Saturday, February 28, 2009

Devil in the Details

The sheen is beginning to dull on the new education plan Governor Strickland put forward a month ago today.

On the front page of today's Columbus Dispatch was a story headlined "School plan may be short by $1 billion."

The point of the argument is – now this will surprise you – what number should be used for teacher salaries. The Dispatch says the Governor's evidence-based model uses $45,094 for the average teacher salary (before benefits), while apparently everyone else says it is more like $54,210. Seems to be a problem with the evidence.

The Ohio Department of Education publishes a number of statistics about school operations in its "Cupp Report" available on the ODOE website. One of those statistics is the average salary for each district. Statewide, the minimum average is $32,350 (Bettsville LSD, where my kid happens to live), the maximum average is $72,265 (Orange CSD in Cuyahoga County), and the median average is $48,393 (half the districts are lower, and half higher).

The critics of the Governor's number say he is using the average of the averages, which according to the data in the Cupp report is $49,265, not the $45,094 stated in the article. So I don't know where the Governor's number comes from, but using the average of a set of averages is poor statistical analysis.

The problem, as every third grader knows, is that you can't add two fractions with different denominators, and that's what these percentages are. If school district X has 200 teachers making an average of $40,000, and school district Y has 500 teachers making an average of $50,000, then you can't add $40,000 and $50,000, then divide by 2, and declare $45,000 to be the average salary for all 700 teachers.

The correct calculation is ((200x$40K)+(500*$50K))/700=$47,143. And this is the calculation error that 'everyone else' is apparently complaining about, according to the Dispatch article. It could be that there is some merit in their argument; when I do the appropriate calculation using the Cupp data, the true average comes out to $52,584.

The Governor has another twist in his numbers – he counted the salaries of charter school teachers in his average of averages as well. That's got to really annoy the teachers' union – the Ohio Education Association. They would prefer that charter schools not exist at all, and now to have the lower wages typically paid to charter school teachers pull down their average?!

At the end of the day, the Governor's new plan has the same limitations as the current system – the State doesn't have enough money to fully fund it. And it seems to me that the new plan has some philosophical problems as well, in that 24 of 50 poorest districts in the State would have a funding cut!

The politics will be interesting to watch. In this economic climate, the Governor isn't going to be able to just pull $1 billion more out of thin air. I suspect his greater worry is the rapidly eroding revenue base as more and more businesses contract and lay off workers. I wonder if the solution he and the General Assembly produces will satisfy all parties sufficiently to avoid another trip through the court system, arguing a different legal theory.

Of course, the parties that need to be satisfied are primarily the teachers union, who is fighting for increased pay and benefits at a time when a lot of us are glad to just have a job, and secondarily the administrators and school boards who have to figure out how to come up with the local portion of the funding burden.

Left out of that appears to be the taxpayer, to whom the question seems to be: "so which do you want to pay more of: state income tax or local property tax?"

I suspect the education community believes the answer should be 'yes' to both.


  1. What a colossal screw up. Something of this magnitude gives little credibility to any number presented by the Governor and his bean counters.

    To me, the correct response from the Governor is "we reviewed the discrepancy, we made a mistake, we will review and amend the plan accordingly. We have addressed the issue to mitigate such mistakes happening in the future."

    The feeling I got from the comments from the statehouse in the paper this morning is "we stand by our methodology".

    I am losing faith in a whole lot of established systems lately....

  2. As the article pointed out, even IF the governors "average" figures were correct, we still have a huge funding problem. His faulty math just exacerbates the situation. And another thing - his plan to add 20 days to the school year was not even figured into that, at least from what I saw. Since it is probable that the teachers are not going to work 10% more days without a bump in compensation, the average goes up again. I still call his entire plan an unfunded mandate, and I think it has little, if any, chance of success in any meaningful way.

  3. The "average of the averages" trick clumsily attempts cover up the real problem: inadequate funding. Turnip, where is thou blood! :-)

    It seems even a decent guy like Strickland can't have a simple plan but must resort to oddities like this 'average of averages plus charter schools' strangeness.

    The whole "phantom revenue" problem is likely a legacy of some previous governor who wanted to obfiscate taxes. Complexity is government's best friend. Well, that and the withholding tax.