The problem? Cheerleading and Ceramics, of course!

David Reber with the Topeka Examiner had a great post a while back (April, 2010) addressing the deceptive logic that we should be outraged by supposed exorbitant spending on things like cheerleading and ceramics, and not worry so much about the little things, like disparities between wealthy and poor school districts. I finally saw this post today, from a tweet, and realized I had not yet blogged on this topic.

This logic/argument comes from the “research” of Marguerite Roza, who, well, has a track record of making such absurd arguments in an effort to place blame on poor urban districts and take attention away from disparities between poor urban districts and their more affluent suburban neighbors.

This new argument is really just more of the same ol’ flimsy logic from this crew. For the past several years, Roza and colleagues have attempted to argue that states have largely done their part to fix inequities in funding between school districts, and that now, the burden falls on local public school districts to clean up their act. Here’s an excerpt from one of my recent articles on this topic:

On other occasions, Roza and Hill have argued that persistent between-district disparities may exist but are relatively unimportant. Following a state high court decision in New York mandating increased funding to New York City schools, Roza and Hill (2005) opined: “So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York [City] spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.” That is, the state has fixed its end of the system enough.

This statement by Roza and Hill is even more problematic when one dissects it more carefully. What they are saying is that the average of per pupil spending in suburban districts is only $4,000 greater than spending per pupil in New York City but that the difference between maximum and minimum spending across schools in New York City is about $10,000 per pupil. Note the rather misleading apples-and-oranges issue. They are comparing the average in one case to the extremes in another.

In fact, among downstate suburban[1] New York State districts, the range of between-district differences in 2005 was an astounding $50,000 per pupil (between the small, wealthy Bridgehampton district at $69,772 and Franklin Square at $13,979). In that same year, New York City as a district spent $16,616 per pupil, while nine downstate suburban districts spent more than $26,616 (that is, more than $10,000 beyond the average for New York City). Pocantico Hills and Greenburgh, both in Westchester County (the comparison County used by Roza and Hill), spent over $30,000 per pupil in 2005.[2] These numbers dwarf even the purported $10,000 range within New York City (a range that we agree is presumptively problematic); our conclusion based on this cursory analysis is that the bigger problem likely remains the between-district disparity in funding.

My article (with Kevin Welner) goes on to show how states have far from resolved between district disparities and that New York State in particular has among the most substantial persistent disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.For more information on persistent between district disparities that really do exist, see: Is School Funding Fair?.

I have a forthcoming paper this spring where I begin to untangle the new argument about poor urban districts really having plenty of money but simply wasting it on cheerleading and ceramics. Here’s a draft of a section of the introduction to that paper:

A handful of authors, primarily in non-peer reviewed and think tank reports posit that poor urban school districts have more than enough money to achieve adequate student outcomes and simply need to reallocate what they have toward improving achievement on tested subject areas. These authors, including Marguerite Roza and colleagues of the Center for Reinventing Public Education encourage public outrage that any school district not presently meeting state outcome standards would dare to allocate resources to courses like ceramics or activities like cheerleading. To support their argument, the authors provide anecdotes of per pupil expense on cheerleading being far greater than per pupil expense on core academic subjects like math or English.

Imagine a high school that spends $328 per student for math courses and $1,348 per cheerleader for cheerleading activities. Or a school where the average per-student cost of offering ceramics was $1,608; cosmetology, $1,997; and such core subjects as science, $739.[1]

These shocking anecdotes, however, are unhelpful for truly understanding resource allocation differences and reallocation options. For example, the major reason why cheerleading or ceramics expenses per pupil are highest is the relatively small class sizes, compared to those in English or Math. In total, the funds allocated to either cheerleading of ceramics are unlikely to have much if any effect if redistributed to reading or math.

Further, the requirement that poor urban (or other) districts currently falling below state outcome standards must re-allocate any and all resources from co-curricular and extracurricular activities toward improving achievement on tested outcomes may increase inequities in the depth and breadth of curricular offerings between higher and lower poverty schools – inequities that may be already quite substantial. That is, it may already be the case that higher poverty districts and those facing greater resource constraints are reallocating resources toward core, tested areas of curriculum and away from more advanced course offerings which extend beyond the tested curriculum and enriched opportunities including both elective courses and extracurricular activities.  Some evidence on this point already exists.

The perspective that low performing districts merely need to reallocate what they already have is particularly appealing in the current fiscal context, where state budgets and aid allocations to local public school districts are being slashed. Accepting Roza’s logic, states under court mandates or in the shadows of recent rulings regarding educational adequacy, but facing tight budgets may simply argue that high poverty and/or low performing districts should shift all available resources into the teaching of core, tested subjects. Lower poverty districts with ample resources that exceed minimum outcome standards face no such reallocation obligations, leading to substantial differences in depth and breadth of curriculum. Arguably a system that is both adequate and fair would protect the availability of deep and broad curriculum while simultaneously attempting to improve narrowly measured outcomes.

More later as this research progresses.

[1] “Downstate Suburban” refers to areas such as Westchester County and Long Island and is an official regional classification in the New York State Education Department Fiscal Analysis and Research Unit Annual Financial Reports data, which can be found here: and

[2] Interestingly, however, Bridgehampton and New York City have relatively similar “costs” due to Bridgehampton’s small size and New York City’s high student needs (see Duncombe and Yinger, 2009). The figures offered in this paragraph are based on Total Expenditures per Pupil from State Fiscal Profiles 2005. Results are similar when comparing current operating expenditures per pupil.