Last week, barely 24 hours before the Dallas school board was to vote on a complicated school construction proposal, two major media published stories saying the district has been conspiring to strip-mine federal subsidy money out of poor schools and spend it instead on more affluent kids.
That's huge. If true, the accusation makes a lie of every single thing Superintendent Mike Miles has said about himself and his goals.
Both WFAA News 8 and The Dallas Morning News ran with the story, based entirely on an analysis handed to them by anti-school reform activist Bill Betzen, a retired Dallas teacher and self-taught statistician now closely allied with the teachers unions.
The document handed to Channel 8 and to the News accused the district of an enormous crime against poor kids but sought a remedy having to do entirely with teacher pay. The "Betzen report" (quote marks to be explained at end of this story), written as a letter of complaint to U.S. Department of Education, demands an immediate halt to the recently adopted merit pay system for teachers, which was a replacement for the time-honored seniority pay system favored by the unions.
The report draws conclusions based on a fundamental misreading of school funding information drawn from the Texas Department of Education web pages. I am going to eschew -- in part because I wanted a chance to use that word -- any guess work whether the misreading was deliberate or, well, just kind of dumb.
The important thing is that the day after Betzen dropped his bomb on Channel 8 and the Morning News -- after they had published their initial stories based on the bomb -- school administrators and board members called or sat down with reporters and pointed out the mistake. Both Channel 8 and the News immediately did new stories hedging their bets.
Video of the original Channel 8 story is no longer findable on their site, but a text version remains under the double byline of Brett Shipp and Jason Trahan. And the News story is still up.
Shipp sets up his story by explaining first that federal subsidies for poor kids are supposed to be spent as subsidies for poor kids: "But when a group of DISD parents and taxpayers started reviewing state records campus-by-campus, a disturbing picture began to emerge.
"They compared Stevens Park with Lakewood Elementary, where only 14 percent of the students are disadvantaged. Where Stevens Park is budgeted at $2,854 per student, Lakewood Elementary is budgeted at $4,758 per student."
Shipp tells viewers DISD officials were unable to explain why more money was spent on relatively affluent non-minority kids at Lakewood than on poor minority kids at Stevens Park.
The Morning News story, equally short on rebuttal from the district, says, "The complaint accuses the Dallas Independent School District of using a 'reverse Robin Hood' system to cut local education dollars from schools that receive federal Title I funds for low-income, bilingual and other disadvantaged students."
The next day, Miles held an impromptu press conference at which he said Betzen's analysis was based on a single mistake in reading the financial data. He offered to make available any information and interviews with any district official on the subject.
Miles was visibly upset that the report had been timed a day before a difficult school board vote on a key school funding proposal -- so much so that he broke from his normally reserved persona and spoke of his own childhood as a poor minority kid. That part of the press conference -- but nothing about the mistake in Betzen's report -- made it into the News' next-day story, as if Miles' reply to the report had been to feel sorry for himself:
"Miles spoke to reporters Wednesday about the complaint, saying the allegations were 'personal.' He spoke of growing up in poverty and having a mother who didn't speak English."
He did say all of that. But here is what reporters also could have told their viewers and readers, based on what Miles and his staff explained to them:
Yes, at Lakewood (76.1 percent white, 18.8 percent Hispanic, 1.6 percent African American) the page of state data on which the report bases its conclusions does show a per pupil expenditure of $4,758 for "regular instruction." At Stevens Park (93.1 percent Hispanic, 5.3 percent African American), the "regular instruction" amount per pupil is $2,854.
At Stevens Park where 93.4 percent of the kids qualify for federal subsidies based on poverty, the district spends $1,099 per kid in federal subsidy money averaged over the entire student body. At Lakewood where only 14.5 percent qualify for subsidy, it's $27 per student across the student body.
The conclusion of the report is that the district is spending way more of its own money on the affluent kids at Lakewood and way less of its own money on the poor kids at Stevens Park. The report alleges that the district is shorting the Stevens Park kids, then using the federal money to make up some of the shortfall instead of using the federal money as a subsidy on top of its own money as the law requires.
But that's not what the state data shows, because the "regular" row in the state report is not the full amount of local money spent on students. What is it, then? It's an accounting category, and if you want the full skinny on how it works, I recommend to you a book called, Financial Accountability System Resource Guide - Texas, a work of just 11 chapters. The use of accounting categories is dealt with in Chapter 1, so you don't have to read the whole book, but I should warn you that Chapter 1 is 810 pages.
Every time I tried to re-read the section on "program intent" codes, especially that damned Code 11, I found myself muttering "E-I-E-I-O," from the children's song, "Old McDonald's Farm."
But there is a simpler route. Much simpler. If we simply look back to the state report on which Betzen based his accusation, we see that it reports the budget for each school campus three different ways -- a summary of all spending, spending by function and spending by "intent codes" or accounting categories.
The problem with the one Betzen chose, spending by intent codes, is that it does not capture the full picture of spending, only what fits into certain codes for very arcane reasons. If you look at the other two ways of adding up the budget, slightly more local money is spent on the kids at Stevens Park than at Lakewood.
There is a certain bottom-line here. In order to keep getting federal money, the district has to pay outside accountants to go over these very considerations once every three years. Then federal accountants in Washington and state accountants in Austin must make the sign of the cross over that audit.
I would never argue that citizens or journalists should passively accept the work of accountants, but before you can call them liars you have to debate them. The "Betzen report" never even attempts to do that. Instead it cherry-picks numbers that support its case and ignores the numbers that contradict.
But, wait, does that mean the picture painted in Betzen's report-- more money for affluent kids, less for poor kids -- is entirely without reality? No, and here is a great irony in all of this. As school board member Mike Morath and other close observers of the district explained to me last week, the "Betzen report" actually strikes on a real inequity in the system. But it's one Betzen's allies in the teachers union certainly don't want to talk about.
The bulge in spending at the less poor schools in the district -- and there is a bulge -- has entirely to do with teacher pay, which has entirely to do with the old system of seniority pay for teachers. Experienced high-seniority teachers tend to anchor themselves at magnet schools and schools with less poverty because life there is easier for teachers. Wherever they crowd together, the high seniority teachers run up the instruction budget for that school, because they get paid more.
Teachers at William B Travis, a "vanguard" school (kind of like a magnet, with competitive admissions) have an average of 20.5 years seniority and make an average of $57,665 a year, according to state data. Travis is 21.2 percent poor kids.
Teachers at Boude Story Middle School have an average seniority of 8.2 years and make an average salary of $51,109 or 11.4 percent less than at Travis. Boude Story is 95.5 percent poor.
The district says the imbalance in instructional budgets does not violate the federal rules on using subsidy money -- as long as everybody gets a teacher and the student/teacher ratio is the same across the board -- but that imbalance nevertheless violates Miles' personal sense of fairness. Big time.
In fact, inequities in instruction for poor kids is why Miles pushed successfully to get rid of seniority pay and to establish the very system Betzen and the union now want the feds to kill -- merit pay. Miles believes that by basing pay on merit and measuring teacher effectiveness, he can create a system of new incentives that will steer the better teachers toward the schools that need them most, which often are the poorest, rather than the other way, toward the less challenged schools.
The quote marks. I said I would explain why I put "Betzen report" in quotes. I emailed Betzen and asked him one detailed question about his interpretation of state data. He wrote back and said: "This analysis was actually done originally by people other than I who do not want to be visible at this time. They may decide to step forward at some time."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
So, wait. I want to go back now to Shipp and Trahan at WFAA and to The Dallas Morning News. Let's say they just didn't have time to sit down with the DISD wonks and go over all this arcane data and information in detail. I know some of it was real hard for me to do, too.
But as a reporter, here's what you do. No matter what. Betzen is not a real statistician, not a degreed expert in public accounting. He's a citizen activist, and more power to citizen activists. But because you know he's not a credentialed expert, you ask him a couple questions. Poke on him a couple times. It's not hard. You don't even have to know what you're talking about, really. You just say, "Hey, whatta 'bout this number, Bill? Hey, whatta about that other number over there, Bill?"
About the time Bill tells you the report was written by persons who "do not want to be visible at this time," you maybe whistle, then you call the office, and you say, "Boss, the Betzen story ain't gonna make."
That's all. We really don't have to be that smart in this business. The guy tells you the report was done by secret authors. He tells you they don't want to be visible. You say to yourself, "E-I-E-I-O." And away you go. What's the problem?