Virginia Education Report's Mission Unaccomplished

Spending review became spending advocacy.


What do you call it when watchdogs become lapdogs? The term is "regulatory capture." It means that an oversight agency gets so cozy with the industry it regulates that it turns into an advocate, rather than a sentinel.

Has something like that happened to Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission–at least regarding the public schools? JLARC's latest report might make you wonder.

Virginia lawmakers were clear in 2013 when they directed JLARC to review the efficiency and effectiveness of public-school spending: "The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (is) directed to study the efficiency and effectiveness of elementary and secondary school spending in Virginia," they ordered.

The draft report JLARC submitted does little of that, especially regarding the largest and most important part of schooling: instruction. In fact, it flatly states that "instructional efficiency cannot be reliably assessed." This is because, supposedly, "there are no well-established benchmarks." And instructional effectiveness? Questions about that are largely relegated to Appendix H. Appendix H summarizes research about strategies to improve student achievement–without a word about which Virginia localities are using those strategies, if any, or how well they have applied them.

Instead, the report goes on at great length about a laundry list of extraneous questions: Where Virginia ranks in school spending relative to other states, how much school spending has gone up or down in recent years, where school spending has been cut or added to, how much schools are spending on health care, how student demographics have changed and so on. The takeaway headline, though, is that Virginia's per-pupil spending has fallen 7 percent since 2005 after adjusting for inflation, and that was exactly how a lot of the state's media outlets played the story.

All those details are interesting. But they don't answer the question the General Assembly asked.

The report has six chapters: five ostensibly on efficiency and effectiveness, and a sixth chapter, ordered by a separate mandate, that looks at online teaching. Yet while the report points out that two-thirds of state money for schools goes to instruction, only one of the five chapters examines it—and that chapter is entirely devoted to instructional spending, rather than performance: Inputs, rather than outputs. The tenured professors of management theory at the Harvard Business School have a technical term for what you can learn about efficiency and effectiveness by looking at inputs alone: "jack squat."

Moreover, the section on instruction claims lower spending "may be hindering instructional effectiveness"–but provides zero evidence that it actually has done so, such as a plunge in test scores over the 10-year period studied. That's because there hasn't been one. In fact, the report notes elsewhere that Virginia students perform "above the national and regional average." And the Virginia Department of Education routinely sends out glowing reports such as this one, from last October: "Virginia 2014 public school graduates achieved significant gains… on the SAT, according to results released today by the College Board."

This should count as good news worth celebrating: Improving scores during a period of declining funding suggests an increase in efficiency and effectiveness. But pointing that out contradicts the message from teacher unions and their allies: Always. Spend. More.

Then there's this: The report includes more than two dozen tables and charts about spending. It has exactly two small charts about academic performance.

Compare the preceding to the section on school buildings, which points out that many school districts have fewer students now and that "operating schools under capacity  . . . is inefficient." It recommends "periodically evaluat(ing) the potential savings and costs of closing or consolidating underutilized schools." Good idea, no? Yet although salary and benefits make up nearly 75 percent of instructional costs, the report contains nothing like a similar recommendation that underperforming teachers or surplus administrators be let go. In fact, it doesn't even acknowledge the possibility that such employees might exist.

Perhaps this is because JLARC relied on interviews with the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia School Boards Association, and the Virginia Public Education Coalition, as well as four state agencies. Maybe Virginia really does need a steep hike in spending on the public schools. Maybe it doesn't have a single deadweight employee anywhere in the commonwealth. Maybe the 7 percent funding drop has kept Virginia from soaring to the top of the nation in academic performance. But who honestly expects the groups listed above to say anything else?

The report doesn't note how much was spent to produce it. It couldn't have been cheap, though. Maybe it's time for another study on efficiency and effectiveness–of JLARC.

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.