Inadequate Funding or Inadequate Information?

Welcome back, friends. I apologize for my absence during the second half of last week. Do you have any idea how busy an intrepid policy explorer like myself gets in the closing weeks of the legislative session? Plus, I had to carve out some extra time to watch interesting education TV shows hosted by my Independence Institute policy friend Ross Izard. See here for a segment on charter funding equity, and here for one of my favorite Colorado private schools, Arrupe Jesuit High School.

I’m sorry I left you hanging. But now we’re back. And we’ve got some serious edu-policy work to do. Today’s topic: school finance in Colorado. No, no. Don’t run. I promise it’ll be (mostly) painless.

I started thinking about how important it is to get accurate information out there about school finance in Colorado when I read a Colorado Public Radio story about our state’s supposed failure to adequately fund its public schools despite a “booming” economy. From that story:

Colorado’s economy is hot. The unemployment rate is 3 percent. And shiny new skyscrapers are rising all over Denver as revelers pour fistfuls of cash into downtown bars and restaurants.

But no one invited Colorado’s public schools to the party.

“They have outdated technology, larger class sizes. They’ve lost the opportunity to offer certain programs. They can’t retain teachers. They can’t attract teachers,” says Tracie Rainey with the Colorado School Finance Project, a nonprofit research group.  “They’ve had fewer school days, furlough days, all sorts of maintenance issues.”

The list goes on. Many educators and parents had hoped that, as Colorado’s economy roared back from the Great Recession, the nearly $5 billion that lawmakers had cut from the state’s public schools would come back with it.

They were wrong.

That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? The CPR story goes on to point out that Colorado is 42nd in education spending, and strongly implies that TABOR is a terrible, awful, no-good thing. If one were to take this story at face value, one would think that Colorado’s public schools are crumbling to the ground under the malicious thumb of a sneering, faceless constitutional overlord while the rest of the state grows fat economically. But are they?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that CPR’s report covers maybe a tenth of the information needed to fully understand Colorado’s school finance situation. We can’t plug all those holes today; we’d need a full paper for that (wink, wink). But we can cover the big stuff.

Let’s start with Colorado’s funding ranking. CPR says Colorado ranks 42nd for spending. That figure comes from Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts”report, and it’s true as far as it goes. Colorado did rank 42nd for “adjusted per-pupil expenditures” in that report. But CPR fails to mention that the Quality Count reports factors in an awful lot more information than adjusted per-pupil expenditures in its overall finance rankings. Those extra categories rated Colorado between 12th and 39th, and the state’s overall school finance ranking was 37th.

CPR also doesn’t bother telling readers that Quality Counts provides just one of a veritable plethora of state-by-state finance rankings. The National Center for Education Statistics pegs Colorado at 39th, while the U.S. Census Bureau puts us at 40th. Meanwhile, the National Education Association—yes, that National Education Association—ranks Colorado 22nd for current expenditures per pupil, and the Education Law Center at Rutgers University ranks the state 34th. I know for a fact that CPR is aware of the Rutgers report; they reported on it less than two months ago (again without providing important context).

Using selective statistics may be good for messaging, but it doesn’t do much to add to an already heated debate that’s heavy on opinion and light on facts. The widely disparate rankings make clear that finance numbers can be made to say a lot of different things, some of them more accurate than others. Just picking the one you like best isn’t really a valid strategy. The same can be said of using misleading graphs that depict our state falling rapidly away from national average expenditures per pupil—a completely arbitrary baseline that ignores so much nuance that it is functionally useless.

But who cares about rankings and national per-pupil expenditure averages, you say. Isn’t Colorado’s education system facing a catastrophic meltdown because of supposedly inadequate funding? Well… no. Not at all, actually.

CPR fails to mention that the same Quality Counts report cited in its story ranks Colorado 18th in overall student achievement, and 15th when it comes to reading and math proficiency rates on NAEP. To add to that point, Colorado consistently outperforms the national NAEP average—an average we should actually care about—despite CPR’s depiction of us plunging away from the essentially meaningless national per-pupil funding average. By my count, only eight states beat us statistically in fourth-grade math in 2015, and only five did the same in eight-grade math. In reading, we beat all but six states in fourth grade and all but four in eighth grade.

These, my friends, are not signs of an education system crumbling under inadequate funding.

Oh, put that pitchfork away. Does all of this mean funding never, ever matters? Of course not. Some level of funding is required to run a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools,” and we’ve already talked about some productive ways money can be spent in education (as well as some very unproductive ones). But it does mean we ought to think twice when we are told that Colorado’s education system is collapsing, or that the roughly 9.5 billion we spend annually on education in this state is “inadequate” on a systemic level.

There’s a lot of detail buried in the school finance discussion, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about school finance issues a lot in the coming months—especially if our friendly neighborhood media continues to be unconcerned with telling the whole story. You should probably start mentally preparing yourself now. See you next time!