EDUCATION is front and center as Pennsylvania's budget heads into overtime. A key element in this debate is whether additional school funding should be tied to new accountability measures in the form of House Bill 1225 and Senate Bill 6, both of which would allow a more forceful state hand in governing the state's lowest performing schools. (S.B. 6 passed the Senate on a party-line, 27-22 vote on Sunday evening.)
In the abstract, linking increased funding with oversight makes sense; however, this particular proposal deserves careful scrutiny.
The bills would create an Achievement School District governed by a newly established seven-member state board, with four Republican appointees and three Democrats. The Achievement School District would be empowered to take over the state's lowest performing schools and implement one or more of the following prescriptions: replace the school principal and at least half the staff, contract with an outside school operator, convert to a charter or close the school.
Achievement School Districts have become trendy nationally. Legislators in Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin proposed similar measures in the last few months alone. Versions of the policy have been established in Michigan, Louisiana and Tennessee in the last decade. While Research for Action does not take a stance for or against specific policy provisions, we can provide some perspective to help inform this conversation.
There are three central questions to consider regarding Pennsylvania's Achievement School District proposals:
1) What do we know about similar efforts elsewhere and whether they work?
2) Does Pennsylvania have the capacity to oversee the state's lowest performing schools effectively?
3) Is the state's system for identifying poor performers fair?
Unfortunately, answers to these questions raise a number of red flags.
First, we don't know much about whether recovery models in other states work. For example, researchers examining Louisiana's Recovery School District have just begun to explore impacts in a comprehensive fashion. There appear to be some positive indicators regarding achievement gains in New Orleans; yet it is impossible to generalize from this city's experience, given the complete restructuring of the district in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, research into Tennessee's efforts are also preliminary and largely have been focused on one city, Memphis.
Second, recovery zones are typically infused with significant funding increases. Tennessee implemented its Achievement School District using Race to the Top funds. Louisiana's Recovery School District was established during a period of massive state and federal investments after Hurricane Katrina. And Massachusetts, another state lauded as a model for reform, is renowned for its consistently high levels of education funding. In contrast, the policy proposed by Pennsylvania's legislature includes no increase in funds, and follows on the heels of an historic dis-investment in public education. While the budget proposed by Gov. Wolf includes increases for education, these funds will be used to begin to restore the drastic cuts made to schools across the Commonwealth. There is no provision of funds for the proposed Achievement School District.
Capacity to enact and oversee such broad-based reform is another concern. Our review of Pennsylvania Department of Education funding shows a 16 percent decline in overall funding to the agency's general operations line item since 2008. Moreover, a recent survey by the Institute of Education Sciences examining the issue of state capacity to support school turnarounds found that a majority reported lacking expertise in this area. For this proposal to be successful, capacity at the state level should be considered.
Lastly, both bills propose that low-performing schools be identified via School Performance Profile (SPP) scores. Separate studies by Research for Action and researchers at Penn State University have documented that these scores do not identify the root cause of poor performance because they are highly correlated with poverty. As a result, the scores cannot provide an adequate diagnosis or identify what supports may best help. That's a prescription for failure.
There's no doubt that chronically low-performing schools need to get back on track. But we should proceed with caution. After years of chronic underfunding and the rapid growth of traditional and cyber charters, our schools have been destabilized. Understanding the conditions on the ground, providing sustained resources and support and allowing enough time for recovery are all key to our schools' long-term health.