Stretching the School Dollar

Chris Cerf
Chris Cerf & Co. deserve praise for trying something new in a touchy, costly program area.

New Jersey
is trying something new, and promising, to improve the quality of special
education in the state. Education commissioner Chris Cerf recently awarded $1M in grants
to districts that had the highest absolute performance and highest growth for
their special ed students.

The Garden
State's implementation of
performance-based funding has serious strong points. In a program area that
focuses largely on inputs (i.e., the level of funding and staff dedicated to
special ed students), these grants shift the spotlight to quality. The
initiative also shows how much good a robust data system can do.

The long-term incentives performance-based funding could
provide in this area are a little more worrying, however. A variety of children
are lumped under the "special education" umbrella, and measuring
performance and growth looks very different in each locale depending on the mix
of conditions a district's students face. Will school systems with a high
proportion of severely disabled students be left behind, even if they're
achieving modest gains in a cost-effective way? What about the dangers of
over-identifying high-achieving (or high-growth-potential) students to improve
the numbers?

The state-level team in New Jersey...


Barack Obama
The President could not have been more wrong in his remarks yesterday to the nation's governors on the subject of school teachers.
Photo by jamesomalley.

The Utah
legislature is considering a big move toward student-based
state funding of secondary education
, allowing students to apply public
dollars not only to a variety of public secondary options, but to college
courses as well.

Students could
choose to spend that money to attend public schools, including charter schools;
take public school online classes; and/or pay for courses offered by public and
certain private, nonprofit Utah
colleges. School districts and other providers would determine how much to
charge for classes and that amount would be deducted from student accounts.
Students could use any money left in their accounts after high school to
continue their educations.

Providing secondary education services is becoming an
increasingly complex proposition, as students add community college courses to
their workload, explore virtual education options for foreign languages and
advanced math and science content, and often try to take advantage of work or
vocational ed opportunities.

The bill is currently in committee, and lawmakers may scale
the program back to a pilot. Utah
has quietly done some very...

The Shanker Institute's Matt Di Carlo had a great post last week breaking down a recent study by
economist Brian Jacob on how principals fire (or don't fire) teachers in
Chicago Public Schools. The news that firings correlate with lower
effectiveness is nice to hear. But the headline is that, given more
flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody:

Given more
flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody.
Jacob found that, despite the new policy allowing principals
to dismiss probationary teachers at will, a rather high proportion of them
didn’t do so. During each year between 2004-05 and 2006-07, principals in
around 30-40 percent of Chicago
schools chose not to dismiss a single probationary teacher. Further, this
phenomenon was not at all limited to “high-performing” and/or low-poverty
schools, where one might expect to find a stable, well-trained teaching force.
For instance, in 2005, 35 percent of the “lowest-performing” schools (the
bottom 25 percent) chose not to dismiss any probationary teachers, as compared
with 54 percent of the school with the highest absolute achievement levels (the
proportions were similar when school performance was measured in terms of
In other words, when principals were given free rein to fire for any reason,
with virtually no documentation or effort, a significant proportion chose not
to use this power even once.

This is quite a challenge to those who believe...

Simply spending more isn't a solution.
Photo by Purple Slog.

More money means better outcomes for kids: It's an argument
heard over and over in state capitals during budget season and in local
newspapers leading up to votes on tax levies. At a recent event on Capitol
Hill, Thomas Gais, the director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government,
made a
similar case
, claiming that more state education funding reliably leads to
better well-being for children. If only it were actually that easy to improve America's

The main problem with this argument is that we as a country
tend to invest the most in kids who are already on track to do well—middle-class
and wealthy kids, mostly white, largely found in the suburbs. Many are educated
in the "public private" schools we profiled
a couple of years ago. I believe that these kids have high
"well-being," whatever that term means to the Rockefeller Institute,
but it's hard to argue that spending state money on these kids' educations got
them to where they are.

high-spending, high-poverty districts are the exceptions that prove this rule. Washington, D.C., New Jersey's Abbott
districts, and a...

This afternoon, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is set to announce
his budget
for the next fiscal year, and the proposal is being described as
"dramatic" and "difficult." Flat state aid for K-12 schools
is the best situation expected—many observers expect further cuts on top of last year's regressive reductions in state aid.

Districts—especially poorer ones that rely heavily on state
funding—are faced with a serious challenge to make ends meet.

Districts—especially poorer ones that rely heavily on state
funding—are faced with a serious challenge to make ends meet. Chester Upland
School District has shown
what not to do: pretend extra money will appear out of thin air. After spending
as if last year's state aid reductions never happened, the
district is on the brink of bankruptcy
. School boards, superintendents, and
union leaders in other Pennsylvania
districts have a responsibility to make their budgets work without dragging
their schools to the brink.

lawmakers bear some responsibility—and blame—here as well, however. How they
allocate the cuts needed to balance the state's budget have a real impact on
kids, especially those in disadvantaged communities. The Keystone
State's legislators ought to ensure
that wealthier communities bear the brunt of any cuts in state aid, since they
have a more robust local tax base and rely less on dollars from Harrisburg.

What's most striking about the discussion in Pennsylvania over the

MBAs are taking on an increasingly visible role in
traditional school districts around the country. Large districts are
multi-billion dollar enterprises, the argument goes, and business-minded people
bring critical skills for managing those organizations efficiently. Many
passionate ed-reformer MBAs believe the b-school set can help combat the
bureaucracy and mismanagement that hurt districts' effectiveness. As a fellow
business school graduate, I'm not so sure.

My first, perhaps obvious, objection is that big
organizations with distinctive professional cultures are incredibly hard to
turn around. This is especially true if you're trying to effect change from the
middle management and special-projects role where many new MBAs find
themselves. Traditional school districts need major changes to their business
models to be on financially sustainable ground and poised to deliver services
in a coming era of increased parental choice and (I hope!) decoupled services.
That's primarily a job for school boards and superintendents.

The problem with the "MBAs to the
rescue" strategy is the conceit that business-school types are
somehow inherently efficiency-minded.

The fundamental problem with the "MBAs to the
rescue" strategy, however, is the conceit that business-school types are
somehow inherently efficiency-minded. Ludwig
von Mises pointed out
that what he called "commercial-mindedness"
comes from the incentives inherent in running a business--if you fail, it
will fail, and with it will go your livelihood. It's a response to incentives,
and it...

Maryland is not a hot-bed of education reform (though the
newly-formed MarylandCAN no doubt hopes to change that) and Martin O'Malley is
not usually seen as vying for the crown of public-sector reformer as Chris
Christie, Andrew Cuomo, et al. are. Nevertheless, O'Malley is stepping out in
favor of a much-needed—and relatively unpopular—reform
to Maryland's teacher pension system.

Under current law, the state shoulders most of the burden
for teacher pensions, not districts. It's a sweet deal for the state's
wealthier school districts, which can max out teacher salaries without bearing
much in the way of pension costs. The state, in turn, must divert resources
from other uses to pay the bill for retirement benefits.

The state will only pick up half
the tab, leaving local school boards with significant skin in the game.

O'Malley's plan is modest. The state will only pick up half
the tab, leaving local school boards with significant skin in the game. In
return, the state will pay half of the employer contribution to Social
Security, an expense that is capped by statute and, unlike pension costs, is not
subject to investment losses. Nevertheless, many county officials, especially
in wealthy counties, predict fiscal
will result.

The governor and his allies in the legislature on this issue
need to make the case for getting this bad arrangement off the books in
Maryland. (A similar...

Apple's announcement last week that it is entering the textbook market in a big way, with a free product allowing content creators to build engaging digital textbooks more easily, has already gotten lots of reaction

positive and negative from around the K-12 blogosphere (including from Fordham's own Kathleen Porter-Magee). Put me in the column of believers, though I don't think the...
Joshua Dunn
Associate professor in political science, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs

Guest blogger Joshua Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. In this post, originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, he dissects a judge's flawed ruling in a recent Colorado school funding case.

In a 2001 interview, a little-known state senator and law school professor
from Illinois
cautioned that courts are “poorly equipped” for making public policy. Pointing
to problems with the legitimacy and ability of courts, particularly in the
field of education, he advised
seeking change through politics rather than through litigation. Sadly, both of
Barack Obama’s concerns were exemplified in a Colorado state court decision last December.

In the long-running Lobato
v. Colorado school finance case
, Denver District Court Judge Sheila
Rappaport declared that Colorado
is underfunding education by more than $2 billion per year. She said that the
seventeen-year-old Public School Finance Act violates the education clause of
the state Constitution, which says that the state legislature shall provide a
“thorough and uniform” system of public schools. She instructed the state
legislature to design a school funding system that complies with her order.
Although she did not specify a precise sum, her order indicated that billions
of dollars of additional spending would be required every year.

Unfortunately for Rappaport, the Colorado Constitution consists of more than
just the education clause....

In case you missed it, Terry Ryan wrote a great post yesterday on the potential implications of Ohio's funding crisis for education in the state:

Ohio’s newspapers ran headlines today warning, “Money
crunch pushes Downtown roadwork way back
,” “Local
highway projects face delays
,” and “Last
phase of I-75/I-475 project stalls
.” The financial problems facing Ohio is
scaling back big time infrastructure projects that have been in planning for
years. According to the Columbus Dispatch
the Ohio Department of Transportation “proposes pushing back 34 projects that
had been planned to start by 2017 to dates as far off as 2036.
Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation,
captured the problem when he told the Cincinnati
"Unfortunately, this
is Ohio’s new reality. For too long, previous administrations have added more
and more to the list of projects knowing that there were more projects than
funds available. Their poor planning has put us in the position of making the
tough decisions and delivering the bad news to many communities throughout the
state that there is simply not enough money to fund their projects."
In reading about the woes facing Ohio’s highway improvement efforts
I couldn’t help but wonder if education in Ohio doesn’t face problems of
similar scale.

It's worth a read....