Georgetown’s Dr. Marguerite Roza on Federal ESSER Funds & the Fiscal Cliff

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The Learning Curve Marguerite Roza

[00:00:21] Albert Cheng: Well, hello, everybody. Hope you’re doing well. Welcome back to another episode of the Learning Curve podcast. I’m one of your cohosts this week, Albert Cheng from the University of Arkansas. And of course, cohosting with me is Alisha Searcy. Hey, Alisha, how’s it going this week?

[00:00:35] Alisha Searcy: Hey, Albert, how are you?

[00:00:37] Albert Cheng: Doing well, doing well. I hope you had a good holiday.

[00:00:40] Alisha Searcy: I am doing well. I had a great holiday. I spent a day in New York over the weekend, so that was fun seeing some theater and good art. Yeah, so life is good, and I hear things are pretty exciting on your end.

[00:00:53] Albert Cheng: Yeah, I brought my family into this podcast on occasion, but yeah, we are expecting a baby here anytime, so that’s the other exciting thing.

[00:01:01] Alisha Searcy: We can’t wait. We’re all on baby watch now.

[00:01:04] Albert Cheng: All right, great. Well, I guess that would be news, but why don’t we get to some education news like we always do. Alisha, I wanted to highlight this article that was featured in the 74 recently. It’s titled Building Bridges Across State Lines. is set to transform education in Connecticut.

[00:01:23] And this is a story about two groups, one in Connecticut, the Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity. And it’s a partnership that they’ve started with the Mind Trust, which is based in Indianapolis. So, you know, the two states really working together here or represented here. And the Mine Trust, first of all, is a group that’s done a lot of work in developing and growing the charter sector in Indiana.

[00:01:47] And it looks like they’re going to be partnering with Leeds, that group in Connecticut, to help develop the charter sector there. And boy, I can certainly cheer on this effort. I hope you know, friends in Connecticut. We’ll be able to lean into the work that MindTrust has done. You know, reading the article really reminded me of a time years ago, actually, I was before the State Board of Connecticut talking about charter schools and it was actually the meeting where they were going to vote whether to enrollment caps to let more folks get into charter schools.

[00:02:19] And the demand there is certainly high. Lots of folks from disadvantaged communities clamoring for seats at charter schools. Yeah. And unfortunately, you know, that day they voted against lifting the cap. And I think. I think not much has changed since then, so hope this effort can expand educational opportunity for students in Connecticut.

[00:02:36] Alisha Searcy: Absolutely. I’m so glad you said that. As you all know, I work for Democrats for Education Reform, and we have a state chapter in Connecticut. And that’s one of the things that has come up recently that Massachusetts, Connecticut, a few other states, New York, I think, have these charter caps. And I don’t quite understand, other than the politics behind it, I don’t understand the policy piece, to your point, right, when you have literally thousands of parents on waiting lists in different parts of the country waiting to have this option in the public school system for their children.

[00:03:09] And so to your point, I think this partnership with MindTrust is a great one. They do great work and hopefully that means that there are some political work that will also go with it that will lift this cap and ultimately create more opportunities for kids within the public school system.

[00:03:25] Albert Cheng: Yeah, let’s hope so, and let’s keep an eye on it and see how it develops. Well, what have you seen in the news recently, Alisha?

[00:03:33] Alisha Searcy: So, a lot of really interesting articles that I’ve come across, but one that really piqued my attention is entitled, Is College Worth It? A poll finds that only 36 percent of Americans have confidence in higher education. And that was a little bit mind blowing for me to know that I’m a first-generation college graduate and in my family.

[00:03:56] Was then and still the case, you know, college is a no brainer, like you have to go because we understand the opportunities that are available, you know, with that degree. And so, it’s surprising when you read in the story that a lot of people in the U.S. believe that the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction.

[00:04:15] Overall, only 36 percent of adults say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education, according to this report released on Monday by the Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. And it’s declined from 57 percent in 2015. And so, the reasons for this are citing declining enrollment, the effects of the student debt crisis.

[00:04:40] And of course, political debates, which I won’t spend a lot of time on, but I do find that to be interesting that these political debates around how to teach race or other types of topics, I wonder if what’s happening in the Middle East also has an impact on that. And so, we don’t really think of, I hadn’t thought about this before.

[00:05:00] Reading this article that politics and what’s happening in the country has had so much of an effect on how people feel about higher education. And what’s also interesting to me, Albert, is When you look at the numbers, when it comes to historically Black colleges and universities, enrollment in HBCUs is actually going up.

[00:05:20] Oh, wow. In a number of schools, I think Howard University, it was, had the highest enrollment they’ve ever had in history. I went to Spelman. Always high enrollment. And so I think this is an interesting conversation to begin to have because there’s also a breakdown among party lines where Republicans, according to this poll, probably have amongst the lowest opinions of the value of a college education.

[00:05:46] And so there’s a lot to unpack here. I’m hoping that this coverage on this topic continues. I definitely want to look more into this poll, get an understanding of. What’s happening here? And just overall, I think even those in higher education should pay close attention to this because whether you’re a public or a private institution, you have a product that you need to sell.

[00:06:07] And when you talk about a less educated citizenry because they’re not going to college, what does that mean for our democracy? What does it mean for wages and our economy? What does it mean for preparing people for the workforce? There are a lot of questions that I have here and a very interesting story indeed.

[00:06:26] Albert Cheng: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re absolutely right. The implications of this are really serious here. And look, I mean, aside from all the kind of economic arguments for it, just simply to have institutions that model how to be truth seekers and to challenge your own opinions and challenge the opinions of others, to be challenged, to think well. Those are just essential human activities. Right, and a part of your development.

[00:06:51] Alisha Searcy: Yeah.

[00:06:51] Albert Cheng: Yeah. Yeah, and we need institutions to model that. So our education institutions certainly have been places where that’s been modeled and to lose all that is, I think, would be a tragedy. So, here’s to hoping for a renewal somehow in higher education.

[00:07:07] Alisha Searcy: Yes. Cheers to that.

[00:07:09] Albert Cheng: Speaking of education, higher ed, we’re going to shift gears and talk about K-12 ed in particular school finance. Coming up after the break, we’re going to have Marguerite Roza of the Edunomics Lab.

[00:07:20] Alisha Searcy: I’m going to fan out before she comes on. Okay. I’m a huge fan of Marguerite. I went through the Edunomics course that she offers and she’s so brilliant. So our listeners are in for a real treat.

[00:07:33] Albert Cheng: All right. So, well, if you’re not sticking around after that advertisement, you’re lost, I guess. So, stick around.

[00:07:49] Alisha Searcy: Dr. Marguerite Roza is a research professor at Georgetown University and director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions to inform policy and practice. She leads the McCourt School of Public Policy Certificate in Education Finance. Which equips participants with practical skills in strategic fiscal management, policy analysis, and leadership.

[00:08:15] Dr. Roza’s research traces the effects of fiscal policies at the federal, state, and district levels for their implications on resources at school and classroom levels. Her calculations of dollar implications and cost equivalent tradeoffs have prompted changes in education finance policy at all levels of the education system.

[00:08:35] She served as a senior economic advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy teaching thermodynamics at the Naval Nuclear Power School. Rosa is an author of the highly regarded education finance book, Educational Economics. Where do school funds go? She earned a PhD in education from the University of Washington and a BS from Duke University and studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Amsterdam.

[00:09:06] Marguerite, thank you and welcome to the show. We’re very happy to have you. How are you today? I’m fine. Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here. Excellent. Excellent. So, let’s jump right in. Established in 2012, the Edunomics Lab is a Georgetown University research center dedicated to exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions to inform policy and practice. The center is nationally recognized as a leader in the field of education finance. So, can you share more with us about the lab’s work?

[00:09:38] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Sure. So, we think of ourselves as doing three main functions. So, we’re obviously at a university, and so we have that kind of university lens, but a big chunk of our work is like a lot of research centers at universities.

[00:09:52] It’s research, analysis, policy, that kind of bringing together those ideas, investigations, et cetera. Another big chunk that’s developed over time is that edunomics lab produces. Real time data sets that turns out are really needed for people to go out and make decisions. So, we have real time data on how much is spent, but for each school in the country, we had a lot of real time data on staffing and enrollment trends, a lot of real time data on federal ESSER expenditures.

[00:10:25] So, we are somehow producing all these real time data sets and data tools. People can look at the ROI on their individual school or district and how it compares to others. And then, our last the next big chunk of work is training. And by that, I mean we run the Certificate in Education Finance program all across the country.

[00:10:46] We, it’s two days in person followed by some, a handful of virtual sessions. We have a cohort in DC in September, we have a cohort in Seattle in September, and we generally run that twice a year and we do other kinds of trainings as well. All on education finance, all of them, like heavily on. The spending side of the equation too, just we cover revenues, but a lot of other groups cover revenues. What we cover that most other groups don’t cover is a lot of the decisions around the spending side.

[00:11:17] Alisha Searcy: Yes, and I can attest that those are some phenomenal tools that people should definitely access. So, your excellent work, as you mentioned, Chronicling School Finance, has outlined three basic phases of how American K 12 education has been funded over the last 40 years. Can you summarize for our listeners these phases and their implications for educational equity and overall academic student achievement?

[00:11:44] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Years and years ago, if you think like 40 years ago, education, the schools were funded pretty heavily based on local revenues, which of course are very uneven. So, what you ended up with is really uneven investments in schooling across regions and cities and towns and states and so on and that’s where we had books written, a famous one called Savage Inequalities where kids could go to a school and have 40 plus kids in a classroom and another one could have fancy facilities and small class sizes and well-paid teachers.

[00:12:16] So it was so uneven and that first the first phase of education finance that followed that was really about leveling up what we call states getting involved in education, adding more money to this to make sure that there was a fair amount of funds across school districts, even if a school district didn’t have access to a lot of local money.

[00:12:34] So the state money grew. Then, I think there was generally not happy with the outcomes. We saw a next phase that was very inputs focused, that every school ought to have a counselor and art class and a class size of no greater than fill in the blank. So, there was very much this idea that every school ought to have a certain mix of inputs.

[00:12:59] And that’s what we call like inputs-based finance. Adequacy is another phrase of that. So, there’s a rush to kind of add these inputs and aid in certain classrooms and so on. And then I think despite that fairly sizable investment, we didn’t see as much of an improvement in outcomes as we’d hoped. And now this, the next phase that followed was in part because some of these inputs didn’t actually deliver as much return for students as we hoped.

[00:13:28] And now there’s this search for how do we get more from the dollar? What is it about some schools that make them so much more effective than others with similar students? Even other ones that offer the same mix of inputs. So it turns out inputs. I just didn’t explain as much of the variation as we hoped.

[00:13:49] So now I think this next phase is this curiosity about what is the secret sauce and how can we do it? And obviously the secret sauce is a lot about unlocking the humanness in some schools that is responsible for so much of the progress. And how do we unlock that in the rest of the schools? Is that being more decentralized, more flexibility, more accountability? What is that other feature that needs to be in place?

[00:14:14] Alisha Searcy: Such an important question, and I’m guessing the answer is not spend more money, because your research and those of others have revealed that only about half of K 12 education dollars spent annually in America end up reaching actual student instruction.

[00:14:31] So can you talk about this education bureaucracy, if you will, and non-instructional staffing at the federal, state, and local levels that appear to be the largest growing parts of education and what the implications are for student achievement.

[00:14:47] Dr. Marguerite Roza: This kind of gets back to this question about does money matter? And rounds and rounds and rounds of research has said the relationship was relatively lackluster. That there is a relationship that more money matters. See some improvement in some outcomes, but not as much as anybody I think would hope at the end of every one of those research studies, it says, but if money were spent better, or in some places, we can unlock even more improvement.

[00:15:14] So, I think the goal here is to maximize what we are getting in return for the dollar. So, if you want to spend more, spend more, but make sure you’re actually delivering, more value for students, so check and make sure that investment is paying off, I guess, in a way. And 1 of the questions is, well, then how do we make sure it pays off?

[00:15:33] And actually, the, the investment on the front end, you know, it’s not necessarily the case that instruction. is the silver bullet. We don’t really necessarily know because two schools will spend, you know, the same on instruction and one will get better outcomes than the other. Or two schools will spend the same on instruction and the same on all these other staffing positions and one will get much better outcomes than the other.

[00:15:57] So what we need to do is figure out whatever we’re going to invest in, are we convinced it’s going to deliver value? Have we measured whether it’s delivering value? Are we seeing the math and scores? Go up, or are they flat, or are they continuing to decline? And that, I think, is the bigger question. It’s like, how do we impose that continuous improvement mindset to make sure that whatever your investment is, whether it’s lean or generous, whatever you’re doing, that it is actually delivering value for students, that you know what you’re doing. That you’re seeing that student outcomes are increasing as a result of it. I think that’s the bigger challenge now.

[00:16:37] Alisha Searcy: So, let me ask you further, when we talk about how much money is spent in American K-12 education, we’re talking about an 800 billion Annual enterprise, 90 percent of which is funded by state and local government.

[00:16:53] Can you talk about how economists see the productivity of these massive expenditures, especially compared to the education spending of academically higher performing countries?

[00:17:05] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Those are always tricky comparisons because the student populations are kind of different. You know, the, the country’s appetite for education and commitment to education and doing homework and going to school every day can all really vary.

[00:17:17] But what we do have in our country is a great place to examine that across states because states are really on their own. Like you said, education is not run from the federal government. It is run by states and local governments. And we just recently completed this project. We did a 30-minute webinar on it.

[00:17:34] Where we looked state by state at what’s happened to their investment in public education and what’s happened to their scores over the last couple of decades. And in some states like Mississippi and North Carolina and Tennessee, you see modest increases in investment. Accompanying with increases in outcomes in other states like Virginia and Washington State and a few others, even as the states have increased their investment in public education, the scores have declined.

[00:18:12] And in that sense, you can see, wow, states really matter here that what state the school is in really affects this relationship between. So, more money doesn’t necessarily deliver more outcomes. In some districts it does, in some districts it doesn’t, and in some states the relationship appears to be stronger than in others. So, I think that’s where we can really think about this relationship from that kind of economic ROI perspective. and potentially learn from each other.

[00:18:47] Alisha Searcy: Gotcha. Thank you for that. So, I want to talk about some of the investments or expenditures that we’ve seen at the federal level in K-12, such as Race to the Top, several rounds now of the COVID relief and ESSER funding. Can you talk about the strengths and weaknesses of federal K-12 spending, accountability, and policymaking?

[00:19:09] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Sure. So, when we look nationally, Over the last few decades, what you see is the whole time, just larger investment, year over year, all told from state, local, and federal money, with some flattening in that last big recession, but generally speaking, we’ve added more money, even after inflation.

[00:19:31] But what we saw during No Child Left Behind was at least the scores were going up during that time. And the scores even continued to go up during the recession when the resources kind of flattened. But what we have seen since is that the ESSA law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was where the federal government really backed off of that federal accountability, that focus that, you know, we were going to get all students up to grade level, that we were going to identify low performing schools, take action with them, this kind of higher stakes accountability.

[00:20:09] Once the federal government backed off of that accountability A bunch of states backed off too. So, what they essentially did was they sent it back to the states and said, you make your own accountability stuff. And some states said, thank goodness, we’ll barely do anything. And other ones said, you know what?

[00:20:25] We’re going to keep working to try to get better outcomes. And that is where states really start to diverge. Some states scores start to drop really quickly. Other states, you see them still continuing to work on it and still even improving over time. Obviously COVID hit and everybody’s scores went down a little bit, but some states, I mentioned a few before, like Mississippi, et cetera, their scores turned around and started popping back up right away, whereas in others, even after all this federal investment in ESSER, their scores are continuing to fall.

[00:20:59] So one of our lessons is that with the federal government, and it can’t just be money. It’s got to be money and some expectation for something in return. So ESSER was essentially just money. Here, have your money. You know, they really didn’t ask for anything in return. Didn’t ask that you focus on math scores. Didn’t ask that you get kids who are reading, you know, weren’t reading up to grade level. And some districts chose to focus on those things anyway. And some districts did not. Some states chose to focus on those, and some did not. So, in some ways, we’ve missed this opportunity to pair the federal dollar with an ask for something concrete in return. And that actually just ended up fueling a lot of confusion. But the federal government has really backed off its accountability role, and it shows in those scores that now some of the states have taken up the flag, and other ones have not.

[00:21:54] Alisha Searcy: Wow, that’s really interesting. I want to turn this over to Albert. And one of the things before I do that, if you could share a website, we talked about tools a few minutes ago and the incredible resources that you have at the lab. How can people find those resources or access them for their own districts?

[00:22:13] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Edunomics lab. So edunomics is a made-up word. It’s education and economics. So it’s E D U N O M I C S. So edunomics. lab. org. In the upper right corner, there’s a little menu and one of the options is data tools. And if you look there, you can basically see a scatterplot where every single school in your state, how much they spend is compared with the outcomes they get. And you can filter it saying, I only want to look at high poverty schools.

[00:22:45] I only want to look at wealthy schools. I only want to look at small schools or large schools, et cetera, and see how your school compares on that basic ROI. There are data tools around ESSER data, how much money is left in every district. You can find staffing tools, staffing versus enrollment tools to see if staffing has grown in your district faster than enrollment, for instance, etc. Those are all available, and we use them all in our certificate program, which I mentioned earlier. Yes, thank you very much. Sure.

[00:23:16] Albert Cheng: Well, Marguerite, I just want to, first of all, express my gratefulness to you for you giving us your time, but I want to pick up on the last question, talking about ESSER. You’ve been highlighting the wide variation in what states are doing with those funds and just school spending in general.

[00:23:32] Well, back in 2023, Pioneer released a paper, and I’ll read a line from it. It says, quote, with the deadline for spending 2.9 billion, billion in federal pandemic relief funds, now less than a year away, it’s difficult to know exactly how Massachusetts school districts are spending the money and what impact those expenditures are having on students.

[00:23:53] So it’s difficult to know how schools are spending the funds, but could you just talk to us about what have you found based on your research? How has the, the Bay State, Massachusetts and some other key states, how have they been using their ESSER fundings and, you know, are there. Particular implications for accountability here.

[00:24:10] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Yeah, I think we’ve looked pretty closely at Massachusetts, and one thing I’ll just say That Massachusetts has added some money into schools at the same time the federal government was adding its ESSER relief funds. The ESSER relief funds ran out this September, and the largest, highest poverty districts got the most of that, sometimes as much as 4,000 per pupil or more. And one of the things we can absolutely see is that there was a lot of hiring. going on. So, districts hired a lot of new people. There’s a lot of movements. They lost some people, but the net was that there were a lot more people in schools now than there were four or five years ago. By people, I mean adults that work in the, in the school district.

[00:24:54] So we see a lot more Hiring of people, some of that is teachers, a lot of that is, also, there’s some of that is aides, some of it is other specialty positions like reading coaches and counselors, some are administrators, so that has been one investment for sure. And that staffing has climbed in Massachusetts, even while enrollment is contracting, and so that’s going to be hard to maintain when the federal relief funds go away.

[00:25:20] It certainly will come as a pressure. potentially against more pay raises. So, if you have more staff, that comes out of the money that you have available to make more pay raises. The data that we have on Massachusetts really only goes through spring of 2023 in terms of achievement. And I’m not sure if Massachusetts has released its spring scores yet or not, but I have not seen them yet. And what we saw was that math They all took a tumble during COVID and actually the math scores had been really falling for about a decade but took a steeper tumble during COVID relief and have ever so slightly seen an uptick since 22 to 23. So, there’s some modest improvement there. They’re at least not falling anymore for sure, but there is a modest uptick there.

[00:26:06] And for reading, the story is that the scores started falling in 2017. They had been. climbing earlier in the, in the last decade, and they started falling, they fell further in the pandemic, and then have mostly ish flattened out, maybe a little bit of a nudge up since these more recent investments have been in place.

[00:26:28] Now we don’t yet know what’s going to happen for the 23 24 school year, but there are a lot more adults in the schools now than there were, I think, at any time. in the past. So, we’ll be looking to see if those scores kind of nudge up some of those outcomes. I think especially in math where the scores have been falling for such a long period of time.

[00:26:49] Albert Cheng: Right. Well, speaking of adults, political scientists looking at this is going to say, well, look, school districts are being completely irrational here. There’s definitely an interest in offering jobs. Um, you know, and that’s one of the narratives we hear every time we talk about school finance. People might point to major urban school districts, D.C., New York. You know, Boston spending 000 per pupil, despite, you know, some of the lackluster outcomes you’re talking about. So, you know, folks’ kind of then make the allegation that, hey, look, these school systems, they’re being completely irrational here. They’re essentially large employment systems. And I won’t make you comment on that claim, but could you just talk to us about the politics of all this and how this all kind of influences how, what we do policy wise?

[00:27:33] Dr. Marguerite Roza: One of the things is that school districts are human, you know, the labor-intensive industries, and historically they’ve made commitments to employees that they continue that commitment until the employee chooses to leave or retire. And so, there’s this sense that once I have a job, I can keep it if I’d like.

[00:27:50] And then the employee groups, labor unions, you know, have grown in their power and actually can affect local school board elections, et cetera. So sometimes when the labor unions are negotiating, they’re negotiating with somebody who’s friendly to the labor unions on the other side of the table. And what you get is a very labor union friendly agreement.

[00:28:09] that may or may not be super friendly for kids. The language is always like, this is what’s best for, what’s best for teachers is best for kids. But if we have rules in place that are preventing us from promoting and expanding the responsibilities of our most effective teachers and potentially keeping some of our least effective or limiting the number of days of school or services that kids get, then, you know, those things can come into.

[00:28:34] Tension. I think that districts make these commitments to their employees, and in some ways, that’s good, because they’re such an important part of the community. They’re such an important part of the learning equation, but at the same time, when the outcomes aren’t there, I think it’s probably time to take some fresh eyes to those agreements and say, well, what.

[00:28:53] What isn’t working? Is there something in the labor agreement that needs to change? But together, we’ve got to solve these problems for the kids because they are really the reason for why school districts are there. I will pause and say that the bigger the district, the more stakeholders, the more preferences will come in and sort of weigh in on the priorities of the district.

[00:29:13] This is happening in a lot of places right now. Districts are potentially facing school closures. And community members who don’t have kids and live across the street from a school will come in and fight to keep the school open. And they’ll say it’s part of our community. It defines our landscape. I went there years ago, you know, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:29:32] I was on the whatever county wide team, and we won or whatever it is. And so, you have a lot of these different views of what the schools do and those kind of weigh in and muddle sometimes that singular focus on advancing what’s best for kids. Some people will come in with their sports focus. Some people will come in with, you know, obviously the employment focus.

[00:29:53] Some will say all the kids need to. Learn X, Y, Z about certain elements of history or what have you and the essential focus on sort of building math fluency and reading proficiency and stuff is just, just part of a longer and longer and longer list. We have social, emotional learning right now. That’s, that’s also become a priority.

[00:30:14] And I think all of those things sometimes. Make it hard for these large systems to focus on outcomes. It’s not the case, generally, that the largest systems are the worst, though. And some of them are delivering some really good services for kids with disabilities and, and sometimes delivering better reading scores.

[00:30:31] But I would not say that Massachusetts is really different from other places. I noticed that last week that in California, there’s a provision that if the state Doesn’t grow the resources for school districts by more than 2 percent that they keep the window open to laying off staff and the governor.

[00:30:47] Signed a provision saying, nope, districts are not allowed to lay off staff. And those kinds of things do send this message that the employees are the beneficiaries of the system, not, not the kids. And that is different than in many other industries, you know, Amazon wakes up and, and we’ll make decisions about what’s best for the business and think about labor later after it’s laid off 10,000 people or something, and then go on to the next meeting. And that’s just generally not how it’s been in these. communities. And so, and for some of that, maybe for good reason, because it’s labor that plays such a big role in this industry, but it does get money.

[00:31:25] Albert Cheng: Well, you know, we could go on and on and talk about the political economy of our schools for a while, but let’s shift gears a little bit. I want to talk about private school choice. I mean, just the expansion of that. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of been numerous states now that have established or expanded private school choice programs, whether they’re tax credit scholarships or education savings accounts. And then most recently, we’ve seen some states establish universal education savings accounts programs. So, just give us your thoughts on these programs, in particular about how we should be thinking about School funding in connection with these programs, you know, what are the implications for the taxpayer? Are there implications for accountability policy? So how should we think about these?

[00:32:09] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Well, I think nationwide we’re seeing enrollment declines just because birth rates are down because young people are not having kids at the same rate my generation did, and shame on the young people for that anyway, but I would say that where enrollment declines are faster, there’s more. Sort of inherent pushback against choice models because they’re saying we’re losing kids already and now you’re going to open up competing programs that’s the decline enrollment is too fast for the system sort of date or at least invite more pushback.

[00:32:38] Dr. Marguerite Roza: So, you’re seeing Florida in Arizona. Tennessee, some of these states like really entertain these models where enrollment is are still growing, actually, or at least more stable. And there, what you’re saying is there’s a continuity in the, in the legislatures that say, you know, parents, ought to have more say.

[00:32:56] And some of this is backlash, I think, because schools were closed a long time in some areas, or the schools didn’t treat COVID the way a family might want it to one way or the other. And so that gave more rise to homeschooling and other sort of choice models generally. and now. There’s this idea of putting some more money behind that and empowering parents to go to private school or run a home school or a micro school or what have you.

[00:33:22] And I think that in many of these places, the accountability is not figured out yet. So, on the one hand, you could say, well, if you take the state money, you want to take the state test. Many of these micro schools, homeschooling, don’t want to take the state test. So, there’s some pushback on that. Then they say, fine, then we’ll give you the money, but we want to manage, we want to look at how the money is spent.

[00:33:44] And what do you mean you bought tickets to Disney World? Or what do you mean you bought a kayak or whatever? And that’s causing all sorts of tensions there. Like, well, hey, the school district took the kids on a field trip. So why can’t I take my kids on a field trip? So anyway, I think the story around accountability is not finished. I imagine that the next few years are going to have a lot more back and forth and dialogue on what’s expected in return for these public dollars in the states. I think in states like Wisconsin, that do have a bit of a history of a voucher program, Expanding these kinds of things is going to get more pushback from both sides of the aisle because enrollments are dropping already and people like to have their small town neighborhood school and the idea that more and more kids could opt out and take their money somewhere else I think is going to create a natural resistance in places like that. So I, I think, you know, this will be a state by state play right now on what’s going on with the ESAs. And the vouchers.

[00:34:43] Albert Cheng: Yeah. Well, lots of exciting things to look ahead to and see um, how they unfold. But until then, let me give you the last word here, and you’ve talked at length about just how school funding works, the relationship between outcomes. So for your last word, what would you like to see lawmakers and policy makers, policy wonks too, just to really improve education?

[00:35:05] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Well, I think we normally think that the biggest decision is how much money to spend and. How much goes to each district? I think the really big decisions are how to spend that money.

[00:35:16] And if you, if, you know, you’re saying who decides how to spend that money? The technical answer is that local school boards do. They are the ones that spend it. Obviously, they hire a superintendent who hires a CFO. The superintendent and CFO come up with a budget, the board gives feedback on it, and ultimately spending decisions are made.

[00:35:35] Almost always, they just roll over the prior year’s decisions year after year after year. In fact, they make their decision on the budget before they even get the current year’s test scores back. So, the whole thing is out of sequence. So, if I thought the most interesting area of policy for the next few years would be if states upset that district budgeting process.

[00:35:56] And they could do it in a couple ways. They could require some training for all these people. Hey, I’m going to give you several hundred million dollars in some cases, and I’m not going to ask that you even had a course in being able to read a financial document, right? And many superintendents, you know, haven’t experienced it.

[00:36:12] You know, this kind of training is why we launched all this training. So, to get people up to speed on this job. And then. You know, maybe upset the timelines, like you have to look at your test scores before you approve the budget for the next year, and if something comes up in the test scores that isn’t what you expected, perhaps you should change your budget, and really outline what in the budget is there for the next year.

[00:36:31] To solve some of these year after year after year problems that will be in student performance. So, I think there’s opportunity for states not to prescribe how districts spend their money, but to really upset and reshape that decision making by requiring training. Changing the schedule for these things, requiring labor contracts get reopened, if student progress didn’t improve, so make sure that everybody is really incented to get that improvement for kids, and plenty of other opportunities there, but the spending side is really I think we’re the interesting step away.

[00:37:05] Albert Cheng: Well, I’m certainly intrigued by the idea and would love to see some states take that up to see what would happen with that. I think there’s definitely some plausibility to that being a good idea. Well, Marguerite, thanks for being on the show. Really appreciate your time.

[00:37:21] Dr. Marguerite Roza: Yeah, nice talking to you all. You too. Thanks for all you do.

[00:37:37] Albert Cheng: Well, Alisha, it sounds like you really enjoyed that interview. I know you were really partial towards her, but hey, she’s one of the experts on school finance these days. So, kudos to her.

[00:37:48] Alisha Searcy: Definitely went to school again. She’s great.

[00:37:50] Albert Cheng: All right. Well, that’s going to bring us to the end of our show. Before we conclude though, first we have the tweet of the week, and this one comes from our friend Robin Lake. Think Forward AI and Educational Assessments, and it’s actually an article that she’s posted in her substack about the use of AI, not just in educational assessment, but in education generally. I know AI is something we’ve been talking about from time to time in this show. I know lots of folks are talking about this issue, but check out some of her thoughts, including on the use of AI for assessing students, use of AI in teaching and learning. So, it’s a nice summary there. So, I want to. Point listeners to that Substack article.

[00:38:33] Alisha Searcy: It is, and in the age of banning cell phones, it seems, that’s a thing happening in school districts across the country. It’s nice to see an article about how we can embrace technology.

[00:38:43] Albert Cheng: Yep, indeed. So, speaking of technology, um, you should all tune in. Next week, we’re going to have Kai Bird, who’s the Pulitzer winning author of American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, on which the Oscar winning motion picture Oppenheimer was based. So yeah, another deep dive into life of a significant person in our history, but particularly with the technology that he developed and led. So be sure to tune in with us next week for that interview.

[00:39:14] Alisha Searcy: Indeed. See you next week.

[00:39:16] Albert Cheng: All right. Take care, Alisha. Till then.

[00:39:19] Alisha Searcy: You too, Albert.

This week on The Learning Curve co-hosts U-Arkansas Prof. Albert Cheng and DFER’s Alisha Searcy interview Dr. Marguerite Roza from the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Dr. Roza explores the complexities of education finance and its impact on American K-12 education. She outlines the three phases of school funding over the past 40 years and their effect on equity and student achievement. She highlights that only about half of the K-12 education dollars fund student instruction, with significant money absorbed by the ever-expanding education bureaucracy. Dr. Roza discusses massive federal expenditures, such as COVID relief funds, emphasizing the need for better accountability. She examines the challenges faced by urban school districts with high per-pupil spending but low graduation rates and proficiency levels. Additionally, she explores the rise of private school choice programs and their accountability measures.

Stories of the Week: Albert discussed an article from The 74 on higher-quality charter schools in Connecticut; Alisha reviewed an article from AP News sharing new survey results indicating only 36 percent of Americans have confidence in higher education.


Dr. Marguerite Roza is a Research Professor at Georgetown University and Director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions to inform policy and practice. She leads the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Certificate in Education Finance, which equips participants with practical skills in strategic fiscal management, policy analysis, and leadership. Dr. Roza’s research traces the effects of fiscal policies at the federal, state, and district levels for their implications on resources at school and classroom levels. Her calculations of dollar implications and cost equivalent tradeoffs have prompted changes in education finance policy at all levels of the education system. She served as a Senior Economic Advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy teaching thermodynamics at the Naval Nuclear Power School. Roza is author of the highly regarded education finance book, Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go? She earned a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Washington and a B.S. from Duke University, and studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Amsterdam.

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