Thursday, November 30, 2017

Education Funding and Teacher Salaries

The Education Recalibration Committee is meeting again. The Casper Star Tribune reports that one of the committee's consultants has presented his findings on the current model for school funding in our state:
A funding analysis of parts of Wyoming’s education system showed that the state spends similarly to its peers in those areas, consultants told lawmakers Wednesday. “It’s comparable to all the studies in general,” consultant Mark Fermanich told lawmakers on the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is conducting a broad examination of Wyoming’s education system. 

How broad?

The analysis looked at 12 pieces of Wyoming’s funding model and compared them to other states as part of the broader view of the school system. While the list included major parts of the Cowboy State’s method — including special education and class sizes — it was not exhaustive. It did not compare salaries, for instance, which account for the vast majority of districts’ budgetsThe absence of a salary comparison was not lost on Rep. Albert Sommers, the Pinedale Republican who is the co-chair of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. 
“Why is there no mention ... about salaries?” he asked Fermanich, who works with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, the firm hired by the state to conduct the education review. 

To begin with, the report evaluates the state's funding model, not actual funding. The difference is important: the funding model does not tell us what the actual cost will be - only how that cost is going to be covered and how the total funding (whatever it will be) is to be distributed among the items that constitute education funding. 

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a funding model per se. So long as we have a tax-funded school system, a funding model helps legislators, voters and taxpayers understand what the school-designated tax money is going toward. The downside, of course, is that the legislature can get involved in details and become micro-managing; that risk is easily avoided if we instead shift toward increased competition, educational freedom and a gradual phase-in of private funds in our school system. 

That, however, is a matter for a future discussion. For now, let us note, again, that the (probably well compensated) consultant from Augenblick, Palaich and Associates did not include teacher salaries - or even staff funding in general - in his report. The question that Representative Sommers brought up was both timely and telling. 

Fortunately, yours truly can fill the gap that the (probably well compensated) consultant omitted. Before we get there, though, here is a quick rundown of what the (probably well compensated) consultant did tell the recalibration committee in his PowerPoint presentation:

  • Wyoming has a reasonable class size in its funding model, compared to other states and other funding models (slide 9 in the report);
  • Support-staff spending is on the low side here in our state, though the report does not provide any testable definition of support staff vs. instructional staff and other non-instructional staff (slide 15);
  • Instructional-material spending is comparatively low (slide 29);
  • Tech dollars do not stand out, but are also not lower than in comparable funding models (slide 31).

These are interesting factoids to keep in mind when we get to K-12 teacher compensation. 

First, though, let us get back to the Tribune story, where the (probably well compensated) consultant explains why he had nothing to say about school-staff salaries:
Fermanich replied that many school funding studies in other states did not provide specific recommendations for salaries. They were made in subsequent reports, and so there wasn’t a consistent way to draw comparisons between those states and Wyoming. 
It would be shocking if there was no way to compare the cost of teachers in different school-funding models. Quite frankly, I wonder if the consultants did not somehow skip a beat here. But even if their statement - that school-funding models are not comparable when it comes to salaries - is fully accurate, it would have been easy for them to anticipate the question about that particular cost item.

There is an easy remedy for the lack of comparable data. We will get there very shortly. First, let us listen one more time to the Tribune: 
The state spends more than $17,000 per student, more than its neighbors and more than most states in the U.S. While other lawmakers have pushed back on the suggestion that Wyoming isn’t getting the proper bang for its buck, the idea that schools are over-funded persists. Indeed, after the consultants finished their comparison report, Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican, wondered how Wyoming could both be spending comparably and more significantly than other states. 
“Is there some point at which you have an ‘aha moment’ in here that says, ‘Here’s the difference, here’s the key driver why we spend more’?” he asked the consultants. Fermanich replied that at least one reason is that Wyoming has implemented much of its funding model, to an extent not seen in most other states. Fermanich said that the Campbell [state Supreme Court] decisions — named for the school district that was a plaintiff in those cases — certainly play a role. 

And that, folks, is all that this (probably well compensated) consultant had to say. I am sure you felt that you got your tax money's worth of information from him.

Back, now, to Representative Sommers's question, which ties into the question from Senator Kinskey about excessive per-student costs for K-12 education in Wyoming. It is well documented that our state's school system is very costly, and the reason is not that we are a rural state. If that were the case, Alaska would be way more expensive than we are. 

The one point that the consultant from Augenblick, Palaich and Associates made, that has validity here, is that small school districts tend to have a higher fixed cost. Their report failed to establish that we stand out in any way as a "small district" state, especially with regard to per-student costs, but as an isolated reform, district consolidation can be a good idea. The caveat, of course, is that the reform must not give in to teachers' union demands that all school-district employees be shielded from losing their jobs as a result of the reform.

District-size issues aside, the big elephant in the room is, of course, teacher salaries. Since the (probably well compensated) consultant did not pull those numbers - even for comparative purposes - I decided to dig into the database over state and local employment and salaries over at the Census Bureau. Due to the configuration of the database, it takes some time to configure data sheets for interstate comparison purposes (something the Census Bureau could easily remedy by expanding configurability of already existing data). Therefore, I can only offer a first taste of salaries in our schools, compared to other states:

Table 1: Full time instructional-staff salaries, annual averages

Wyoming  58,307
Colorado  53,788
Nebraska  51,708
Montana  51,528
Utah  49,946
S. Dakota  41,299
Idaho  40,977

The Census Bureau does not explain their exact definition of "instructional staff", but given that "other staff" under the education section make less, and are more likely to be part-time employees, it is reasonable to assume that non-classroom teachers - assistant principals, principals and other administrators with a teacher's degree or higher - are counted as instructional staff. 

Until I have had time to do a full comparison between all the 50 states, this small neighborhood outlook will have to do. Its implication is clear, though: we are paying our teachers more than other states.

Is it worth it? Do we get a better education for our kids for that money? 

Perhaps it would have been a good idea for the Education Recalibration Committee to start their work with these two questions.

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