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An Effective Mill Levy = Need + Plan + Evaluation + Feedback Loop

By Van Schoales

Denver has recently begun discussions regarding a new mill levy proposal that would provide an additional $50 million to the city’s schools. As in most debates, there is ample evidence on both sides of the issue of school funding: there is evidence that the money could make a big difference, and also a great deal of evidence that there is no relationship between increased funding and achievement. It’s a paradox, but ultimately we know that how we spend money matters more than how much money we spend.

Check out any district that spends much more than Denver ($12,000 PPR) yet gets lower results– see Newark ($30,000 PPR), Providence ($17,000 PPR), and Laramie, WY ($17,000)*. We also know that the per pupil spending at any of Denver’s highest performing charters, e.g. DSST, KIPP, and University Prep, is significantly more than that of a typical district managed school due to fundraising on top of the per pupil revenue they receive after a portion is withheld to cover district administration costs. Adequate funding is necessary but insufficient on its own. Funding must be wisely managed. You only need to look to the results of Colorado’s school improvement program for a lesson in how to waste educational improvement dollars to the tune of over $50 million.

Denver has targeted increased mill levy funds to support non-core academic subjects, and increase resources for core academics. I think just about every mill in Denver has passed in the last twenty years, and all told, the district receives an influx of about $140 million dollars annually from the mill levies. Mills benefiting PE and the arts received strong support from Denver voters because families (rightly) believe these programs have suffered over the years. Additionally, the mills have focused on more resources for literacy and math, providing the funds needed to supply (time) intensive support for students, particularly those furthest from grade-level proficiency. More support and teaching time in most cases (though not all) cost more money, not less.

One of the current proposals being discussed for the 2016 mill is an additional investment of $6-7 million in centralized professional development for elementary teachers on literacy. If this sounds familiar, it should. We have been down this road before, as have hundreds of other districts. Centralized professional development for literacy or other instructional practices does not work. Check out TNTP’s The Mirage for the problems with typical teacher professional development. Hopefully this will morph into something with a greater likelihood of success to address the huge challenge of raising literacy in Denver’s elementary schools.

It is often hard to track, in detail, the impact of a district mill investment, but it is possible. Importantly, it requires some funds set aside for evaluation and audits. Speaking as the former co-chair of the DPS mill oversight committee, we made some progress with our mill levy investment scorecards, but they are still far from what is needed to truly understand whether additional taxpayer dollars have improved learning outcomes for kids.

Many investment areas, in particular the $40-million-dollar plus investment in art education, requires that the district know what programing is happening in schools and have some measure of quality. Our recent report on arts education in DPS finds that the district still has little to show other than that we have about 30 more art teachers. These targeted investments should require third party evaluation. I’m still dumbfounded that school districts and their boards do not demand more evaluation to really know whether a new investment is working or not.

The bottom line for the 2016 mill (and even more so for the bond) is that there is still much to do and many resources needed in our most challenged schools. The question is whether the district has the right plan, people to implement the plan, and accountability systems to make sure the district is focused on learning how to have more impact rather than checking boxes about spending going to schools. This will be doubly important should DPS reach its statutory limit on mill levy requests with the city after the next election. Here’s hoping district leadership, the citizens’ committee and ultimately the DPS school board are prepared to tackle this challenge. We cannot afford to throw money at the district.

*Note: PPR based on Fiscal Data from NCES Common Core of Data