Friday, June 25, 2010

Overhaul of Locke Highschool not That Pricey

The New York Times reported today on the $15,000,000 Charter-based reform effort at Locke High School, in Los Angeles; but that number's not really as big as everyone thinks it is.

(You can see the original article here.)

The further you read, the mathier this post will get, so, as they say in ancient Rome, cave lector!

According to the Times article, Locke High, located in South Central LA, was a prime example of America's failing urban public schools, when it was turned over to a Charter School Group, Green Dot Public Schools, in 2008. Since taking over, Green Dot has cleaned up the school: "gang violence is sharply down, fewer students are dropping out, and test scores have inched upward." (The only state-test data we have for the reform effort come from the spring of '09, just a few months after Green Dot took over. Given the other data, we're likely to see much larger gains in test scores when the '09-'10 results comes in.)

The projected cost of this overhaul is $15 million over the course of a four-year transition period—which sounds like a lot at first blush. The Times article, which is entitled "School is Turned Around but Cost Gives Pause," splits its time between reporting on the changes in the school and discussing the debate over whether that price-tag is exorbitant. Let's get a little perspective on that number, though.

In America, public money is assigned to a school on a per-pupil basis: within a given school district, each public school gets a given amount of money for each pupil that attends that school. This money constitutes the school's operating budget. For Locke High, that is expected to come to about $115 million total over the course of the four-year turnaround period. The $15 million price-tag on Green Dot's turnaround effort is above and beyond the operating budget and is paid for largely by donations from private foundations.

$15 million over four years amounts to an expenditure of 13% above the regular operating budget for each of those four years. Put another way, it's an investment of $1,172 per student per year, for four years. That's a small and fairly short-term investment to turn a failing school into a good school; or, put another way, to give 3,200 students a decent education.[1]

The reason that the cost of the Locke High overhaul is causing such a stir is that it's serving as a test-case for Obama's big, 3.5-billion-dollar school turnaround initiative. The Department of Ed. has set a per-school cap of $6 million in federal turnaround money, so overhauls costing $15 mil. won't be covered by the D of E. As Green Dot itself has demonstrated, however, there are other sources of funding. Private foundations and state and local funding can and should supplement federal money; normally, federal funding makes up only a small percentage of school budgets, with state and local funding supplying the lion's share. Indeed, Green Dot used little or no federal money in its overhaul of Locke High.

And that $15 million looks even smaller with closer examination. California's per-pupil spending rate is lower than that of most states. For example, it spent $8,952 per student, in the 2006-07 school year, compared to a national average of $9,683.[2] (I can't find reliable data for the last three years, but the state's budget crunch is likely to have increased that discrepancy.) That's a difference of $731 per student—62% of that $1,172 per student per year that Green Dot is spending to turn around Locke High. In other words, if we assume that turning a lousy school in, say, Illinois into a good school costs about the same amount per pupil as it does in South Central LA—a defensible assumption, given the high cost of goods and services in Los Angeles—then, we can expect an additional cost of only about $450 per student per year, during a four-year transition period, or about 5% over the regular Illinois per-pupil expenditure of $9,586. ($9,586 was the '06-'07 per-pupil expenditure in Illinois; again, I can't find reliable data for the last three years.)[3] In fact, $450 per student, in a school the size of Locke High makes for a total of $5.76 million over four years, which is less than the D of E's six-million-dollar per-school cap on turnaround efforts.

The real question regarding the replicability of the Locke High overhaul isn't funding, it's personnel. In 2007, the then-principal of Locke High complained that the Los Angeles Unified School District was using his school as a dumping ground for incompetent teachers. When Green Dot took over a year later, they retained only a third of the original faculty. Where did those other 80 teachers go? The Times article doesn't say, but they probably went back into the LA public school system.

If we cannot recruit new high-quality teachers in large numbers and train and support them effectively, and if we can only transfer and never fire incompetent teachers—then the Locke High overhaul will not be replicable, no matter how much money we devote to school turnaround.

  1. ^ Clearly, what constitutes a “decent education” is pretty subjective, but there’s no doubt that a safe learning environment, reduced drop-out rates, a positive school culture, and higher scores on state-tests constitute a significant improvement in quality of education.

  2. ^ "Digest of Education Statistics," National Center for Educational Statistics

  3. ^ ibid

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