CURMUDGUCATION blog:  Mississippi paving the way for vouchers

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

MS: Paving Way for Vouchers

Mississippi has long been considered America’s Armpit of Education.

Educational lists? You name it, they’ve consistently ranked near the bottom. It qualified as news when Nevada beat them for dead last in EdWeek’s Quality Counts list in 2016, because that was their first step up in years(and it can be argued that they didn’t so much improve as Nevada just became even worse.)

Sharing another excellent investment opportunity

They’ve tried any number of dumb ideas, from jumping on the bandwagon for failing third graders who don’t pass the Big Standardized Test in reading, to fining schools for not observing the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus the occasional attempt to force teachers to be silent on any education related issues at all.

What they haven’t tried is actually funding their school system. Mississippi ranks close to the bottom there as well, with a per pupil outlay in the $7K area. Back in 1997, the legislature attempted to address this by passing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (because when you’re working on education, “adequate” is plenty good enough). MAEP laid out a funding formula that the state then promptly ignored. The legislature has only voted four times to fund schools as the MAEP says they should– and two of those times they took it back mid-year. Last year some folks tried to add some actual teeth to the law, and the legislature promptly buried the referendum in a flurry of bloviating baloney.

But Mississippi’s educational finances were not going to be ignored. Instead, the GOP called upon EdBuild and their CEO, our old friend Rebecca Sibilia.

You may remember her as the woman who gleefully observed that bankrupcy is a great way to blow up a district, which is no problem for kids, but a great opportunity for charter operators. Arielle Dreher, who has been doing a bang-up job covering all this for the Jackson Free Press, does a nice job of recapping the EdBuild story–

EdBuild is in its infancy as a company (it started in 2014), and Sibilia came from an education-policy background, first working in the Washington, D.C., education department and then moving to the nonprofit Students First, run by Michelle Rhee. The former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee was a controversial figure, after firing over 200 teachers in D.C., mainly due to poor performance, she said then.

EdBuild’s board of directors includes Derrell Bradford (NYCAN), Angelia Dickens(general counsel for StudentsFirst), Michael Hassi (Exponent Partners), Josh McGee (Manhattan Institute, Arnold Foundation), Henry Moseley (CFO, Washington Convention Center), Hari Sevugan (270 Strategies, former DNC press secretary, and just helped a “national, non-profit education reform group get off the ground), and Stephanie Khunrana (Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation). EdBuild’s website hammers away at the notion that “current funding systems are outdated, arbitrary and segregating.”

Sibilia’s background is soaked in reformy swellness. If that doesn’t give you a hint where EdBuild’s “study” for educational financing in Mississippi is headed, note also that the quarter-million dollar study was half paid for by the legislature, and the other half with “private funding from unnamed EdBuild donors.” Those donors? The Broad, Draper Richards Kaplan, Bill and Melinda Gates, CityBridge, Walton Family, and the Center for American Progress.

Mississippi reached out for help from these giants of education investment because Mississippi is, on the whole, in financial trouble. The GOP and Governor Phil Bryant last year pushed through a huge tax cut, and now state revenues are way down. Go figure.

Against that backdrop, EdBuild and GOP legislators met behind closed doors to rewrite the state’s funding formula while pretty much everyone else complained about being left out of the whole process. EdBuild has produced a nifty report  full of fun recommendations, and while we could plow through the whole eighty pages, there are basically only eleven recommendations, and those recommendations boil down to one Big Idea:

Student-centered funding.

Don’t fund schools. Base your formula on cost-per-student.Because that makes it way easier to implement a full-on voucher system (and in the long run, I’ll predict, it makes it easier to deny budget increases).

There are other details in the recommendations. Recommendation 1 is about giving an extra bump for students who qualify as poor. And while you’re doing that, redefine what “poor” means; in Georgia, these kind of shenanigans resulted in many, many people being redefined right out of poverty, even though they had no more money than ever. Recommendation 2 calls for extra support for ELL students, and #3 adds a per-pupil bump for students with special needs, depending on how special their needs are. #4– same for gifted. #5– extra money to schools for college-and-career-ready programs, and #6 looks after rural and “sparse” schools.

Recommendation #7 is novel– fund schools based on enrollment rather than attendance, which strikes me as an idea that would really help charters in general and cyberschools in particular. #8 is to eliminate the 27% rule, a rule that essentially says that the state must shoulder 73% of the funding burden. #9 is about financial transparency.

#10 says, Let’s look at all the rules, regulations and accreditation standards that cost money and see if they are “critical to student success”– presumably so we can get rid of them. Oh, and create a system of “earned autonomy,” where schools with good test scores earn a Get Out Of Following the Rules card.

#11 says to phase all this in, and Sibilia agrees, noting that some schools will get more money and some less, so go easy.

One other bizarre feature of this big financial plan is that it includes no dollar amounts or projections at all.

Sibilia said the dollar amount is up to lawmakers, and told the Jackson Free Press that figures used in the 80-page report are “examples only,” not base figures for legislators to use.

Will this save the state money? The legislature has kept the grand total for MEAP level, but they’ve also fully funded the system twice in twenty years. Can you reform a system you’ve never actually used in the first place? Should you evaluate a new system based on the assumption that it won’t be correctly funded when implemented? We have no answers. Would it help you to hear from one more reliable reformy spokesperson?

As a concept, weighted student funding aims for equity, focusing on funding the highest student needs. Dr. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, analyzes the economics of educational issues. Weighted student funding, Hanushek says is a sensible idea, especially since the goal in most cases is to put money towards school districts that have disadvantaged kids or those that need special education. Weights, however, are the political part of the process, he says.

If we aren’t adding any money to the pot, but just shifting the old money around with a new formula, how does that save money or improve education? Well, maybe that’s another political question, but I suspect the answer is, “It opens the door to increased and easier voucher/charter/choice programs.” Just slap a backpack full of cash on each student and let the mad scramble begin. There’s not an ounce of evidence that it will serve the students well, but plenty of evidence that it will help privateers and profiteers open the otherwise closed education market and really expand their own share.

And why target Mississippi for such a program? Well, the one thing that really helps boost a voucher/charter/choice program is a public school system that has been broken down, starved, and beaten into a highly unattractive condition– Mississippi’s public schools are already halfway there. EdBuild is just there to take advantage of that failure, because the collapse of public schools is a great investment opportunity for investors and privatizers, much like the collapse of the weakest antelopes at the watering hole is a great opportunity for lions and hyenas.


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