Stretching the School Dollar

One of Mike’s failed predictions
for 2011
– that Michelle Rhee would embrace paycheck protection as part of
her ed reform agenda – is still a worthy idea for StudentsFirst and other
education advocacy organizations in 2012. These laws require members of teacher
unions to give their express consent for the union to use their dues to make
political contributions.

Teachers do not speak with one voice on
political issues, even when it comes to K-12 policy. The “new normal” of tough
budgets exposes how the incentives of newer teachers differ from more
experienced ones, and new organizations like Educators 4 Excellence (which just
opened an LA
chapter
) fight for a political voice for them that is independent of the
union establishment. Last election, the Ohio Education Association actually attacked
the husband
of one its members in vicious television ads, using the
teacher’s own dues to finance them.

Teacher unions are among the most
powerful political actors in America on a wide range of issues (just ask Terry Moe,
Paul
Peterson
, or Mike Antonucci).
It’s not a given that that should be so, however, or that union intervention in
partisan elections is always (or even often) good for teachers as a whole. Rhee
and other education reformers would do well to add paycheck protection to their
toolkit of reforms...

Last week, Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon
Commission on Catholic Education made the dispiriting but long-expected
announcement that the Archdiocese will
close or consolidate
nearly 50 schools. Keeping more than 150 schools open
with enrollment down a third over the past decade is creating enormous cost
pressure for the city’s parochial schools, and the Commission saw consolidation
as the best hope for saving the nation’s first diocesan school system, a key
part of Philadelphia’s heritage founded by St. John Neumann.

As we described in our 2008 report, Who
Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?
,
Catholic schools face
major challenges in the form of declining enrollments, fewer vowed religious
sisters and brothers available to teach students, and shifting population and
demographic patterns. These pressures don’t only impact Catholic Americans,
however. Anything that weakens the nation’s parochial schools means bad news for
education generally, for three reasons:

  • Catholic schools are
    relatively cheap.
    According to data from the National Catholic
    Educational Association
    , the average per pupil cost for Catholic elementary
    schools is just under $5,500, and the cost for high schools is less than
    $11,000 per student. The average for K-12 public schools is more than $10K per
    student, making Catholic schools a serious bargain, especially since private
    contributions further reduce the actual tuition charged to parents.
  • Catholic schools are
    effective.
    Achievement results on NAEP suggest
    performance in
  • ...

Last
month, the District of Columbia’s
CFO discovered
a nice chunk of unexpected revenue
, some $42 million, had come the city’s
way. The mayor promptly called for half of the money to go to the District’s
public schools. In apparent disregard of the law, however, the mayor wants to
give the whole $21M windfall to DCPS, bailing them out for a loss of federal funding
and mismanagement of the district’s food service and merit pay programs. See
Bill Turque’s characterization of the budget holes this bailout will fill:

DCPS said the extra $21.4 million budgeted by Gray is needed to address
several issues: Congressional cuts in federal payments ($4.5 million); overruns
in food service caused by higher labor and food costs and lower federal
reimbursements ($10.7 million); mandated merit-based salary increases for
teachers ($2.8 million); and the rising cost of excessed non-instructional
employees who were removed from school budgets but are being carried on the
central office books.
Privately, senior Gray administration officials said DCPS finances have
historically been plagued by cost overruns, attributable to persistent
overspending by school system leadership and weak oversight by Gandhi’s office.

Charter
sector leaders in D.C. are incensed that DCPS is getting a huge payout to fill
budget holes while they get nothing. They’re right to be angry. In the hands of
charter school leaders, these funds could go to...

House Republicans have released two more bills in their effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act piece by piece. The draft legislation proposed last week seeks to
provide superintendents and state departments of education with more
flexibility about how to spend federal dollars, dramatically remaking the
American school finance system in the process.

The first gift the committee wants to give districts is
increased flexibility to transfer categorical funds aimed at one underserved
population into Title I. (You may recall that Mike called for something very
similar
more than a year ago.) This could wind up being a huge plus for
children in these programs, enabling the funding of whole-school programs to
address the needs of underprivileged youngsters without the mountains of red
tape that currently accompany these dollars.

Second, the proposed law would repeal the so-called
"maintenance of effort" requirement, which makes certain federal
grant funds contingent on states and localities continuing to spend the same
amount of their own money on education. This is becoming increasingly difficult
to do in light of other budget pressures, including rising health care costs
(both in Medicaid and on public worker payrolls).

On a whole, the House committee's proposals seem like a step
towards more sensible school finance system.

Maintenance of effort requirements also hold federal grant-giving
hostage to the fallacy that education simply costs what it costs, year in...

A reader from the Raleigh News & Observer wrote in when
the blog launched earlier this week to let me know about a program that could
be useful to classroom teachers looking to get great materials for free.

News in Education (NIE) is a program sponsored by many
newspapers around the country that provides access to free newspaper content (either electronically or with physical
papers in some cases) to K-12 teachers for use in their classrooms. The
classroom materials seem to vary in quality, but many offer lessons drawn from
newspaper content in disciplines from reading and social studies to math and
science, and in any case the free newspaper access is valuable in and of itself.

If you're an educator or school leader, check out the
Newspaper Association of America Foundation's page on NIE programs
for a list of papers near you offering the resource. Looks like a great way to
get timely reading material and other resources for the classroom for a song.
Thanks to reader Courtney Clark of the N&O
for the tip!

Teacher pay is back in the news, with a good roundup of
opinion on the New York Times' Room
for Debate page
. We hear the usual comparisons between teachers and other
workers — and some unusual ones (teachers vs. bartenders?).

The
problem seems to be how we allocate resources, not how much money is available.

All the contributors miss a point that hits principals and superintendents the
hardest, however: If a good teacher walks out the door to work in another
district, or another profession entirely, because his manager doesn't have the
flexibility to pay him more (and potentially pay a less-effective colleague
less in order to balance the staff budget), something is screwed up about
teacher pay. Given how much money we spend on K-12 education in America, and
how quickly budgets have grown compared to modest enrollment growth, the
problem seems to be how we allocate resources, not how much money is available.

Note that this is not about building bigger and better state- or district-wide
formulas as some education reformers prefer. Value-added models are great tools
for principals to evaluate their teachers, but there's no reason to believe
they're a silver bullet. Subjective measures like attitude and teamwork matter,
after all, and principals shouldn't necessarily have their hands tied on how
they use objective, test-based measures.

The credentialism and bias toward seniority preferred by teacher unions isn't
helpful, either....

Money talk can put people off, especially in education, where the mantra for decades has been, "Just spend more!" In the "new normal" of flat education budgets, however, more money is not easy for school boards and administrators to find.

In many places, this has meant across the board layoffs and a reduction in services provided to kids. This new era presents a tough challenge for superintendents and school budget officers charged with balancing the budget and doing right by the youngsters in their charge. Schools must be empowered (and incentivized) to deliver instruction more effectively, improving both quality and cost-efficiency. Fordham works to provide resources for school leaders to do just that, as well as provide analysis and advice to policymakers hoping to make the jobs of K-12 leaders easier. (Check out our policy brief from last year for a few ideas for state policy.)

On this blog, I'll examine a broad range of topics related to school finance: state funding formulas, healthcare and retirement benefits for teachers, parent access to financial data, and more. I'll be joined from time to time by other experts from the non-profit and public sectors as well.

A bit about me: I came to K-12 education from the private sector, where I worked as a management consultant in the hospitality industry. I left to pursue an MBA at Duke University, and during that program I was a summer fellow with Education Pioneers working in charter finance for the...

The New York Times has a somber editorial today, lamenting the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, The School Lunch Barometer.

But there is another story here, that, in many ways, is equally distressing: the amount of food that goes to waste. As a recent Chicago Tribune story began,

On visits to lunchrooms in Chicago public schools, the Tribune watched as vast quantities of unpeeled fruit, vegetables, milk cartons and other items got pitched into the garbage.

And, of course, “The district doesn't track how much food gets thrown away.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did look and in a 2010 study, called Digging Deep Through School Trash, discovered that “[t]he most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, which was 23.9% of the total waste generated.”

This kind of profligate spending should inspire outrage; instead, indifference. According to Ron Haskins in a 2005 report for Education Next, the lunch and breakfast program costs us $10 billion a year. Though I am sure that some children benefit, the program is not so much a food program as it is a poster child for government waste -- and, in this case, a systemic abdication of adult responsibility.

I participate in a lunchtime reading program at one of our schools and so get a close-up view of the problem: children picking at food, eating little, tossing away lots, including, of course, the Styrofoam tray...

The Denver Post recently analyzed the cost of taxpayer subsidies to teacher unions
in the 20 largest districts in Colorado and found they added up to more
than $1M per year. In many places across the country, school districts
pay some or all of the salary and benefits of union presidents and other
functionaries who don’t teach for a single hour. The fact that the
practice is common doesn’t make it impossible to change, however:

Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen,
who started in June 2010, said she cut the district’s payments to union
members nearly in half last spring and will end the extra spending
altogether in January.

“I’d rather not make comments on the past,” Celania-Fagen said.
“Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students
in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer
dollars.”

It’s difficult to make an argument that taxpayers should be directly
subsidizing union leaders. Organized labor already extracts indirect
subsidies by skimming dues from teachers’ paychecks, sometimes against
the desires of teachers. Kudos to the Post for shining some
light on this. Hopefully the districts they found that don’t track these
costs at all will start paying attention in light of the story.

Which of the five states competing to be America's next Education Reform Idol did the most to collective bargaining and benefits during the 2011 legislative session? Consider our analysis below, and attend our event Thursday morning (8:30-10:00AM) to see key players in all five states defend their records in front of a panel of ed-reform celebrity judges?Jeanne Allen, Richard Lee Colvin, and Bruno Manno. And click here to cast your vote for Education Reform Idol.

Florida

This year, Florida required public employees to start contributing to their retirement plans. Workers are only asked to kick in 3 percent, but it's a start. (This was enough to spur a lawsuit nonetheless.) The state also increased the retirement age and applied other technical fixes to reduce its liabilities. Overall, the plan is expected to save the state nearly a billion dollars. Collective bargaining was not on the table in 2011, and likely won't be anytime soon. The right to bargain is?enshrined in the Sunshine State's constitution. (That being said, Florida's constitution also frames the state as right-to-work. For teachers, this means that they cannot be required to pay union dues?or strike.)

Illinois

Illinois saw no action on pension costs or collective bargaining this year. Not a surprise for a Democrat-dominated legislature. The Land of Lincoln?did enact pension reform last year, but the state still faces huge unfunded liabilities. Last year's reforms also...

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