The Free-For-All Funding Fallacy
This past week, Ohioans heard a similar theme expressed by the State Board of Education Achievement Committee Chair, the State Superintendent, and the education bureaucracy groups: The state should get out of the business of dictating how districts spend state funds. The state should simply send funds to the districts, step back, and let districts do their “good” work. The state should step away from micro-managing superintendents who know best how to educate children. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But what happens when superintendents and treasurers (who increasingly seem to be calling the shots in districts) don’t know what they are doing with certain student subgroups? Or worse, what happens if they don’t have any problem reallocating funds for that subgroup for any other purpose with impunity? Unfortunately, this is just what we have experienced in the last four or five years with gifted children in Ohio. Without any protection from the state; without proper monitoring; and without any accountability, gifted children have not fared well under the free-for-fall all funding system. Since 2009, the gifted funding mechanism could not have been more flexible. It has been as bendable as Gumby. While adults in the education system at both the state and local levels have enjoyed spending gifted funds as they see fit, the impact on gifted children, by any measure, has been severe. While I can quote service declines (by over 30%) and gifted staff losses (by over 16%), for now, I’d like to focus exclusively on what has happened to gifted funding when districts were given maximum flexibility.
Ways Districts Have Spent Their Gifted Funds When Given Maximum Flexibility
Prior to 2009, districts received state funds for gifted identification and were required to account for the spending of those funds. They also received, upon request, limited funds that would support gifted coordinators and gifted intervention specialists. Those funds could not be used for anything else. From 2009 to the current budget year, districts that previously had received gifted unit funding and identification funding were allowed to spend those funds for unspecified gifted services under a maintenance of effort provision. Rather than actually spending gifted funding on gifted students, a good amount of this funding was diverted to other functions.
The most common ways to divert the funds was simply to implement a work-around sanctioned by the Ohio Department of Education. Funds previously spent of gifted professionals were now allowed to be spent on classroom teachers who had gifted students in their classroom. Each gifted student was provided a written education plan (WEP), but the classroom teachers, in many districts, had no background in gifted, no training, and provided no differentiation. It is a form of service I like to call “lip service.” This is apparently very common practice across Ohio, and it continues today. As one former gifted professional stated, “[D]istricts are claiming service due to the fact that the kids are cluster grouped in regular classrooms and the teachers then differentiate for them…..WRONG! With all the pressure to get the bottom kids through the test – the gifted kids are getting nothing. They are being served on paper only.” What is even more disturbing is that districts are supported by ODE in this deceptive practice. “[T]here is a spreadsheet that ODE has you use that figures out the percentage of students in a class that are identified times the percentage of the instructional day for the teacher times their salary to arrive at a dollar figure for each teacher who has a cluster.” I wonder where the sheet is that shows that classroom teachers are differentiating, getting training, or have support from gifted staff? For the record, research shows that differentiation in the general education classroom for gifted students takes place only sporadically even when training is provided.
Another way to skirt the maintenance of effort was to “shift” funding to Advanced Placement training for teachers in AP classes that are open to all students and may or may not have any gifted students in the classroom. Or they just wrote up a quick WEP for gifted student in AP class and diverted the funds to that teacher. This is a very common practice as indicated by this comment from an anonymous gifted professional whose dealings with ODE were less than ideal in terms of encouraging districts to meet the intent of the maintenance of effort law, “I was hoping they would suggest that the district return to the 3 full (gifted) positions…. Instead they provided suggestions on how the district could get around that by having me write WEPs for high school students in AP classes if in the area of identification or have me write WEPs for students taking PSEO classes in the area of identification.” It is a great out for the district treasurers and superintendents who gutted gifted elementary services and wanted to pretend they were still using the funds appropriately. But for the 120 or students in the elementary school who were to be supported by the gifted maintenance of effort funds, it represents a complete failure of leadership and fiduciary responsibility on the part of both district and state-wide education officials. While technically legal, it was not the intent of the law to merely provide the illusion of the same level of service when in fact services to elementary students were cut across the state.
While the above practices are most common, there were other diversions of gifted funding that are truly egregious. After a quick poll of individuals in districts who are aware of how these funds were spent, I have compiled a short, incomplete list of some of the more interesting ways that districts with maximum flexibility have spent their gifted funds. I saved my favorite for last:
1. EMIS coordination – Rationale: Some students are gifted; therefore any data entry should count as some data entry was for students who were gifted.
2. General Office Supplies – Rationale: Some of the supplies could potentially be used on gifted students.
3. Grant coordinators – Rationale: Some of those funds generated from grants might be used in classrooms where there are gifted students.
4. Filing cabinets – Rationale: Some files held information on students who were gifted.
5. Gifted testing – This is usually legitimate, but gifted funds were also supposedly spent in districts where there was no evidence of gifted identification. A review of an ODE audit showed a district with EMIS records where 0 students were screened, assessed or identified in any category or grade level. Despite the clear neglect of the identification law, ODE did not propose any audit findings. ODE staff indicated the district was in compliance because they had a gifted identification plan on file, and ODE takes it on faith that is implemented even when presented with evidence that it is not.
6. “Computer Assisted Programs” – (e.g. Study Island, an OAA test prep program)
7. Video Cameras for Visual Performing Arts (VPA) identification – even though the district does not identify any students in VPA and doesn’t have a process for doing so.
8. New computer for the superintendent. The gifted coordinator was given the superintendent’s old computer, which subsequently crashed losing all gifted student data in the process….
9. Regular classroom teacher on leave of absence who happened to have a gifted license. The teacher was fired before returning to the classroom.
10. Gifted coordination services from a gifted coordinator who was deceased.
The result of giving districts gifted funding to districts with almost no strings has been an unmitigated disaster for gifted children. The less than stellar results of the gifted value-added subgroup substantiate the fact that free-for-all funding is poor public policy. State Board of Education members should fulfill their constitutional role to ensure that the state system of public education extends to all children including those who are gifted. The new draft operating standards as currently written will only exacerbate the problems we have already seen with flexible gifted spending at the district level. The new standards will make the problem worse as the definition of service will become so meaningless that anything will count. This will give districts a PR boost for perpetuating the fantasy that they are doing something more for gifted students when in fact they are doing nothing at all.
ODE is taking comments on the new gifted operating standards through the end of business on September 20th. Write ODE at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them you want spending and service accountability and true standards for the identification and service of gifted children. Specifically, tell them to reinstate minimum contact service time, staff ratios, and staff qualifications. For more information about the new draft standards, please go to www.oagc.com/?q=advocacyalert .