By Daarel Burnette II, Education Week
Six years ago, barely a third of the students at East High School, in Rochester, N.Y., graduated on time. Students were being suspended at a rate of more than 2,000 each year. More than half were chronically absent, and more than three-quarters couldn’t meet the state’s academic benchmarks.
In 2015, at a time when East High—one of the city’s oldest and biggest—had been deemed New York state’s worst-performing school, the district’s board let the University of Rochester take the reins.
The arrangement, which involved overhauling the staff, curriculum, and school climate, has proven mostly successful—and came at a sticker price of more than $36,000 per student.
By the 2019-20 school year, more than 78 percent of students had graduated on time, fewer than 68 had been suspended in a school of 2,000, and the majority of its freshman had met the state’s academic benchmarks.
“This school was struggling mightily. It was a bleeding wound, and the district needed to do something fast,” said Eamonn Scanlon, the Education Policy Director for the Children’s Agenda, a local advocacy organization that’s analyzed the district’s spending. “This community made a concentrated effort and gave the school more money than any other school in the district, and the results show.”
Now, however, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to reverse the school’s progress. The Rochester School District, which funnels money to East while it remains under outside management, is in severe fiscal distress due to management missteps and the decline of the state’s sales and income tax revenue, which the district is heavily reliant upon. The school took a 20 percent funding cut last year.
Until February, the school had been in full remote-only learning, which upended its ambitious academic agenda. Adding to the disruptive atmosphere, Rochester has been the site of massive Black Lives Matter protests over the police killing of a Black man and the pepper-spraying of a 9-year-old Black girl in 2020.
When the pandemic ends, it will not be cheap for East’s staff to get students, many of whom have checked out during the school’s remote learning offerings, back up to speed. While the new American Rescue Plan funnels nearly $130 billion into K-12 nationally to deal with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the inadequacies and structural funding problems that have plagued districts such as Rochester will remain.
“With all the progress that we’ve made, we know that it’s slowed,” said Shaun Nelms, who holds the title of the superintendent at East, which has an upper and lower school and serves grades 6 to 12. “Everything we’ve done in the last five years to build this academic plan, to build a sense of family to build staff, that preparation, has got us through these difficult obstacles. COVID was our opportunity to see if this model works.”
The precarious fate of East High School’s turnaround mirrors the fiscal pressures on many of the nation’s worst-performing schools.
These schools are scattered across urban, suburban, and rural settings alike. In many cases, they are filled with low-income students of color. And for the most part, they are heavily reliant on a volatile mix of sales and income tax revenue and, sometimes, philanthropic grants.
There’s no shortage of research-backed ideas on how to help them. But when, and if, administrators manage to craft, pay for, and jump-start a successful school turnaround model, the money often disappears before the staff can claim victory.
The widespread disruption of in-person schooling during the pandemic and the concurrent economic turmoil has made the situation even more precarious for these schools. They illustrate how America’s byzantine school finance system compounds, rather than assists, the nation’s fitful efforts to provide all students with an adequate and equitable education.
Despite districts collectively receiving billions of dollars in compensatory revenue from federal and state lawmakers though Title I and other programs, the nation’s worst-performing schools still struggle to financially break even with their better-performing counterparts, according to an Education Week analysis.
Using newly available public data compiled by Edunomics Lab, a research center based at Georgetown University, Education Week examined the 2018-19 school year spending amounts of almost 1,000 of the worst-performing schools in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and Wyoming, as identified by their state agencies under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
In four of the five states, more than a third of the worst-performing schools had less to spend on students than the average school in their state.
In the fifth state, Georgia, almost half of the worst-performing schools spent less on students than the average school in their state.
In other words, even though these schools serve students who are conclusively harder and more expensive to educate, they’re starting at an economic disadvantage.
“We’re not just throwing money at the project, we’re taking money and carefully placing it where it’ll produce a better life for kids.”
The cause of this upside-down pattern of spending is two-fold, experts say.
Federal and state governments are often not sending enough money to make up for districts’ anemic local property tax revenue. Local administrators also often use the extra money they receive for academic intervention programs at these low-performing schools to patch holes in their overall budgets.
Chronically low spending can result in high teacher and principal turnover, inefficient curriculum and insufficient wrap-around services.
This could help explain the mixed results from President Barack Obama’s initiative under the School Improvement Grant program to spend more than $7 billion on the nation’s worst-performing schools.
“Was it actually $7 billion extra, or was it filling in gaps caused by the recession?” asked Terra Wallin, EdTrust’s Associate Director for P-12 accountability and special projects, who helped the department design and execute its SIG program in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. “It’s wrong to suggest that there was no return on investment.”