Editor’s note: This marks the launch of a new column in The Chronicle, focused on Ann Arbor Public Schools and other educational issues. Readers might know Ruth Kraut from her commentary on Ann Arbor Schools Musings, where she’s been writing about these issues for several years. For recent background on The Chronicle’s coverage of AAPS, see “Milestone: Why You Keep Running a Marathon.”
Next week, the board of the Ann Arbor Public Schools will need to cut about 5% from the district’s budget. That’s a reduction of about $8.6 million. Teachers have already taken a 3% pay cut.
Per-pupil funding for next year ($9,025) will be less than the per-pupil funding of 12 years ago in 2001-2002 ($9,034). So it’s no surprise that we’re at the point where cuts are painful. Cutting teachers, cutting programs – none of it is happy news. There will be consequences. The question is, what kind of consequences?
In the civil rights world, a “disparate impact” occurs when a policy is non-discriminatory in its intent but affects a “protected class” of people in a disproportionate way. In Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, for example, these protected classes include race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, and marital status.
AAPS is a district with a large achievement gap – between white students and African American and Hispanic/Latino students. And this gap has persisted for many years. Although in state civil rights law, income is not a protected status, income is highly correlated with race, age, and marital status. District-wide, there is also an achievement gap that is related to income: Poor kids are more likely to do poorly in school.
So it’s important to consider the AAPS budget from a perspective of potential disparate impacts. On the surface, the proposed budget cuts treat all students equally. But if we look deeper, would we find that certain budget cuts worsen – or perhaps improve – the achievement gap?
Three proposed budget cuts have raised a significant amount of opposition this year: (1) eliminating high school transportation; (2) cutting reading intervention teachers; and (3) cutting seventh hour or making it a tuition-only option. Together, these three account for just under $1.5 million of the $8.6 million in cuts. Do these cuts, in particular, have a disparate impact on any groups?
High School Transportation
One of the still-pending proposals is to cut all transportation for high school students, unless it’s related to special education. That would affect all students outside of the walk zones, including students who take school buses and those who ride Ann Arbor Transportation Authority buses using school-provided bus passes. In this year’s one-day spring “ride count,” just 29% of the students who could take school buses did take them. But remember, not all kids take the bus every day. If the counting were done over the course of a couple of weeks, the number might be closer to 40%.
Whatever the exact percentage, it doesn’t appear that ridership is distributed evenly across the grades. My own daughter’s experience is probably not unusual. In ninth and tenth grades, she took the school bus to Skyline nearly every day. In eleventh grade, she didn’t have a first hour class, so she generally took the AATA bus (which frequently ran late, to her great consternation). In twelfth grade, though she didn’t have a car, a couple of her friends did – and she got rides to school almost every day.
The district doesn’t collect data on or analyze the school bus riders based on income. But it’s plausible that a higher proportion of students on the free and reduced price lunch program take school buses compared to students from families with higher incomes, who are much more likely to have an extra car.
So cutting high school transportation will affect younger students more than older students. The transportation cut will affect people employed with less flexible jobs more than it will impact people who have more flexible jobs. Families with no car or one car will be impacted more than two- or three-car families. For those students who can ride an AATA bus (or two, or three, after transfers), it will cost them money – because the district will not be able to provide any bus passes if it cuts general transportation. That’s $1.50/day x $180/year, or $270 per student.
AAPS is a very large district! Think about the student who lives at the low/moderate-income Arrowwood Hills Housing Cooperative, off Pontiac Trail. Students there are districted for Skyline High School. It’s possible to arrive at school on an AATA bus. The #1 bus leaves Arrowwood at 6:26 a.m., and after a transfer downtown to the #18, that student would arrive at Skyline at 7:06 a.m. (a little early for a scheduled school start of 7:30). So for less than $300 per year per student, an Arrowwood Hills resident can get transportation to Skyline.
But what if that same low/moderate-income student lives in a manufactured home community out on Jackson or South Wagner roads? No AATA routes serve that area. Directions on Google Maps suggest that you first drive to the nearest bus stop! What if your parent has to be at work at 7 a.m. and there are no “extra” cars? What if you are too young to drive? What if you live on a busy street without a sidewalk or shoulder, three miles from school? As a parent, do you want your teenager walking on that street in the dark?
I live in a two-parent, two-car household, and we both have some flexibility with our schedules. And as my son was looking at high schools this winter, we were very intrigued by the Washtenaw International High School. Yet I was worried about the question, “How would I get him there, and back?” (WiHi is located at the former East Middle School in Ypsilanti.) I knew it would be much easier for me if he could walk, bike, or take the bus to an in-district school.
But what if transportation is cut? I can tell you that if I lived in a corner of the district (say, a rural area near South Lyon, or Dexter, or Saline), and I was going to have to drive my child either way, I would think differently about WiHi, or about the South Lyon Schools. In that case, I wouldn’t be comparing a school with transportation to a school without transportation. I would be comparing two schools without transportation – and the second school might be more convenient.
Unfortunately, this is an all-or-nothing decision. The district can’t choose a few areas (say, those with low-income housing) and only provide transportation there. The district stands to save $466,000 by cutting transportation. However, every student who doesn’t show up on count day, or who attends a different school, costs the district around $9,000 in the state’s per-pupil funding allowance. So if even 50 students were lost because of a decision to cut transportation, the district would lose all of the projected savings.
But I digress.
The crucial point is that cutting high school transportation will have a disparate impact on younger high school students. And because of the ways that income and race are so closely intertwined in today’s America, cutting transportation will certainly have a disparate impact on students of color and on poor students. Assessed in relation to the achievement gap, it is clear: If students can’t, or don’t, arrive at school, they are going to fall further behind.
Today, the district employs the equivalent of 10 reading intervention (RI) teachers in the Ann Arbor elementary schools – a half position at each elementary school. The current proposal is to cut that in half. RI teachers would be retained in just the schools “with the highest need.” This year, 460 students qualified for RI services.
Who were these students? Were they low-income? Were they students of color? The best indicator available to the district for a student’s household income is the qualification for free and reduced price lunch. I asked Liz Margolis, director of communications for AAPS, if the district identified students in the RI program by income or race. The answer is no. The district says it can’t share information about students in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program – because it’s considered private. And the district doesn’t keep track of students in the RI program by race/ethnicity. If the district did track that information and share those aggregated numbers, it might yield a revelation that makes everyone uncomfortable.
It’s possible at least to make an educated guess. In 2007-2008, nearly half of the students who were identified as cognitively impaired were African-American – even though at the time just 16% of Ann Arbor students were African American. One of the key identifying statistics of the achievement gap is MEAP test scores, and if there is one thing that the MEAP is good at testing, it’s reading. On the 2010-2011 MEAP tests, for instance, 96% of the district’s white third graders achieved “proficient” status while 80% of African-American third graders, 84% of the Hispanic/Latino students, and 76% of “economically disadvantaged students” achieved “proficient” status. (You can find more data on the AAPS website.)
So we can be fairly confident – even though the district doesn’t officially track it – that cutting the Reading Intervention program, which serves the too-young-for-MEAP population of K-2 students, would have a disparate impact on students of color and low-income students. Of course, that prompts the question: Does the RI program work? If it doesn’t work, then it’s not helping to reduce the achievement gap, even if there are disparities in enrollment. But if it does work, then eliminating RI could diminish the district’s ability to address the achievement gap. Per student, RI is the most expensive program proposed for elimination (approximately $2,175/student). But, if the elimination of the program causes students to fall even further behind in reading, they could wind up qualifying for mandated special education services. And those costs would be far greater.
Another possible cut would affect seventh hour – the opportunity to take a seventh class during a semester, rather than the more standard six classes. One possibility is to cut the seventh hour option altogether. Another possibility is to convert seventh hour to a tuition-only option.
Cutting seventh hour completely would have different impacts at the district’s three comprehensive high schools. If seventh hour is completely cut at Pioneer and Huron high schools, then students could only take six credits (12 courses) a year. That has a couple of implications.
Currently, Skyline High School uses a trimester system, and there are five hours/trimester (5 x 3 = 15 classes or 7.5 credit hours), compared to seven hours/semester at the other schools (7 x 2 = 14 classes or 7.0 credit hours). They are not exactly comparable, because some classes that are taught in two semesters at Pioneer and Huron are taught in three trimesters at Skyline – for example, advanced placement (AP) classes and some math classes. And in practice, lots of students at Pioneer and Huron only take six classes, while most students at Skyline take five classes every term. But if seventh hour is cut, and Skyline stays with the trimester system, to maintain parity, should only four classes be offered per trimester (because 6 x 2 = 12 and 4 x 3 = 12)? Now that would affect a lot of people.
How many students take seventh hour? At any given time, it’s less than a quarter of the enrolled student body. But many students take a seventh hour only every second or third semester, so the impact would affect closer to half of the district’s students. Students who are most likely to take a seventh hour include: students who take orchestra, band, or choir; students who take a lot of AP classes; students who need to make up classes (credit recovery); and students in career/technical education. The Pioneer music department, for instance, estimates that 43% of the students in the music department take a seventh hour at least some of the time in order to get their necessary (non-music) credits.
I don’t have any idea how many students in the music program are African American or Hispanic/Latino. I don’t have any idea what percentage of students in the music program qualify for free and reduced price lunch. (The percentage of high school students who qualify for free/reduced price lunch in Ann Arbor is around 15%, much lower than in the middle and elementary schools. Families have to submit a separate application for each student, and in many cases the ones for older students are not submitted.) I don’t have any idea how many students would have difficulty actually earning enough credit hours in four years without seventh hour (and still be able to take music, or technical education). I don’t have any idea how many students are just barely above the free and reduced price lunch cutoff, but whose parents don’t have the disposable income to pay for a seventh hour. But the district probably does know, or could know.
I do know that if Skyline keeps a trimester system, then cutting the fifth hour would affect more students than cutting the seventh hour at Pioneer or Huron.
Cutting seventh hour compared to conversion to tuition could turn out to have quite different impacts, depending on how it’s handled. If seventh hour becomes a tuition-only option, should the fifth hour at Skyline be made tuition only? And if the district makes a seventh hour available with tuition only, would students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch have the fees waived? How would that affect the cost savings? Who would do the billing? What happens if parents say they’ll pay, but then don’t?
So is there a disparate impact to the proposals affecting seventh hour? Probably, but I can’t quantify it. What is interesting to me is that, if used correctly, seventh hour could potentially be a tool for reducing the achievement gap. I have talked to African-American parents and immigrant parents who have told me they believe that by keeping their children enrolled in music programs, their children have an opportunity to do better overall in school. That’s in part because being in orchestra or band affects your other scheduling options. And it makes it more likely that you will be scheduled with more serious students.
In the end, we do have budget cuts to make. It seems to me that high school transportation affects the largest number of students. It also has the greatest potential to create a disparate impact and undermine efforts to reduce the achievement gap.
If these are the wrong cuts, then we need to find other items to cut – at least until we can convince the state legislature to improve school funding. To my mind, avoiding any or all of these cuts might involve increasing district-wide class sizes just slightly by reducing general teaching numbers. I admit, that is a tough pill to swallow, but to me it is a better alternative than cutting high school transportation.
Ruth Kraut is an Ann Arbor resident and parent of three children who have all attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She writes at Ann Arbor Schools Musings (a2schoolsmuse.blogspot.com) about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.
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