Jim Atchley is the superintendent for the Ansonia school district. It’s a rural district of about 700 students in western Ohio. The state has it down as spending $153 per pupil on instruction – basically, teacher salaries — at the middle school.
That’s not true, Atchley says. Because the district’s schools all operate out of a single building, and most high school teachers also teach middle school classes, the district’s accounting in the past has assigned those salaries to the high school instead of splitting them between the two schools. That made the middle school’s per-pupil classroom spending look unnaturally low.
“I don’t know that we’d necessarily be spending less, it may be that’s how it’s being reported,” he said.
As we wrote last month, Ohio lawmakers required the Department of Education to rank schools based on how much they spend per student and “in the classroom.” The new rankings are supposed to help taxpayers better understand school spending and performance. But they might not actually be that helpful:
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.
The Ohio Association of School Business Officials is concerned about the consistency of school financial data and about using a ranking system to compare districts, said Associate Executive Director Barbara Shaner.
“In my opinion, since there are some concerns about consistency and about comparing districts to districts and it’s impossible to have [an] apples to apples [comparison] at this point at least, we have some concerns. We’re working with it and want to see how things turn out and what kinds of improvements can be made,” she said. “But out of the box, we want to recognize that it’s not the perfect system.”
At the top of the earlier story, we highlighted a Columbus-area charter school that mistakenly told the Ohio Department of Education that it spent about $50,000 per student last year.
Traditional school district administrators say the report is generally accurate on the district level. But when you zoom in to look at spending by individual buildings or “in the classroom” vs. on administration, the picture gets fuzzier for some schools. That’s what happened in the Ansonia school district.
When residents look at school spending, like before a levy election, they tend to look at overall numbers rather than individual buildings, said Atchley, the district’s superintendent. So the quirk in accounting that made his district’s instructional spending seem low hadn’t come up before. (The district will take a closer look at how it reports these things this year, he said.)
Still, the idea of ranking districts by how much they spend per student — or other state rankings based on student performance on standardized tests — worries Atchley, even though his own district received one of the state’s highest academic ratings last year.
“I guess you can come up with any kind of ranking you want. I don’t know that’s necessarily going to be a good thing or that it’s going to benefit education,” he said.
The whole idea of ranking — rather than rating — districts is problematic, said the Ohio Association of School Business Officials’ Barbara Shaner. And with these new rankings, it will take a couple years for the problems with accuracy and consistency to get ironed out, she said. Meanwhile, many districts will try to pass levies with voters facing these new state rankings.
“A ranking system could end up having winners and losers because you’re always going to have someone at the bottom of the list regardless of how well they’re performing,” she said. “I think it is problematic when you move from a rating system to a ranking system, but this is the system we’re working with.”
Though traditional public schools have more institutional knowledge about and experience with reporting financial information to the state than charter schools, there’s still a lot of trial and error in the process of deciding how to categorize spending, said Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools Vice President for School Performance and Accountability Marianne Lombardo.
“It quickly becomes apparent that meaningful analysis cannot be done because the data lacks context and clear understanding that it was coded similarly across all entities,” she said.
While discussions about data systems and reporting seems far removed from, say, a classroom of third graders, the financial data does affect those students. The data is the basis for financial rankings and special notice for the districts that spend the most “in the classroom.” We wrote earlier:
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.
Financial data comes into play during discussions about state school funding. Policy makers use these numbers when discussing the cost of public education and comparing efficient charter schools to traditional public schools.
The charter school association’s Lombardo says a lot of high-stakes outcomes depend on this kind of data.
“When we’re looking at policy decisions, we’re looking at data to make those decisions,” she said.