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Costing Out Debate and Other Issues Examined at AEFA Conference

A hard-hitting session at the annual American Education Finance Association conference in Denver on March 24, 2006 examined the role and legitimacy of cost studies in determining the cost of a high quality education. Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, squared off against Eric Hanushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute.

Hanushek argued that the various costing-out methods for establishing an adequate education were arbitrary, and that their results could not be interpreted as definitive evaluations of the cost of an adequate education. Rebell responded that costing-out methods, though admittedly based on a number of judgments, are transparent and open to modification, while the alternative has been to have a few politicians get together in a back room and divide up whatever tax revenue is available, with no attempt to relate the decisions to the cost of any definition of adequacy.

The standing-room-only session included a lively debate on the role of the courts and whether the judiciary should be involved in making such complex policy decisions, which perhaps belong exclusively to legislators. Discussant James Guthrie, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, stated that "the courts have no business being involved in these costing out issues" and "confessed" that he regretted some of his own past actions in promoting cost studies. Rebell countered that "without court involvement, manipulation by legislators and others could go uncorrected." Guthrie went on to predict that the enforcement of the CFE decision in New York would result in a constitutional crisis, as the public would never tolerate "unaccountable judges" mandating a "tax increase" equivalent to $1,000 per-household-per-year in New York State. Rebell pointed out that the increased funding could come from this year's huge surplus, and that any tax increases that might be necessary should be progressive.

In response to Hanushek's observation that costing-out methods have no practical way to control for inefficiency, Allan Odden, Center for Reinventing Public Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that any inefficiencies in public education today are within the classroom (i.e., instructional skill) and have little to do with the allocation of resources between different functions outside the classroom.  Jay Chambers, American Institutes for Research, added that Hanushek's equally fervent denunciation of all costing-out approaches leaves us with no policy guidance whatsoever.

 Equity and Accountability

In a pre-conference workshop Richard Rothstein, Sachs Lecturer at Teachers College,Michael Rebell, and Henry Levin, Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers Collegeand chair of the 2005 Symposium, "The Social Costs of Inadequate Education," along with Tamara Wilder, Teachers College graduate student, addressed the many issues of growing educational inequity in America, particularly as inequities cut along racial lines. They examined the scope and depth of the current inequities in education, including a review of black-white inequalities across of all domains of life such as health, academic achievement and attainment, and economic security; impending demographic changes such as a shifting racial composition of the school-age population; and various studies documenting the economic, social and civic costs to underinvestment in education.

The conclusion of the workshop outlined a comprehensive framework for holding individual states and the nation accountable for all the goals of education.  Richard Rothstein presented his Equity Report Card, a new concept for measuring educational equity, one that takes into account a range of factors within and outside the classroom. "There are many things we want our schools to help our children do, including being good citizens, being ethical human beings, appreciating the arts, living healthy adult lives -- and we want education to be equitable in all of these areas," says Rothstein.

 Conference agenda and paper abstracts are available here: http://www.aefa.cc/displaycommon.cfm?an=2]

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