Who Is In Charge

Lobato 8/17: Costs of dropping out

The costs of low educational achievement and the mixed history of legislative school funding efforts were the focus of the Lobato trial Wednesday.

Lobato v. State illustrationHenry Levin, an education economist from Columbia University, testified all morning about a study he did on the personal and social costs triggered by failing to complete high school, as well as the benefits of higher levels of education to both individuals and the economy.

The tone shifted from the economic to the political later in the day, when two former legislators testified about legislative attitudes on the school finance system and, on cross-examination, state lawyers tried a couple of tricks to trip up the witnesses. (See MANEUVERING item below.)

Levin was the latest in a series of expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, which challenges the adequacy of the state’s school funding system.

Other experts have testified about the costs of meeting state academic requirements, providing early childhood education, helping at-risk students and serving disabled students. (See our archive of trial stories.)

With Levin, plaintiffs’ lawyers seemed to be trying to make the case for increased education spending because of its economic benefits – spending that increases the number of high school graduates ultimately reduces governmental and social costs and yields economic benefits for individuals and the state as whole.

Levin’s testimony tracked an 80-page report he and Professor Clive Belfield of the City University of New York prepared for the plaintiffs for a $15,000 fee.

Henry Levin
Henry Levin

Key points of that report are:

• Lifetime earnings grow with education. The report estimates those at $459,200 for a high school dropout and $696,300 for a higher school graduate. The report used high school graduation as the benchmark for educational attainment. Earnings are higher for people with some college and with college degrees.

• Lack of high school diplomas costs the state. A person who fails to graduate from high school imposes a fiscal burden of $140,100 on the state, in terms of government services provided to that person minus taxes paid.

• The broader social-burden cost of a dropout, factoring in such things as workforce productivity, lost economic opportunities because of a badly trained workforce and costs of crime, is calculated at $524,400.

• The report said expanded preschool opportunities, higher teacher salaries, small class sizes and some high school reforms can increase high school graduation rates. “The benefits of these investments (estimated at $74,400 per student) significantly exceed the costs. … Spending on education – particularly on reforms that raise high school graduation rates – should be viewed as a public investment, yielding a stream of benefits across decades,” the report concludes.

Highlights of the day:

TONE: Levin’s testimony had the air of a fairly interesting economics class; the cross-examination of former state Sen. Sue Windels and former Rep. Jack Pommer in the afternoon had the whiff of a debate tournament.


  • “I try not to write on areas in which I don’t have at least a little expertise.” – Levin
  • “Colorado’s level of spending is basically the same as Alabama’s, the same as Arkansas.” – Levin
  • “Bake sales weren’t going to solve this problem of chronic underfunding.” – Windels said of the realization she had after starting to study school finance.

Former Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

MANEUVERING: The plaintiffs’ lawyers basically put Windels (former chair of the Senate Education Committee) and Pommer (former chair of the Joint Budget Committee) on the stand to testify about a 2005 legislative school finance study and the fact that it didn’t lead to substantial legislation. They also were asked about whether the legislature ever had studied the true costs of K-12 education (they said it hasn’t) and about their definitions of a “thorough and uniform” system of schools, as required by the state constitution.

On cross-examination, state lawyers Jonathan Fero and Nick Heinke essentially asked if the two had violated their oaths to uphold the state constitution by voting for school finance bills they believed violated the thorough and uniform clause.

There were lots of objections from plaintiffs’ lawyers, some upheld and others not, and careful answers from Windels and Pommer.

Pommer had a practical answer: “If I think a bill is moving in the right direction … then I would support it” but that he wouldn’t vote for something that had been ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court. “We live in a political environment, and we have to compromise.”

DOCUMENTS: Much of Windels’ and Pommer’s testimony focused on a 2005 school finance report by the legislative study committee. You can read it here.

UPCOMING: On Thursday, lawyers from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are expected to begin presenting their case. They represent a separate group of plaintiffs that includes parents from four high-poverty school districts – Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan.

Thursday’s witnesses may include some of the plaintiffs, Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough and Kathy Escamilla from the CU-Boulder School of Education.

On Friday, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond is scheduled to testify for both sets of plaintiffs, talking about the issues and costs involved in educator effectiveness. (Read her pretrial report.)

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: