A Pathetic Rebuttal – The John Locke Foundation’s Weak Attempt to Discredit the Quality Counts Education Report

In the days since Education Week released its yearly report, “Quality Counts 2018: Grading the States,” people at the John Locke Foundation have gone out of their way to debunk the report’s findings.

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This year, NC was ranked 40th down two spots from last year and down 21 spots since it peaked at 19th in 2011. And while people like John Hood, Dr. Terry Stoops, and Mitch Kokai have written and communicated arguments to try and weaken the power of the report, their arguments actually validate the effectiveness of the Education Week report and reveal a baseless attempt at damage control.

Why “damage control?” Because in attempting to debunk the report, what happened is that more light was shed on the gross “reforms” that have been at play in NC and have been championed by the John Locke Foundation – the same “reforms” that have brought North Carolina’s ranking down.

First came John Hood’s op-ed in the Carolina Journal entitled “State education rank isn’t low” (https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/state-education-rank-isnt-low/). It starts,

“If you recently read or heard about North Carolina ranking 40th in “education” and found that rank plausible, I thank you for keeping up with the news. If you saw that story and found North Carolina’s low ranking implausible, I thank you even more energetically for being both informed and duly skeptical.”

You are welcome, Mr. Hood.

Offered are many arguments which probably could use a little more fleshing out.

He says,

“For starters, the study does not appear to adjust properly, if at all, for state-by-state variations in buying power. When schools vie for the services of teachers, vendors, or construction companies, they are competing against other potential employers or buyers. To evaluate the real expenditure, then, requires either adjusting measures such as per-pupil spending and teacher salaries for living costs or comparing against, say, the average pay of non-education jobs that prospective teachers might take in their respective jurisdictions.”

That whole “per-pupil expenditure” statement is a rather big subject, but if I hear him correctly, Hood is making a claim that NC has greater “buying power” than other states and that we should really pay attention to the salary averages of comparable occupations that would vie for potential teachers.

First, that “buying power.” If NC had such buying power, then it should start using it for things like textbooks, professional development, teacher assistants, and other vital resources.

Secondly, most potential teachers have college degrees. If Hood wants to argue that teaching in NC offers better pay and conditions than other comparable occupations, then he would need to explain why there is such a drop in teacher candidates in state schools. He would need to explain why the state needed SB599.

Hood then states,

“To put the matter more simply: personnel is the main expense for school districts. Living in Sanford is less expensive than living in San Francisco. If you don’t properly account for these kinds of disparities, any nationwide comparison of school spending is utterly useless.”

With that reasoning, then every rural district in NC that has such a hard time staffing its schools should start touting its “LOWER COST OF LIVING” aspect as part of its appeal. Some could argue that lower cost of living means cheaper property and cheaper goods. The taxes on those local commodities help to fund local schools and considering that the state is pushing more expenses to the local schools with more mandates, local school systems are having a harder time with getting the appropriate revenue.

Just ask any LEA about the class size mandate.

Then Hood says,

“With regard to educational outcomes, there are also challenges in constructing valid apples-to-apples comparisons. While policymakers, parents, and taxpayers certainly need to know the overall performance of our students, raw measures of test scores and graduation rates don’t necessarily speak to the educational value added by the schools themselves.”

Hood should say that to all of the lawmakers that he and his boss support.

And concerning the argument of NAEP scores from NC, it would be nice to know how charter schools or schools who use Opportunity Grant money score on that test since the John Locke Foundation is such a proponent of school choice and vouchers.

Hood might also want to explain why his viewpoint is so different from Bob Luebke’s op-ed two years ago posted on Civitas’s website: https://www.nccivitas.org/civitas-review/quality-counts-2016-nc-score-c/. Civitas and the John Locke Foundation are two faces of the same creature.

Luebke says for NC’s rank of 37th in 2016 (same criteria as 2017),

“Nevertheless QC represents one of the more accepted and longstanding attempts to get a handle on an elusive topic…North Carolina’s rank of 37th should raise concerns for obvious reasons….”

Interesting.

Not long after Hood’s missive, Mitch Kokai attempted to help stop the bleeding with “Misused statistic hurts N.C. in national school ranking.” Again, that was posted on Carolina Journal’s website: https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/misused-statistic-hurts-n-c-in-national-school-ranking/.

It begins,

“A recent national report dinged North Carolina for its lower-than-average “per-pupil expenditure.” At least one state lawmaker is likely to grumble openly about that result.

Per-pupil expenditure is one of the most common data points used to compare public education systems within states, across the nation, and even around the world.”

Kokai uses the per-pupil expenditure measurement as the foundation of his argument (PPE) because the Quality Counts report mentioned specifically that NC has a very low grade on school finance.

“Lloyd told the N&O that “what especially hurt” North Carolina in calculating that No. 45 ranking was its PPE numbers, as compiled from 2015 federal data. North Carolina spent an average of $9,217 per student, compared to a national average of $12,526. The “Quality Counts” report showed 2.5 percent of this state’s 115 school districts exceeded that national average.”

Interestingly, Kokai leans on Rep. Craig Horn’s explanation that PPE is not that important when it comes to the quality of education.

During a November 2017 task force meeting, Horn detailed his concerns about PPE’s usefulness. “Here in North Carolina we are, arguably, the fastest-growing state in the nation — certainly one of the fastest-growing states in the nation,” Horn told colleagues. “Therefore, we have a lot of kids coming in. We need a lot of teachers.”

“Teachers don’t generally start at the top or even in the middle of the pay scale,” he continued. “New teachers, of course, start at the bottom of the pay scale. If you have an increasing number of students and an increasing number of teachers at the lower end of the pay scale, per-pupil expenditure is going to be lower — which does not necessarily at all mean that the quality of their education [is lower] or that you’re not meeting the needs of the student.”

“As the teaching corps matures, the per-pupil expenditure — same number of students, same number of teachers — the PPE will go up,” Horn said. “I have a hard time, personally, using PPE as a benchmark of much of anything, quite frankly.”

I don’t have a hard time using PPE as a benchmark.

Horn then explains as Kokai recounts,

“Involved in PPE are the fixed costs of running your school,” he said. “Well, if a school is built to hold 1,000 students and holds 700, your PPE is X. Just do the math. If your student population happens to go up to 800 or 1,000, your fixed costs are the same. Your PPE has gone down. But nothing’s really changed with regard to quality.”

That’s where Horn is egregiously mistaken and Kokai uses that mistake in backing up his argument which is a mistake because he is trying to debunk a report that shows that all of the reforms Kokai and his cronies have championed have all been…mistakes.

PPE (at least from the state’s contribution) is mostly used for teacher salaries. The rest is used for resources like textbooks, transportation, and services.

  • Don’t more students require more teachers? And if according to Hood we need to look at the average salary of occupations for careers that might take away our potential teachers, should not salaries (for more need teachers) be going up quite steadily?
  • More students require more textbooks, right? They don’t get cheaper.
  • More students mean more services, correct? Like nurses. Maybe Horn could look at this – http://www.wral.com/study-need-for-school-nurses-growing-in-nc-could-cost-79m-a-year/17280561/.
  • Buses don’t get cheaper. Nor does having to buy more gas for more routes because we are growing as a state.
  • And that “fixed costs” part? More students mean more buildings that the local systems have to deal with. That means higher utility costs and upkeep.

Throw in a class-size mandate that Horn already says isn’t funded and you see how Horn’s PPE argument does not hold much weight.

Just like both Hood and Kokai’s arguments do not hold much weight.

Ironically, Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation said on January 18th in T. Keung Hui’s report on the QC report,

“The data used for the report are from 2015, so it does not include recent efforts by the North Carolina General Assembly to raise teacher compensation and support programs designed to raise student achievement. I suspect that these changes will improve our grade in future editions of Quality Counts” (http://amp.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article195365259.html).

So, to put all of this in perspective:

Hood says the report does not put into consideration NC’s “buying power” (that it chooses not to use) and lower costs of living for places that have a harder time staffing its schools.

And Kokai says that per-pupil expenditures are not a reliable measure because Rep. Horn said they were not.

However, Luebke said that the QC reports are one of the more accepted studies out there.

And yet, Stoops says that we should see better results because we have started raising PPE’s since 2015.

Now, that’s some truly porous damage control for a truly damaging report that shows the damage done to North Carolina’s schools, damage that really stared when McCrory came into office and brought in Art Pope as his first budget director.

The same Art Pope who funds both the John Locke Foundation and Civitas.

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