Since an announcement Tuesday from legislative leaders that they had hired a two-year-old New Jersey organization to re-evaluate Mississippi’s school funding formula, questions about the group have swirled.
Who is EdBuild? What is their motive? How are they funded?
The Jersey City, N.J.-based group EdBuild was founded in 2014 and is headed by longtime education player Rebecca Sibilia.
Before starting EdBuild, Sibilia worked with StudentsFirst, a group founded by Michelle Rhee when she left her post in late 2010 as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. StudentsFirst focused on reform efforts such as overhauling teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluation and compensation to student growth and advocating for charter schools and the competition they provide for public schools.
Sibilia said the majority of her work with StudentsFirst focused on working with states around funding issues.
“One of the things I realized through that time was there is an incredibly arbitrary and illogical policies related to state funding across the board … so that’s really what led me to start EdBuild,” she explained.
Since then, the group has produced studies on inequitable school funding around the nation, including a report showing neighboring districts with the biggest disparities in per pupil funding, median household income, property value and poverty rate.
For example, in Alabama, the Vestavia Hills school district has a median household income of more than $80,000 and a local revenue per student of $6,143. Next door in Birmingham, however, the median household income drops to around $31,000, and the local per pupil funding is nearly $2,000 less at $4,326. Almost half of the community lives in poverty.
EdBuild has examined each state’s school funding model, focusing on states’ base funding amount, how much local revenue districts depend on, and whether funding is differentiated based on certain student characteristics.
The group set a goal when it started: by 2020, four states will have passed funding formula reform and will have “moved to a weighted student funding system that prioritizes student need.” As of this week, three states, including Mississippi, are working with EdBuild toward that end.
Work in other states
EdBuild is currently working with Connecticut and Georgia. According to Sibilia, its work with Georgia is most comparable to what it expects to do with Mississippi.
“We worked directly with the (Georgia) governor’s staff to find out what the funding priorities were and then attended a number of subcommittee meetings of superintendents, legislators and business leaders and a diverse group of people who have a stake in the education system,” she described. “We really got a sense of what the priorities were from folks on the ground, and helped them design a funding formula that put more money into low-income schools and made special education much more logical.”
Sibilia said the subcommittee approved the formula and it will likely head to the Legislature in 2017.
Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said the group’s “focus and experience simplifying school finance to meet student needs was a major component” in the state’s decision to work with EdBuild.
Hipp said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, is “largely program based” and has resulted in high administrative costs.
“It has ignored actual student need. For example, more than half of the states fund students with special needs based on their disability and specific needs,” Hipp said. “Mississippi is one of only six states that funds program costs regardless of how severe a students’ disability may be.”
Sibilia said EdBuild supports funding formulas that give school districts flexibility. For example, instead of appropriating money to school districts specifically marked for school buses, the money is part of a larger pot that can be used by districts based on specific student needs.
“There are a lot of states moving to weighting for rural areas. So instead of providing transportation dollars that are earmarked only for transportation, you build weight into the funding formula that gets applied to each student enrolled in a sparse or small school district,” she explained. “Those funds can then be diverted to really anything that can help those students get to school, to help the school overcome lack of economies of scale and doesn’t build in an incentive to spend that money only on transportation.”
There’s no incentive, for example, for a district to create more efficient bus routes when a certain amount of money is guaranteed for transportation, she noted. The change in funding could lead school districts, if appropriate, to “consolidate bus patterns and also put some money towards getting better food for kids or whatever that may be. It’s about creating the kind of environment where that kind of innovation can happen,” she said.
Charter school involvement
Sibilia said EdBuild stays away from advocating on issues such as charter schools and aims to act as a provider of technical assistance for legislators and state leaders. Some EdBuild donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, fund charter schools and organizations that support them.
“Our mission is to make sure every student has a chance to attend well-funded schools and get a great education, wherever they are. The vast majority of the students we work with are in traditional public schools,” she said. “So the notion that we’re an advocacy organization coming in to disrupt and divert funds to charter schools would frankly make us so negligent that we shouldn’t be involved in this work at all.”
Yet in a video clip posted last year by the school choice group American Federation of Children, Sibilia says one issue EdBuild will address is directly related to charter schools and governance.
“Thirty to 50 percent of funds going to schools come from property taxes. And in 36 states, property taxes can’t go to schools of choice,” Sibilia said in the clip. “So … we have had charter schools for a quarter of a century but we’re still treating them like experiments, and so that’s a problem and we have to fix it. … We’ve got to take on the property tax battle. When we take that on, we get to start talking about governance in a completely different way.”
She concluded by saying that the reason the system is broken and can’t be fixed is “because we can’t break down the property tax issue because property taxes can only go to the monolith that is the traditional public school system.”
Mississippi charter schools currently can receive both state and local tax dollars, though a pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that funding could impact that.
Several in the Mississippi education community have expressed doubts about the goals of the study since the leadership’s announcement. The Parents’ Campaign, an education advocacy group that pushes for full funding of the state’s current funding formula questioned the leadership’s statement that the funding formula should be “student-based.”
“The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the DC-based corporate bill mill that lobbies for school privatization, is pushing model legislation called the ‘Student Centered Funding Act,’” Executive Director Nancy Loome said in a statement. “Needless to say, we will be watching this process closely.”
Others have criticized a response by Sibilia to a question about Detroit going bankrupt and the effect it has on the schools. She responded bankruptcy could be a “huge opportunity for school districts.” That video was from the same event where she addressed property taxes and charter schools.
She told Mississippi Today, however, her comments were misinterpreted.
“Anyone taking that quote and applying it to the way we are going to engage in Mississippi hasn’t read our website, hasn’t read our mission and they’ll say what they will,” she responded.