Educators Urge State to Scrap ‘Flawed’ Performance Funding

Rockford Public Schools could lose $80,000 in the coming school year because of a supposed decline in academic achievement. Problem is, officials don’t know exactly what the decline is.

Because of a state funding category called Performance Based Bonus, Rockford would lose $10 per student under a budget recommendation put forth by Gov. Rick Snyder and the state House of Representatives. But Rockford officials say they don’t know how the state calculated the test scores behind the funding cut.

“It seems unfair, and we’re not even surehow they come up with the actual numbers,” said Michael Cuneo, assistant superintendent of finance. “If the governor’s proposal goes through, that’s $80,000 we’ll have to cut from somewhere else.”

Rockford is one of five districts in the Kent ISD that would lose money under the 2014-15 budget proposals that include performance-based funding. Others are Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Kelloggsville and Thornapple-Kellogg. The Senate recommendation does not include the bonus formula.

As lawmakers work toward approving a budget by mid-June, area school leaders are urging $46 million in performance-based funding be put instead into general per-pupil aid. That would mean an average of $32 more per student for local schools rather than gains or losses based on dubious achievement data, officials say.

“Our superintendents want something that is reasonable and consistent. They don’t feel the performance funding is either of those,” said Chris Glass, director of the West Michigan Talent Triangle, a consortium of the Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon ISDs.

An Incentive That Punishes High Performance

At issue is a funding formula approved in 2012 that rewards districts for gains in academic achievement from year to year. Each district is eligible to receive up to $100 per pupil. They may receive lesser amounts based on $30 each for elementary and middle school math and reading, and $40 for all subjects in high school. Districts also may get no funding or lose previous funding if their test scores decline from one year to the next.

Performance funding is just one piece of the budget battle as educators push for a net 3 percent increase in operational funding for schools. While Snyder has touted his proposed $332 million increase in K-12 funding as nearly 3 percent more, superintendents say it would amount to less than 1 percent once their retirement costs are factored in.

While five Kent ISD districts would lose funds under the governor’s performance-funding proposal, another five would see no change and 10 would see an increase. Despite that, superintendents consider it a “flawed policy,” Glass said.

“Just because they can win this year doesn’t mean they won’t lose the next year,” Glass said, adding that funding allocated to general per-pupil aid is more stable. “Stability brings certainty, which allows them to make the necessary investments to meet their students’ needs.”

Performance funding penalizes districts whose high test scores give them little room for improvement, Glass said. It also leads to wild revenue swings from one year to the next. For instance, Zeeland Public Schools got the maximum $100 per student last year but would receive none this year – a $560,000 loss.

“Where districts are seeing these huge swings, it’s doing more financial harm than it is academic good,” Glass said.

Stable Funding Allows Targeted Investments

The unpredictability of the performance dollars also makes it impossible for districts to plan long-term programming, added Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent for Kent ISD. While officials aren’t saying incentives are a bad thing, this model “doesn’t really accomplish the goal that the legislature intended,” Koehler said.

“If we have a goal of increasing third-grade reading performance, a reliable stream of money with which to hire literacy coaches or mentors would be far more productive than what they have in place,” Koehler said.

Officials also take issue with using MEAP test scores as a measure of student progress, arguing they were designed to measure proficiency not growth. Glass also said the 2012 scores used for the proposed budget are “incredibly dated,” and that the state can’t accurately gauge student performance while it is moving to new tests under the Common Core State Standards.

In Rockford, officials have asked for more details on how the achievement data are calculated but to no avail, Cuneo said. Michigan Department of Education materials say they are based on a “performance-level change metric” that gives greater growth points for students who are further behind.

Rockford could work toward improvements if it knew more about the data, Cuneo said. As it is, the district would have to cut back on classroom support if the performance bonus is approved, he said — an $80,000 loss equates to a full-time teacher.

In total, the governor’s current proposal would mean about a $600,000 deficit in operating funds for Rockford schools, Cuneo said. However, the district would break even if an alternative proposal were adopted to put funds for special programs into the general per-student allowance, he said.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Cuneo said of the alternative. “It allows more flexibility for the district to adjust directly to the needs of the students.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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