Official connects education dots
Houston County Courier
By Lynda Jones
“Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress” and its companion website, www.FASTexas.org, provide a means for Houston County citizens to see how the Texas Comptroller’s office rates the county’s five school districts. It takes some navigating, but the website allows the public to create reports comparing up to 20 districts. It is possible to create reports of district overviews, and more specific reports comparing academic data, TAKS results/progress, drop out/ completion rates and college readiness. Combs’ report comes with the disclaimer that “The purpose of district and campus compar-isons on this site is for self-improvement. Care should be taken when comparing data from different districts and/or campuses, since certain comparisons may not yield meaningful results.” Also, the academic progress, cost-adjusted spending and spending index measures are three-year averages through 2008-2009. Other financial data used by the comptroller’s researchers is from 2008-2009, and all other data is from 2008-2009. The accountability ratings (unacceptable, academically acceptable, recognized) in the comptroller’s report do not match the ratings given by TEA to Houston County schools earlier this fall. Those TEA ratings reflect what area students accom-plished in 2008-2009. Her “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress” report spells out Comptroller Susan Combs’ ideas for cutting school spending without sacrificing educational quality. One of those suggestions has already drawn the ire of the Texas AFT (American Federation of Teachers). (See related story on Page A-3) Combs suggests allowing an average of 22 students per kindergarten through fourth grade class. Schools currently are required to limit those classes to 22 students. The comptroller’s office developed the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) in response to a directive from the 2009 Legislative House. That directive, contained in House Bill 3, instructed the comptroller to “identify school districts and campuses that use resource allocation practices that contribute to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations.” The 2009 Legislature’s House Bill 3 instructed Combs to “identify school districts and campuses that use resource allocation practices that contribute to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations.” “Public school spending per student has increased by 63 percent during the last decade, outpacing both enrollment growth and inflation,” according to a press release from Combs’ office. With a budget-cutting session of the Texas Legislature approaching, and school districts under pressure to do more with less, Combs’ press release suggests the report is intended to help trim school spending without sacrificing educational quality. “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress” identifies Texas school districts that achieve strong student performance while minimizing increased spending. “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress” and www.FASTexas. org provide an analysis of public education spending and academic results, allowing lawmakers and school districts to compare similar public and charter schools across the state, identify efficiencies and make substantive improvements to get the most value for the dollars spent. “We all want students to excel academically, and it takes a certain amount of spending to realize that goal, but what is the right amount?” Combs said. “We need to fully understand the relationship between student progress and spending.” The task assigned to Combs by the 2009 Legislature directed the comptroller’s office to develop a method to compare school districts on a level playing field and to determine which districts and campuses allocate their financial resources in a manner that contributes to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations. “In a state as large and diverse as Texas, drawing apples-to-apples comparisons is no easy task,” Combs said. “Our school districts vary greatly in geographic size, student population, demograph-ics and costs. Many factors influence student learning, including factors both in and outside school. Similarly, the cost of education is influenced by many factors, some beyond the districts’ control.” Drawing upon data from the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Schools Project of the University of Texas at Dallas and the expertise of UT-Dallas, UT-Austin, Texas A&M University and Texas educators, the Comptroller created the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) methodology, a first-of-its-kind system that ensures fair and unbiased comparisons of school districts and campuses. FAST was reviewed by multiple in-state and out-of-state experts to validate its methods and findings. “What we created is a new kind of report that uses a unique rating system to balance student progress against school spending in an unbiased fashion,” Combs said. “The FAST system includes controls for the diverse range of students and the varying educational costs in Texas school districts - resulting in realistic and useful comparisons.” Using FAST methodology, each school district and campus, including charter schools, is assigned the following:
•A rating of student progress in reading and math, measured using a value-added model with controls for the varying characteristics of students, campuses and districts.
•A spending rating, from “Very Low” to “Very High,” that rates the district’s spending compared to up to 40 peer districts that operate in similar cost environments, are of similar size and serve similar students
•A FAST rating, from one to five stars, that integrates academic progress and spending to identify districts that produce strong academic growth at a lower cost than their peers. School districts that earn five stars have a “Very High” student progress rating and a “Very Low” spending rating. Alternately, one-star districts have very low student progress and very high spending compared to their fiscal peers. Only 43 of the 1,235 school districts and charter schools the comptroller analyzed received a five-star FAST rating. “The ratings do not judge the relative value of spending versus academic progress,” Combs said. “Different schools have different priorities and constraints.” Connecting the Dots includes a compilation of Smart Practices that provide blueprints for improving school operations. “Connecting the Dots” makes 20 recommendations to give school districts greater flexibility to enact efficiencies. These are a few of the recommendations:
•Share school facilities and services with community colleges and other local government entities to generate cost savings for all.
•Encourage school districts to use purchasing cooperatives and compare prices for goods and services with prices available through the state procurement system.
•Increase the educational opportunities available to students by reducing barriers to online coursework; and replace traditional textbooks with e-textbooks costing up to 40 percent less.
•Standardize reporting of campus financial data to help identify low- and high-cost programs.
•Relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class. The Composite Academic Progress Percentile (see chart on Page A-1) refers to a percentile ranking of math and reading progress. “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress” is published in its entirety on the FAST website, www.FASTexas.org. The website includes complete details of school districts’ Smart Practices, all of Combs’ recommended educa-tion policy changes and all of the tools users need to compare school districts through the FAST lenses and create detailed, customized reports on school spending and academic achievement. The study and online research tools are available free of charge to anyone. The study will be updated annually, making it a tool that will continue to allow taxpayers to see where the money goes in public education, prompting further discussion of cost versus quality in education. “Taxpayers are within their rights to expect exceptional academic achievement, and they are also entitled to receive the best value for their tax dollars,” Combs said.