From Dallas Morning News:
Nine area school districts received a five-star rating from the Texas comptroller’s office Wednesday based on a complex new system that looks at bothTAKS score improvement and expenditures.
Garland was the largest area district awarded the highest rating, followed by Irving, Mesquite, Frisco, McKinney, Keller, Sunnyvale, Cedar Hill and Anna.
Several charter schools also were included, including Children First Academy of Dallas, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, North Hills Preparatory School and Peak Preparatory School.
The ratings were released by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs as part of a report that rated the districts, listed ways districts might save money and introduced a website with massive amounts of data that can be used by the public.
Only 43 of the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools received the highest rating. Dallas ISD earned two stars, and Richardson ISD earned 4 ½ .
The numbers are based on data from the 2008-09 school year.
The report recommends several ways districts could save money.
For instance, changing the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in elementary school from a cap to an average would save an estimated $557.5 million, it says. That would require a change in state law that is likely to be considered by the Legislature.
Other recommendations include reducing the number of administrators and moving almost entirely to electronic textbooks.
Combs said she believes about a billion dollars in education savings is possible.
Education spending is on most legislators’ minds as they prepare for the session that begins in January. The state is expected to have at least a $20 billion deficit, and education spending makes up 44 percent of the budget.
The comptroller’s office spent $684,000 developing the system at the instruction of the Legislature. Combs said legislators were looking for districts that do a “bang-up job” academically with relatively low spending.
Rep. Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he received the report Wednesday and is glad to have the additional data.
Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands, has emphasized the use of such data-driven analyses of education spending and achievement. He frequently uses a similar system developed by a Houston company in discussions with school districts and other lawmakers,
“Right now, it’s just good to have different lenses. It’s like sitting around a table brainstorming,” Eissler said.
Details of the ratings, along with the data used to support them, are available online at fastexas.org.
“This is not to be a gotcha report,” said Allen Spelce, a comptroller’s office spokesman. “This is a blueprint or map for school districts and taxpayers to look at.”
Districts already are ranked by the Texas Education Agency based on students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The comptroller’s system, called FAST, adds another way to look at districts using both TAKS and financial data.
The model looks at how much students have improved on the reading and math TAKS tests over three years. The model accounts for the number of low-income students, those with limited English proficiency and other factors.
Traditionally high-achieving districts may be penalized because their students don’t have much room to improve, Combs acknowledged.
The system then adds measures of how efficiently the district spends money to the academic data. The spending model takes into account differences in students, operational expenses and district size.
“It’s not just tied to how you do on the test, which is what the public seems to focus on,” said Irving Superintendent Dana Bedden. “Looking at academic progress as well as the use of taxpayer dollars to promote student success is a much more effective way to look at school district performance.”
But Garland Superintendent Curtis Culwell said he is concerned that lawmakers and taxpayers may believe that school districts that have controlled expenses, as Garland has, don’t need more money.
“We could do more and have good [spending] efficiency if we had more,” Culwell said.
While Garland has been adding new technology to improve student achievement and district efficiency, “we are getting perilously close to being behind,” he said.
Side by side
The way the spending data was compiled is particularly complicated and produced some interesting results.
For instance, Mesquite and Sunnyvale, side by side in eastern Dallas County, both received five stars and were ranked as very low-spending.
Yet Sunnyvale spends $8,107 per student and Mesquite $6,290, similar to some other area districts considered low-spending.
Sunnyvale Superintendent Doug Williams said his district spends more because it is small, only 800 students when the data was collected.
“It makes sense,” he said. “You can educate more kids less expensively than you can a few kids.”
Administrative costs are lower when they are spread over more students, and larger districts can get lower prices on goods because of the amount they buy.
Williams said his district works to keep expenses in check using buying cooperatives and having one staff member do several jobs but is still more expensive to operate than larger districts.
Joining with other districts to increase buying power is one of the ways the report said districts could save money.
But, like Culwell, Williams said his district will have to find places to cut if funding is reduced by the Legislature, as expected.
Several officials familiar with such models said that none are perfect but that they can be helpful.
“I’ve been studying this stuff for four or five years,” Eissler said. “They all have some validity. It depends on what they are emphasizing and what they are correcting for.”
Staff writers Jeffrey Weiss, Katherine Leal Unmuth, Jessica Meyers and Sam Hodges contributed to this report. BY THE NUMBERS
The state comptroller’s office released a report Wednesday that rated school districts and charter schools not only on their students’ academic achievement but also on how efficiently the districts spend money. The lowest rating was one star; the highest, five stars. Below is the percentage of districts statewide in each category.
5 stars – 3.8 percent
4 to 4.5 stars -19.8 percent
3 to 3.5 stars -36.3 percent
2 to 2.5 stars -30.6 percent
1 to 1.5 stars -9.5 percent
SOURCE: State comptroller’s office