Results-Based Funding. The Inequity Will Increase After This School Year

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My last post was about the likely distribution of the new results-based funding which will go to 17 percent of Arizona's schools. The details are in the earlier post. Here's the short version: Only 35 percent of the state's district schools cater mainly to higher income students, but they represent 65 percent of the schools getting results-based funding for the 2017-18 school year. The economic inequity is even greater for charter schools.

Results-based funding is a very big deal. The lucky schools getting the money will boost their teachers' pay by between $2,000 and $4,000 a year and still have lots left over to buy educational extras other schools can't afford.

Thanks to results-based funding, increased educational inequity will be added to our growing income inequality. But as bad as things are the first year, they'll be far worse after that, with an even bigger piece of the pie going to schools in high rent areas. The details of how this works get a bit complicated, but they're important. Without knowing what the future will bring beyond year one, people will underestimate how truly awful the new results-based funding law is.

When results-based money is given out this school year, 2017-18, it will be based on schools' average AzMERIT scores. Since the standardized test scores correlate so closely with students' family incomes, that could mean that nearly all the money would go to schools in higher rent areas, but an added stipulation guarantees that about a third of the schools are in lower rent areas. According to the current projection from the Arizona legislature's Joint Legislative Budget Committee, 114 district schools with higher income students and 61 schools with lower income students will get the funding.

That guarantee goes away after this school year. Starting in the 2018-19 school year and continuing into the future, only schools with a state grade of "A" will get results-based funding, with no stipulation to make sure a significant number of schools come from lower income areas.

Will this mean nearly all the money will go to higher income areas? That would have been a certainty with the old state grading criteria which were based almost totally on the schools' average state standardized test scores. Starting this year, however, a new scoring system has been put in place which could boost schools' state grades above where their average test scores would place them.

The new scoring system is complex, with student improvement factored into the test scores along with ELL student scores, "acceleration and readiness" measures and more. The criteria are nicely summarized in an AZ Republic article, or you can try to figure out the way-above-my-pay-grade version from the Department of Education. We'll know more when the new school grades are released later this year, but my bet is, not many of the lower income schools will make it into the A category. For one thing, I don't think the new factors will make a huge difference in the grades. I could be wrong about that, but another factor will make the inclusion of lower income schools in the A category even less likely.

The last time the schools got letter grades was in 2014, which was the last year the AIMS standardized tests were given. That year, about 30 percent of schools got an A. This time, however, that number has to go down to something more like 17 percent. It's simple logic. If every school that gets an A receives the results-based funding, and the money allotted for the program will only provide funding for about 17 percent of the schools, then only 17 percent of schools can get an A. That means the new cut line for an A will eliminate about 13 percent of schools that would have made it in 2014. So while the new scoring system for letter grades will make it somewhat easier for schools in lower income areas to compete with those in higher income areas, the higher cut score will make it harder for them to make it into the A category, and that's all that matters when it comes to results-based funding.

For an indication of how hard it will be for lower income schools to be among the 17 percent that get the new funding, look at the average AzMERIT test scores of the schools projected to get results-based funding this year. Among the higher income district schools, the average scores range from 65 percent to 96 percent. Among the lower income schools, the scores range from 41 percent to 69 percent, with only two of them getting scores above 65 percent, the lowest score for the higher income schools. It'll take a whole lot of accommodating factors in the new state grade criteria to make up for a scoring gap of that size.

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