Federal education reforms backfired, undermining public support for some schools

By Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu, and Zachary Peskowitz

The forthcoming article “Performance Federalism and Local Democracy: Theory and Evidence from School Tax Referenda” is summarized by the authors here:

In 2001, lawmakers overhauled federal education policy with the goal of improving public education and, in particular, closing the achievement gap between student subgroups. But, as we show in our new study, their efforts may have backfired — undermining public support for a large number of local schools instead.

The study examines the impact of the widely publicized “report cards” used to rank local schools, as required by the law, and indicates that these report cards made it harder for school districts that serve a large number of poor and minority students to raise money through local tax levies.

The findings are particularly timely and important, as federal lawmakers work to rewrite and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Congress is expected to vote on a new version of the law in the coming months.

The results should serve as a cautionary tale to lawmakers, providing an example of how well-meaning reforms can produce unintended consequences and potentially exacerbate the very problems they are designed to fix. In 2001, federal lawmakers wanted to improve public education by increasing transparency and holding schools accountable. But the way they wrote parts of the law may have actually had the opposite effect.

At issue is a measure called “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) put in place by the No Child Left Behind Act. The metric assesses how well public schools are doing in ensuring that all students are proficient in math and English. Since the early 2000s, most states have included the AYP measure on their annual report cards. Schools that failed to make AYP for multiple years faced sanctions and were required to inform parents of their status and to allow their students to transfer to other schools.

In our study, we examined all local school tax levies that appeared on the ballot in Ohio when the law’s reporting requirement was in place. We find that school districts’ AYP status significantly affected their ability to raise local tax revenues. Districts that failed to make AYP in any given year were 10 percent less likely to successfully pass a local levy.

The problem is that the federal AYP calculation does not account for significant differences in knowledge between students before they ever set foot in a classroom. Over the years, education researchers have found that poor and minority students begin school well behind their peers. Even if such students had effective teachers and attended excellent schools, perhaps learning more during the year than their wealthy peers, they often failed to reach the AYP performance benchmark.

In Ohio, we found that 70 percent of school districts deemed to be “failing” by the federal government were actually average or above average, in terms of how much their students were learning in the classroom. Their students were making significant gains, but not enough to receive a favorable AYP designation, and these districts suffered financially when it came time for voters to pass tax levies. It seems parents and voters took account of the federal designation but did not really appreciate its limitations.

The law is up for reauthorization in the current legislative session, and congressional leaders have signaled that they wish to retain the requirement that states publish report cards for local schools and districts, although they have indicated that they will allow states to replace the AYP designation with their own.  Our findings suggest that lawmakers need to exercise great care in designing these metrics, to ensure that they accurately capture differences in school quality. Poorly designed measures, like the AYP indicator, run the risk of erroneously eroding voter confidence in local school districts.

Vladimir Kogan and Zachary Peskowitz are assistant professors in The Ohio State University’s Department of Political Science. Stéphane Lavertu is an assistant professor at OSU’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

This article is part of the AJPS Virtual Issue:  Most Cited, 2015-16.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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