Incredibly Dumb Claim Made Against DISD Found to Be Incredibly Dumb

Bill Betzen, wrong again


I’m irritated and I’m stumped. Irritated because I had a lot of stuff on the ol’ to-do list yesterday, and instead I was pulled into a debate between a bunch of idiots and a very confused Dallas ISD administration and board. Stumped because the allegations that necessitated this debate are so wrong-headed, so silly, so baseless, I am at a loss how to address them. It’s like trying to explain to a sane person why the crazy person claims the moon is made of barbecue spare ribs. I mean, where do you start?

Everywhere, I guess. So here is a scattershot rebuttal of the claims made by [cue the never-ending sigh] Bill Betzen and friends in their complaint about DISD’s supposedly inequitable funding system.

• First, read this straightforward recap from the DMN to get you up to speed.

• Here is a link to Betzen’s claim against DISD. Essentially, the argument is that DISD is taking federal funds that are supposed to be spent on special needs kids and spending them on kids who don’t qualify for those funds. Title 1 funds are supposed to be spent, according to the Department of Education, “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education and reach, at minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.” In other words, spend them on things to help the poor and disadvantaged (limited English proficient, disabled, etc.) have the same chance at a good education as other kids in your district. And Betzen is saying that federal rules have been broken.

To put it even more simply: Funding for schools comes from state money and federal money. All the state money has to be budgeted at campuses in a per student amount that is plus or minus 10 percent of the average per student amount for campuses across DISD. Once that’s done, the district can layer federal money on top of that state money, but only at poor campuses. (It’s much more complicated than that, but those are the basics.)

Betzen is saying that DISD is increasing its state money at middle-class schools like Lakewood knowing that school won’t get fed money, and decreasing its state funding at poor schools like Stevens Park knowing it can make it up with federal money. You can’t do that. You can’t use federal money to “supplant,” only to “supplement.”

Now, if you were to make this argument, what would you think you’d need in terms of proof? You’d need to show the total expenditures per student BEFORE the federal money is added on and show it’s much lower at schools with lots of special needs (and then presumably that it evens out once federal money is added). And you’d better have that locked down, because you’re saying that the two entities who’ve provided outside review of that budget — the accounting firm Deloitte and the TEA — must be in on the scam.

But that’s not what Betzen has done. Instead, he has cherry-picked an arbitrary random number from the budget — one budgeting bucket — that doesn’t show anything like that at all. In fact, as we’ll, see, he isn’t even clear on what it does show. No matter: That number fits his argument if you don’t look closely.

Let me show you what I mean.

Betzen says that the district is “grossly underfunding its Title I campuses.” In particular, he is “requesting an investigation into current special education funding patterns than may indeed be supplanting regular education dollars, especially on campuses with high percentages of special education students and low levels of regular education funding.” Betzen’s numbers that supposedly show this inequity come from the 2013-14 budgeted campus numbers for DISD. To prove that DISD is spending too much per kid at middle-class schools and too little per kid at schools with lots of special needs, he chose one number: The “Regular program expenditure,” which on the chart here (they’re too big to copy and paste, sorry) you see as $2,854 per kid at Stevens Park Elementary.

Stevens Park has lots of poor kids, so he says that when you compare it to a school like Lakewood Elementary (which has lots of middle class kids) and see that same budget line as $4,758, you’re like, WHOA BETZEN IS RIGHT.

No. Never think that, even in jest.

First of all, let’s look at the TEA definition of the Program Intent Code for “Regular program expenditure”:

Regular program expenditures are costs to provide the basic services for education/instruction to students not in special education (program intent code 11).

You see that? This is one of the crazy town parts, so stay with me. Bill Betzen is trying to say that to prove inequitable spending in special education, he is going to show you a number THAT DOES NOT INCLUDE SPECIAL EDUCATION DOLLARS.

I know, right?

Of course, Betzen completely ignores the total expenditure line, right at the top of the pages I’ve linked to above. Those numbers don’t exactly fit his narrative, though:

Stevens Park spending per child from state funds 2013-14: $6,335

Lakewood spending per child from state funds 2013-14: $5,691

Does that seem to you like per-child expenditures proves that the district is “grossly underfunding its Title I campuses”?

(BTW: This discrepancy is true for the current budget as well, as Lakewood parents noted on Facebook yesterday. It’s also noted in this letter written to DISD trustees from Lakewood parent John Franklin Guild.)

Now, there were many more things alleged in the 41 pages Betzen produced, most of which are equally wrong-headed. I’ll go through them if need be some day. But one thing: The most devastating critique, which is also more wonky, is that Betzen doesn’t understand that the Program Intent Codes he uses as the basis of his argument are managerial accounting categories intended to showcase only that a minimum funding allocation has been made. They are not intended to capture all spending. I’m guessing he doesn’t understand this because he has absolutely no background in accounting, unlike the people I talked to while researching this story.

But I’d like to point out that Betzen, probably by accident, did discuss some concerns that have a basis in reality. Things that have been discussed by the administration and the board. For example: the problem DISD (and every large urban school district) has in trying to get its best teachers to teach at its lowest-performing schools. This is an inequity that he rightly decries.

It exists because the seniority system for teachers that DISD has had for decades allows the longest-serving teachers (who, btw, make the most money) to entrench themselves at the highest-performing schools. How bad is it? Well, if we use experience as an indicator of teaching excellence (it’s not a proxy, but it’s an indicator), then consider: For the 2013-14 school year, the average teacher experience at Talented and Gifted was 17.7 years. For the district: 10.7 years. (The state was 11.2). For Booker T. Washington: 15.6. For Travis Magnet: 19 years’ experience. For comparison, let’s look at the average teacher experience at two IR schools. For Spruce: 9.2 years. For Samuell: 7.3 years.

This is one reason the district ends up spending more money at middle-class campuses than at poorer ones — because experienced teachers cost more. It’s a teaching inequity that contributes to a financial one at the campus, at least in terms of money spent on instruction.

But to suggest that Miles isn’t doing something about that is absurd. Miles mentioned this problem to anyone who would listen when he arrived. He mentioned it to me back in September in a one-on-one. He has briefed the board multiple times on his plan to incentivize good teachers to go teach at lower-performing schools. Hell, the new teacher evaluation and compensation system, “TEI” — which Betzen wants to stop because the teachers’ union is petrified of losing dues-paying teachers — is designed in part to identify the best teachers and then reward them for teaching at the lowest-performing schools. Miles recently rolled out his plan to do just that with his unfortunately named “ACE” (Accelerating Campus Excellence) plan.

Which gets to the heart of the problem here. You can criticize Miles for a lot of things, but failing to address issues of equity is not one. A short list of what he’s done (despite insane, rabid opposition from the status-quo crowd):

  • Implementing Imagine 2020, which gives millions of dollars to 33 schools in DISD’s poorest feeder patterns (Pinkston, Lincoln, Madison and South Oak Cliff).
  • Pushing for full-day pre-K expansion under Destination 2020 (Miles’ strategic plan), including the vote today to invest another $30 million for 800 new pre-K spots for poor kids.
  • Paying more money so that now 93 percent of DISD kids take the SAT, compared to 64 percent statewide.
  • Expanding the breakfast-in-the-classroom program to all schools in 2013.

And on and on. Look, if you’ve read this far, you pay attention to this stuff. You know what this is about: It’s a last-ditch attempt to derail the board approving the interim bridge plan today. More broadly, it’s a last-ditch attempt to stop TEI, stop a new principal evaluation and compensation system, and stop other reforms that Betzen doesn’t like. Because this complaint is not a legal complaint — odds are the Feds will disregard it pretty quickly as meritless. It’s a political document, and the document’s release was accompanied by a press conference — at the NEA Dallas headquarters, no less — proving the shallow political nature of this complaint. That’s because the anti-Miles group doesn’t want him to get any credit for the positive changes happening for kids in the district as a result of his reforms. Even though Miles’ plans call for investing more in underperforming kids and demanding higher expectations of our kids and our staff, Betzen and company have lied and will lie repeatedly to stop him, for reasons that seem to be a mix of vanity and financial self-interest.

Which is unfortunate. Because the plan being voted on tonight — while we all wish it provided more money for more schools — is an unquestioned win for kids in the district. And Betzen and his fellow band of anti-kid conspirators will do anything they can to stop it, even it means typing a largely incomprehensible 41-page screed to do so. Let’s hope it takes more substance than that to derail change that helps kids.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.