per student here is a way of representing the total cost to run a school and it should not be compared to the $6,018. So, it loses some of what warrants the zeroing out strategy I used previously. Second, this approach is arguably problematic because it acts as if special education and at-risk costs should be distributed evenly across the district. But doing that would result in smaller schools having a disproportionate number of students with special education or at-risk needs.

Thus, I came up with another way to control for the external funding sources. I took each of our 19 elementary schools enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment, and I allocated exactly that percentage of the total elementary special education and at-risk funds to each school respectively. Here is the graph for that data:

As one would expect, the result was representationally, virtually identical to my initial portrayal in Parts 1-3. So, you don't have to click back, here is that graph:

In other words, if you allocated special education funds and at-risk funds in our district according to enrollment, the comparative operational costs rankings for all of our schools would be all but identical. I think there are good reasons for (a) distributing those funds by school enrollment rather than acting as if the best way to control for those costs is by equally dividing it, and (b) there is a good reason for zeroing them out, particularly since it doesn't skew any comparative evaluation of our schools and the benefit is that it gives us a pretty good comparison of how much each elementary school costs our general education fund. The only caveats that I should make here are twofold: first, at-risk funding does affect the general education fund and it is a bit misleading to not include 25% of it here. Nevertheless, we still need to find some way to control for that with something like my second graph. Furthermore, our district has a so-called special education deficit. That means that we spend more in special education than we receive from the state. So, I could see how it would be helpful to distribute those excess funds across all schools as well. But once again, that graph would give the same comparative rank of our schools as the 2nd and 3rd graphs above.

In short, I thank the concerned reader for bringing a possible oversight to my attention; but my considered reflection is that it my initial portrayal along with my 2nd graph above (understanding the limitations of both) gives an accurate picture of the comparative operational costs of our 19 elementary schools in 2012-2013.


  1. Thank you SO much Michael! Seriously, I've watched people wrestle with exactly what you've done above for years and this is the first time I've seen the way to calculate it done so simply (only because of your skills) in a way that I was able to track and understand even through my haze of math trauma. Why can't the administration explain this as well? It's like the special ed and at risk costs have been left out of the conversation as a card in the pocket to explain away all kinds of things...finding a way to represent them that makes sense reduces their use, or misuse, as a wild card in the administration and board's hand in their attempt to close the schools they've appeared to target.
    One thing though, maybe more up my district history and tarot card reader alley ;-), that you haven't asked yet in this series is WHY? Why do the administration and many board members keep pushing so hard for newer meaning bigger meaning better meaning cheaper when the numbers don't really support it anywhere near as strongly as they'd like us to believe they do, or as they do when they present their all pro little con scenarios? There are reasons that I believe I see clearly, and they're not pretty at all.

    These are, at 5:18a.m. having woken up with a migraine at 4:00 and now intellectually impaired by Imitrex, some of the reasons that come into play with why they want newer, bigger, better school. I'm certain others can come up with even more or explain them better. I have a term for these kinds of "puzzles", I call them, "And if you're wearing blue socks on Thursday you do it like this." These kinds of puzzles are so confusing, that it seems like I have to "re-learn" the "rules" every time it comes up again.

  2. -When they open a new school, they must, of course, redistrict to determine its boundaries and those of the schools its boundaries border. That is "huge"...because, when your address is "redistricted" from one school to another, one of the district's only hardfast rules has been that even if you can SINA out, or open enroll out of the school (new or otherwise) you've been reassigned to, you CANNOT enroll out back to the school you were redistricted OUT of...period. This helps keep people, particularly those with fewer resources, at the school to which they've been reassigned.

    -When they open a brand new school, it's exempt from SINA/NCLB for years = one more school the district doesn't have to worry about how to meet an unreachable goal set by a government that doesn't seem to understand its own math. With all schools in the district, except new built ones, shortly to by default become SINA schools based on the fatal flaws of NCLB, the district (and the State for that matter) are required to do some serious juggling to keep from losing funding and/or to keep the State from being required to come in and take over the school. The State doesn't want to come in and take over any schools, they can't do it any better than it can be done locally by the people that know the district best. The Federal Government still hasn't saved us from what has become an attack on Public Education instead of the great equalizer it was "supposed" to be = NCLB. The district is required to spend enormous effort to address the "problem" at the SINA schools when the problem is that NCLB's goals are unreachable. I'm all for districts working hard to address school quality issues, even if, uggg, it has to be through some kind of test scores, but NCLB's prescriptives are just as flawed as its unreachable goals. In fact, they use up valuable resources and administration effort that we don't really have to spare. So, every new school that replaces an old SINA school buys the district out of having to apply those prescriptives = a new school buys more time before it would be affected by NCLB and an old SINA school just disappears and is one less "problem" on the district's plate.

    -New schools have special funding rules that I'm not even going to try to explain well. There are "one time" factors, in play for a period of time that make them desirable to have in the budget. I don't remember the specifics but it may have something to do with them having exemption being counted under regular spending authority conditions in ways that let the district spend more for a set period of time. I'm sure we'll all get a good re-schooling on those rules shortly.

    -New buildings are shiny. Yep. Shiny, and fancy, and they make our district look important and cutting edge. So. One of my earliest lessons learned in school was don't judge a book by its cover. I like old buildings. I like old architecture. I like variety. New isn't better to me than well cared for, maintained, and clean. It is to many people though...for different reasons. In my opinion, Mr. Murley wants to be on a different career trajectory in public education, a more federal government level one. One "impressive" way to do that as a superintendent, is to be able to list how many schools you've opened under your watch on your resume. Irony is, the "cure" for "all" of "our" "problems" in a wicked sort of way = this: under Murley's watch, this district will build its way out of SINA and NCLB by destroying its small and older schools (because it can and I believe that is what Murley and the Board are likely to do, not because that is the "right" thing, but because it's the "easy" way out) but it will get him hired out of here and so it will buy our way out of him as well...when he leaves for either a larger district or for a U.S. Dept of Ed job.