Editor’s note: 1st of 2 parts. The 2nd part will appear one week from today.
Durham’s public schools often feature in the headlines and the editorials of our local papers. There’s a range of topics that we hear frequently, usually without dispute: charter schools, state politics, standardized testing, school board/county commissioners squabbles over funding.
Reasonable people come down on different sides of these issues. Still, all too often we seem to focus on these meta-conversations around our schools rather than asking perhaps a more important series of questions: are our schools performing as well as we can expect? Are we getting a reasonable level of assurance that DPS is spending money in ways that improve learning outcomes? Even given the number of students in charter schools and the district’s high poverty rate, how well does DPS do compared with districts relatively like it in size or demographics?
In terms of academic performance, the short answer isn’t comforting. If you’re white, the answer seems to be that you’ll do just fine – if you’re not, you’re literally at the bottom of the pack.
Compared to the state’s nine other largest school districts, DPS ranks ninth or 10th out of 10 in the state’s grade level proficiency scores by a range of demographics: Hispanic students, students with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, African-American students. (White students rank fourth.)
Of course, there are well-known biases and failings in standardized tests, and we share the general concern over testing regimes. Still, all of the state’s students take these tests, and we believe there is at least relative, comparative value in measuring performance across the districts.
Indeed, DPS actually lags the vast majority of state districts, ranking 93rd out of 115 districts on grade level proficiency. For Latino and economically disadvantaged students, that falls to 105th place for each subgroup. African-American student performance in DPS ranks 60th out of 115 districts. Again, white students excel, relatively speaking, with the eighth-highest proficiency rates in the state.
DPS actually lags the vast majority of state districts, ranking 93rd out of 115 districts on grade level proficiency.
Naturally, poverty and income inequality raise still another explanation or rationalization – pick your lens – on the data. Even here, however, Durham lags.
In 2014-15, 48 out of 115 districts had the same or greater levels of poverty as DPS. Against just that smaller comparison set, DPS rated 31st in grade level performance.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a similar demographic profile to DPS, including substantial legacies of poverty, racism, and unequal access to resources. Yet African-American and Latino students in the Charlotte schools performed far better than their DPS peers did.
There’s another comparison that’s worth looking at: how much does Durham spend on its public schools, relative to our peers?
DPS receives the fourth highest local funds in the state out of all 115 districts, surpassed only by Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Asheville, and Dare County schools. (These are the funds that county leaders, and by proxy the voters, have chosen to augment the state’s rather meager base allocation.)
Durham Public Schools’ local per-pupil expenditure is 250 percent of the state average, and far exceeds the levels in the other of the 10 largest districts – including a spending level twice as high as in two similarly-sized counties, Gaston and Cabarrus, that DPS leadership recently picked, with Johnston, for comparative purposes.
In total, DPS has between $80 million and $120 million more in resources than these three comparably-sized districts; more generous local-option funding makes up the significant majority of these additional funds.
Our local per-pupil expenditure is 250 percent of the state average, and the highest of the state’s 10 largest districts
Of course, DPS also sees a significant, eight-figure outflow to charter schools each year when students exit traditional schools.
Even after accounting for the per-pupil impact of charters and other government transfers, Durham still spends $2,415 per student more than the three peer counties under comparison.
On instructional services – including mainstream, special education, and alternative programs – DPS spends about $1,700 to $2,000 more than all the other districts.
At the same time, when it comes to “system-wide support services” – another way of saying central administration operations – Durham spends nearly 50 percent more per student than either Johnston or Gaston do, a more than $20 million difference.
Indeed, as we’ll talk about in a follow-up installment, the difference in what Durham spends for administrative costs versus Gaston or Johnston is greater than all of DPS’ lost revenue due to charters put together.
This is not to say Durham shouldn’t be proud to lead our other school districts in local spending. Arguably, we should be proud of our community’s desire to spend what it takes to provide a fair, equal education to all. (And as some have noted, given the state’s paucity of school funding, local dollars still struggle to bring spending to national averages.)
But the question for those who care about public education should be, are we spending money in the right ways to ensure students the best education possible?
Asking that question is not a prelude to suggesting that we spend less. Instead, it is an invitation to scrutiny: to ask if we’re getting our money’s worth and what our leaders have been doing in their oversight of the system.
Kevin Davis and Alex Modestou write for the Bull City Rising blog. This essay is adapted from a series that originally ran on the blog.