Ohio

Eye on Education

The New Numbers Game: The Shaky Math Behind Ohio School Spending Rankings

Steve Berry / Flickr

Fifty thousand dollars per student. That’s how much one Ohio school reported spending last year. That figure puts Groveport Community School at the top of the list for school spending in Ohio.

And it could put the Columbus-area charter school at the top of new rankings of Ohio schools based on factors including how much they spend in the classroom and per pupil—if it were true.

The new rankings are required by the budget bill passed earlier this year, and are supposed to help taxpayers better understand school spending and performance. But researchers have not found a definitive connection between how much of its budget a school devotes to classroom spending and student performance. And a StateImpact Ohio analysis of district-reported financial data turned up dozens of apparent errors.

Officials at the Ohio Department of Education, which is responsible for collecting the data and producing the rankings, said they’re aware of some of the errors in the financial data and will fix them before the final rankings come out.

ELECTION TIME

The rankings will appear on each school’s state report card. They’re the kind of information that levy supporters and opponents will look to at election time. But they may not tell us much, researchers say.

“We have no evidence that a higher percentage spent on classroom expenditures leads to better student outcomes,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University professor who studies state school finance policies.

And with limited opportunities to double-check the numbers and a requirement that the rankings not require schools to send in more data, the rankings may not present an accurate picture of how Ohio schools are spending taxpayer money.

THE $50,000 STUDENT

Groveport Community School told the Ohio Department of Education that it had 155 students last year and spent over $7.7 million. Only one of those is true.

Groveport Community School actually had about 1,000 students, said Chris Buttke, Central Ohio business manager for Imagine Schools, the company that operates the Groveport charter school. Although the school’s student count was correct for state funding purposes, it wasn’t for this report, Buttke said. The school started using a different accounting software program this year, which should make its reporting easier and more accurate, he said.

David Ehle, the Ohio Department of Education official who is in charge of the system that collects and publishes financial and academic information from Ohio schools, said it’s possible that Groveport Community School sent some of their information into the state using a different format, one that resulted in a report showing a lower number of students.

It’s highly unlikely that a school would spend $50,000 per student, about five times the state average. But that’s what the state database says, so right now that’s what the official number is, Ehle said.

THE DISTRICTS OWN THE DATA

Part of the problem is that each school district and charter school is responsible for telling the Ohio Department of Education how much they spend each year for instructional, administration and other categories.

Required Rankings

The state budget bill enacted earlier this year requires the Ohio Department of Education to use “existing data” to determine how much money each school district, charter school, e-school and STEM school spends for instructional and non-instructional purposes.

Then the department has to rank each school or district:

  • From highest to lowest based on percent spent on instruction and
  • From lowest to highest based on percent spent on other purposes.
  • Charter schools, e-schools, joint vocational school districts, STEM schools and traditional public school districts will each have separate rankings. And traditional public school districts will be separated into several groups based on size.

Within those rankings, districts or schools in the bottom fifth of overall per-pupil spending will get the equivalent of a gold star. Districts or schools with high academic performance (measured mostly by standardized tests scores) will also get special notice.

The rankings will appear on each district or school’s report card and in a “prominent” place on the state’s education website.

The budget bill also requires the department to develop a system to rank schools based on per-pupil expenditures and how much they spend “in the classroom,” as well as students’ academic performance and growth and other measures. The department has not yet determined how they’ll combine those factors to rank districts, spokesperson Dennis Evans said.

This past year, districts had three months to report basic financial data to the state. For most districts, the information—like teacher salaries and purchases—is automatically collected by payroll and purchase order systems before it’s sent on to the state.

The state department of education sends districts regular reports on what data they’re missing and lets them know if they’ve made a silly mistake, like saying 100 percent of their spending is administrative.

But as the department sees it, it’s the district’s job to fix any errors. And while schools can lose funding for not submitting data in a certain category, there are no consequences for submitting incorrect financial information.

Checking for outliers like the $50,000 student or the high school that said it spent less than $5,000 per student (half of the state average), isn’t a priority for the department, said Ehle, the state data system director.

“At the end, from our perspective, the districts own the data. It’s their responsibly, and their responsibly to make sure it’s right,” he said.

ERROR RATES

When StateImpact Ohio looked at some of the financial data that will be used to rank every traditional public school district and charter school in the state, we found dozens of apparent errors.

Looking at last year’s school spending overall and for instruction and administration for the approximately 920 districts and charter schools in the state’s financial database:

  • 28 charter schools reported spending less than $500 per student on instruction.
  • 32 charter schools reported that more than 95 percent of their spending was on instruction.
  • 20 charter schools reported that more than 95 percent of their spending was on administration.
  • 39 public school districts and charter schools reported that more than half of their spending was on administration.

Many Ohio charter schools are operated by management companies. Those schools generally send upwards of 90 percent of their funding to their management company and may tag it in their reporting to the department as “administrative spending”—even though some of that funding pays for teacher salaries and classroom supplies. For charter schools with management companies, you can’t just use the public information in the state’s reporting system to get a real picture of how a school operates, said Buttke, the Imagine Schools business manager.

“If they start using this data to rank schools, the Ohio Department of Education is going to have to change how they report this in the system. It doesn’t show an accurate picture of where the money’s being spent,” he said.

There may be outliers in the financial data, but the state works to ensure that the data at least is transmitted accurately to the state and is complete, Ehle said.

“I’m very confident that what the districts submit is what we have in our system,” he said. “The question of how closely that resembles reality, well… The policy folks that work with the school finance staff are the better ones to answer that.”

In response to questions about how the rankings will be done, Ohio Department of Education spokesperson Dennis Evans wrote in an email, “We are still working out what the methodology will look like, so we have nothing to share at this point in time.”

CONSEQUENCES

“It’s got that feel good kind of gut intuitive thing — of course we want to have money go to the classroom — but the research doesn’t necessarily play that out…All you really do is incent districts to game what they count as a classroom expenditure.”
—Bruce Baker, Rutgers University

The Orange school district in Cuyahoga County reported the highest per-pupil spending of any traditional public school district in the state, just over $20,000 per pupil. The Avon Local school district in nearby Lorain County reported spending the least per pupil, about $7,200. Both got an “A-plus” on their state report cards last year.

But the Ohio School Boards Association says that you have to be careful in making comparisons between different districts.

“To compare an urban district like Cleveland or Columbus, with a suburban district like Rocky River or Ottawa Hills, or rural districts like Alexander can result in meaningless comparisons,” association lobbyist Damon Asbury said. “One has to be careful in drawing implications from the findings.”

NO EVIDENCE

Rutgers University researcher Bruce Baker is blunter in his assessment of state policies that focus on the percentage a school spends in the classroom:

“It’s got that feel good kind of gut intuitive thing—of course we want to have money go to the classroom—but the research doesn’t necessarily play that out,” he said. “All you really do is incent districts to game what they count as a classroom expenditure.”

While increasing a school’s overall spending can lead to higher standardized test scores, some studies have found that shifting expenditures from administration to instruction can boost scores. Others have found the reverse. And other studies have found that reallocating the budgetary pie in either direction has little effect. (Read more about the research here.)

Emphasizing the percentage a school districts spends in the classroom is problematic, and can constrain the abilities of local administrations and boards of education to actually improve schools, Baker said.

“What we really just want to do is we want local school boards and administrators how to best use their mix of resources to get the job done.”

Coming soon: Why do so many charter schools struggle to report accurate financial data to the state? And how have efforts in other states to rank schools worked out?

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