If At First You Don’t Succeed, Change the Subject

On Sunday, The Times-Dispatch published an op-ed in which Superintendent Kamras decried “institutional racism” and suggested that the first step to deal with it would be more money for divisions with higher poverty rates.  Such as Richmond, of course.

Kamras wrote:

According to the National Center on Education Statistics, Virginia’s highest poverty school divisions — which serve large percentages of children of color — receive 8.3 percent less in per-pupil funding than the state’s wealthiest districts. Put plainly: The students who should be getting more are actually getting less.

The estimable Jim Bacon pulled some data from the VDOE Web site to question that proposition.  The full dataset makes an even stronger case than the one Bacon argued.

The Superintendent’s Annual Report includes at Table 13 a list of division disbursements.  The latest data there are from 2017.  The VDOE Web site also sports a (very nice) database that provides “membership” data by race and by “disadvantage” (primarily free and reduced lunch numbers), inter alia.

Excel is happy to juxtapose the datasets on a graph.  Let’s start with economic disadvantage (“ED”).

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Note:  The disbursement data here are division totals, less spending for facilities, debt service, and contingency reserve.

The fitted line suggests that divisions with more ED students spend more per student ($244 for a 10% increase in ED enrollment) but the 2.3% R-squared value tells us the two variables are very weakly correlated.

In any case, there is no pattern here of deprivation of those divisions with large ED populations.  Quite the contrary, most of the Big Spenders are high poverty divisions. 

As well, we see Richmond, the gold square, spending lots of money.  Indeed, Richmond is the tenth biggest spender among the 132 divisions.

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We can argue about the reasons for the lousy performance of Richmond’s public schools, but lack of money is not a candidate.

Of course, Kamras was talking about race, not poverty.  There is no need here to accept his undocumented melding of those two factors; the VDOE database also has the division membership by race.

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Note: Bland and Highland are absent from this dataset, presumably because their black enrollments are small enough to trigger the suppression rules.

Again, the slope is in the wrong direction for the Kamras complaint ($275 increase per 10% increase in the black student population).  And this time the 7.7% R-squared value hints more strongly at a correlation.

The absence of Highland County from the list moves Richmond up to ninth place (of 130 divisions).

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Bottom line: The VDOE data contradict Kamras’ claim that divisions with more poor or more black students are under funded vis-à-vis the other divisions.

More fundamentally, Kamras’ jeremiad about funding overlooks the abundant data that show no relationship between division funding and SOL performance.  Money is not the problem in Richmond’s schools; lousy schools are the problem.

Looking at the study he cites, it appears that Kamras is complaining about the funds Virginia schools receive [Table 7] in an arbitrary grouping, not what each division spends.  Whatever that study may mean, it cannot contradict the Virginia data that show Richmond and other high-poverty (and high black student percentage) divisions spending about as much money as their more affluent peers.  And, for sure, those school systems can’t spend more than they receive.

Indeed, Kamras’ division is spending a lot of money and getting lousy results.  It would be helpful for our Superintendent to spend more energy improving the performance of his schools and less on misleading the public about the reason those schools are so awful.