Robert Costrell, professor of education reform and economics (by courtesy) at the University of Arkansas, was recently honored with the 2020 Steven D. Gold Award.

The award is given annually by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) — the largest scholarly organization in the field of public policy — along with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Tax Association. It is named in memory of Steve Gold, an active member of all three organizations whose career and life were tragically shortened by illness.

The award recognizes those who have made significant contributions to public financial management in the field of intergovernmental relations and state and local finance. Costrell will be recognized at APPAM’s 2020 Virtual Fall Research Conference during the Awards and Opening Plenary.

“This is a major accomplishment,” said Jay Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions. “Bob Costrell is one of the nation’s leading experts on school finances, with both impressive scholarship and practical experience in the field. This award recognizes this lifetime of accomplishment.”

Costrell’s career spans more than four decades in academia and state government.

Costrell “is well-deserving of this honor,” wrote former U of A doctoral students James Shuls and Collin Hitt in a letter to APPAM nominating Costrell. “He is the rare breed of scholar and public servant. His work has made an indelible mark in public financial management in the field of state and local finance; particularly in the area of school finance and public pensions.”

The first half of Costrell’s career was spent as a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he wrote a series of seminal papers on the economic theory of educational standards.

In 1999, Costrell joined the governor’s office in Massachusetts, as the state implemented landmark educational reforms that are now widely credited for producing remarkable gains in reading and math. He served first as director of policy research and development, then chief economist, and, finally, education advisor to the governor. He served in the administration of three Massachusetts governors over seven years.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, wrote a letter supporting Costrell’s nomination. He worked with Costrell for nearly four years while the governor of Massachusetts.

“Our state budget was projected to be badly out of balance and his knowledge and judgement were essential to correcting the impending deficit as soon as possible,” Romney wrote. “Bob’s focus was on our educational system which, as you might imagine, was a large portion of our spending. He was able to find ways to bring our costs and revenues into balance without cutting vital priorities.

“Bob is highly sensitive to the need for the highest commitment to quality education — at all levels,” Romney wrote.

While working in the government sector, Costrell led the administration’s reforms of the state’s district and charter funding formulas. His extensive expert testimony in Massachusetts’ school finance case (Hancock v. Driscoll) proved critical to the successful defense of that state’s education reform program.

In 2006, Costrell was appointed as the Endowed Chair in Education Accountability in the College of Education and Health Professions at the U of A. In this role, Costrell’s research has focused primarily on public employee pensions. In addition to highlighting the many ways pension structures distort the education labor market, Costrell has undertaken important work analyzing the funding rules of public pensions.

Costrell and collaborators Hitt and Shuls have recently made important discoveries at the intersection of school finance and public pensions.

“In a 2020 piece appearing in Educational Researcher, our team displayed a list of every state that makes public pension payments on behalf of school districts,” the nomination letter from Hitt and Shuls noted. “This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. No one had an accurate accounting of these data. Not even the federal government. As we call it, this was a ‘$19 billion blind spot.'”

Costrell said it has been a great privilege to have a career in both academia and policy-making.

“I believe this award recognizes the value to the academy and the public of such mutually enriching experiences,” he said. “My hope is that our department’s Ph.D. students will also have the opportunity to contribute in both domains.”