Stretching the School Dollar

Although state tax collections are on the rise,
and have returned to 2008 levels in many places, education advocates
shouldn’t kid themselves that the “new normal” of flat budgets and tough
resource allocation decisions will soon come to an end. Spending on
health care entitlements continues to grow rapidly,
according to the National Association of State Budget Officers’ most
recent report, while K-12 education loses ground as a share of state
budgets.

The education reform community needs to think beyond the next levy
referendum when it comes to providing resources to our schools. Health
care reform — specifically, containing the cost of entitlements like
Medicare and Medicaid — has become a major issue impacting American
schools. While a few forward-thinking groups like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education have grasped this and become active on health care policy in their state capitals, it’s not on most people’s agendas.

Yet the simple arithmetic is unavoidable: Medicaid can’t continue to
grow faster than the long-term growth rate of the economy without
sucking up more and more of state budgets. Education aid necessarily
suffers under any scenario where government continues to pay for rapid,
unchecked increases in entitlement spending.

The political reality is equally stark: The AARP and other lobbying
groups for recipients of state-financed medical care are very good at
protecting these entitlements, and deficit hawks usually form a lonely
minority...

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State Rep. Matt Huffman is trying to build support for a promising effort
to expand private school vouchers to more working-class families in
Ohio. In order to appease recalcitrant school districts, whose
executives vocally oppose the measure, he may remove any benefit
youngsters in wealthier districts could hope to get out of the program,
however.

Originally, the bill would have granted vouchers of up to $4,626
based on a family’s economic circumstances. But managers in more than
300 school districts have complained about the possible loss of state
and local funding, apparently afraid of competition for students’
dollars from the parochial school down the block. Huffman now wants to
limit the amount of each voucher to the total per-pupil aid the child’s
school district receives from the state. This means that children in
property-rich suburbs, where a growing number of poor families are concentrated,
could get just a few hundred bucks a year when they leave for a private
school, while many thousands of dollars stay with the school district.

It’s hard to imagine a worse trade-off: Districts get to keep the
cash without providing services, while poor and working-class parents in
the ‘burbs are forced to scrimp and save even more than their urban
counterparts to have some measure of control over their children’s
education. Choice-friendly legislators and advocacy groups in Ohio
should ask themselves, who are the state’s...

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As I was reading Richard Vinen’s op-ed about Margaret Thatcher from this weekend’s New York Times,
I couldn’t help but think of Florida’s beleaguered governor. Rick Scott
ran as a staunch Tea Partier dead set on getting public spending under
control, cutting $1.35B from the state’s education budget last year.
With the 2012 elections looming, however, Scott has suffered a crisis of nerves,
calling for a billion in new money for education — and no new reforms
of note — in an effort to improve his flagging popularity. He has turned
to the kind of likability-oriented politics that Thatcher eschewed in
her program to remake 1980s Britain.

Scott is not alone. After losing a ballot measure over his signature public-sector reform, Ohio’s John Kasich declared, “It’s time to pause,” despite the fact that voters largely support
the education reform portions of the law. Where 2011 was defined by
tough discussions about how to balance competing state-level priorities
in an era of austerity — with teacher unions frequently on the losing
end of those battles — many politicians gearing up for 2012 are striking
a softer tone. (By contrast, the bipartisan duo of Chris Christie in
New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo in New York have made progress, if
haltingly, toward reform of the public sector, and both seem braced for
productive work in 2012.)

Sweeping problems under the rug would be...

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Charged up by our governance conference last week, Dave DeSchryver says we should open the black box
of school finances and shine some much needed light on how school
dollars are really spent. This kind of accountability, with some
easy-to-use tools along the lines of Mint.com, is sorely needed as
education budgets have ballooned out of control.

But hoping that district leaders will be shamed into spending more
frugally is not enough. How do I know? Because even when they’re
required to report on financial problems publicly, district leaders and
politicians are utterly shameless in nearly all cases, tinkering around
the edges rather than facing facts.

Take Montgomery County, Maryland. Last week the county released a report showing the school district’s pension costs have increased by 369 percent
over the past eight years. The state pays for teacher pensions, but the
county is on the hook for everyone else’s plan.  The council president
claims this is “a huge cause for concern,” but no one is seriously
considering changes to build a better retirement system. They’re pushing
for quick fixes, increasing teacher contributions to a fundamentally
unsustainable program.

School spending needs more than a technical fix. More transparency
could help create pressure, and weighted student funding could give
parents more perceived “skin in the game” by tying a dollar amount to
their own child’s education. In the end, though, we need political
...

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A major impediment to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children
in the nation’s schools is misallocation of the more than $600 billion
we spend annually on K-12 education. Marguerite Roza from CRPE and Cindy Brown from the Center for American Progress brought up this very point at our governance conference this morning. (Live feed is here if you want to tune in.)

The Department of Education just released a national study
(pdf) confirming with hard data what many experts have said for years:
rigid salary schedules established are a major source of inequity within
school districts. (It’s important to stress that this is not a
“loophole,” but a carefully structured policy embedded in most contracts
at the behest of teacher unions.) Here’s CAP’s Cindy Brown in the New York Times:

A few researchers have documented the problem with
statewide data in Florida and some other states, said Cynthia Brown, a
vice president at the Center for American Progress,
a liberal research group. “But I’m excited because this is the first
time that data documenting the problem has ever been collected on a
nationwide basis,” she said. “Many of us have known for a long time that
in some individual districts the high-poverty schools weren’t getting
their fair share of state and local funds.”

As Marguerite Roza said this morning at our conference, the way we
...

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Two-thirds of schools in the UK were closed for a day recently as
teachers went on strike over proposed changes to pensions. Unions are
trying to force the government’s hand during negotiations over
contributions to the pension system, which has become unaffordable
(there as here in the US) due to rising life expectancy and rules that
permit retirement as early as 55.

The UK’s schools minister, Nick Gibb, didn’t mince words in condemning the strike:

Mr Gibb said: “Strikes benefit no-one – they will disrupt
pupils’ education, hugely inconvenience parents, and damage teachers’
reputation.

“It’s irresponsible to strike while negotiations are ongoing. Many
parents will struggle to understand why schools are closed when the
pension deal on the table means that teachers will still be better
rewarded than the vast majority of workers in the private sector.

“Reforms to public sector pensions are essential – the status quo is
not an option. The cost to the taxpayer of teacher pensions is already
forecast to double from £5bn in 2006 to £10bn in 2016, and will carry
on rising rapidly as life expectancy continues to improve.

More here.

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Zachary Janowski at the Yankee Institute has an interesting take on school efficiency in Hartford, CT:

Ten Connecticut school districts can produce two high
school graduates for the price of one Hartford high school diploma,
according to Department of Education data.

The most recent 13 years of education, representing kindergarten through 12th grade, cost $165,275 in Hartford. With a graduation rate of 69.3 percent, the cost per diploma in Hartford is $238,492.

In 2010, Hartford’s costs were less than double the costs of the most efficient school districts.

Presumably, students who drop out gain some benefits from
their schooling, even if they don’t receive a degree. But a partial high
school education is not much of an asset in the labor market relative
to completion of a rigorous secondary program and vocational training.
This analysis reveals just how much of Hartford’s K-12 investment is
being squandered for likely little gain in outcomes for kids who don’t
make it to graduation day.

The Yankee Institute’s analysis reveals an important side of the
“doing more with less” coin: Schools that can deliver higher quality and
better outcomes for the same level of spending should be highlighted as
best practices just as should schools that are able to trim expenses
and achieve the same level of quality. Hopefully Hartford and other
low-efficiency districts in Connecticut can look to their more
productive peers for strategies to increase their...

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Protestors on UC campuses in California are focusing attention on the rising cost of higher education
in the state’s public university system, which has seen cuts in state
support of over a billion dollars. A Berkeley administrator sums up the
concern:

“The rapidly rising fees give us all heartburn,” said
Gibor Basri, the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at Berkeley,
who has met with the protesters several times. “We don’t believe that
higher education is a private right but a public good.”

The funding challenge in higher ed has implications for K-12 spending
as well. Society has a responsibility to fund education — both to
provide equality of opportunity for all children and to develop human
capital for the improvement of civic life and our economy. But what to
do when taxpayers have already provided massive increases in funding
after inflation over a sustained period, as they have for K-12 over the
past several decades?

We can’t afford to focus only on the revenue side of the equation
anymore if our goal is to ensure that quality education remains a public
good. Just as taxpayers have their responsibility for this good, so,
too, do service providers entrusted with public dollars: teachers,
administrators, and school boards. When these folks avoid having tough
conversations about efficiency, they weaken society’s promise of a free,
top-notch education for all.

Reformers who are focused...

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Andrew Boy
Founder and executive director of Columbus Collegiate Academy

Guest blogger Andrew Boy is the founder and executive director of Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA), a Fordham-authorized middle school serving students in grades six through eight.

As school levies fail across central Ohio, I am concerned and
disappointed to see so many school districts quickly threaten to reduce
the quality of our children’s education. Providing an excellent
education for our children may be the single most important thing we
can do as responsible citizens.

To
give hope to our children in tough economic times, we must learn to do
more with less. When I read the statement made by Westerville’s
school-board president, “We’ll be looking at state-minimum
requirements,” I lost confidence in the leadership of the district in
which I live. As the operator of the Columbus Collegiate Academy, a
charter school on the Near East Side, I run a school on a shoestring
budget. Unlike traditional district schools, we don’t have access to
local property-tax dollars.

When I see levies on the ballot, I can only dream about what we
could do for our students, 94 percent of whom are minorities and 88
percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, with additional
revenue. Although it is unlikely we ever will receive public revenue at
the same level as others, we would never settle for providing our
students with “state-minimum requirements.”

Instead of slighting our students with the bare minimum, we...

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Paul T. Hill
director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education

Guest blogger Paul T. Hill is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the author of a recent paper in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

Futurists
have long regaled us with predictions about technology dramatically
improving education by giving millions more students access to the very
best teachers and deploying computer-based systems that allow them to
learn at their own pace at whatever time and place works best for them.
This vision is now becoming a reality, partly because tight budgets are
forcing K-12 schools to employ fewer teachers and boost the productivity
of those who remain.

Saving money is only part of technology’s educational potential,
however. More important is individualization and rapid adaptation to
what a student is learning, leading to the possibility of greater and
more consistent growth. Managing equipment, web links and vendor
contracts is also far nimbler than re-organizing people.

All this potential notwithstanding, however, plenty of policy and
structural barriers stand in the way of widespread adoption of
technology in K-12 education. Perhaps the toughest of these is our
traditional approach to school funding.

Simply put: Our current education finance system doesn’t actually
fund schools and certainly doesn’t fund students. Rather, it pays for
district-wide programs and staff positions. Much of it...

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