Putting schools on a diet: The public speaks

In November 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a widely noted address about the tough economic times facing American K-12 education. “I am here,” he said, “to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K–12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less.”

Twenty months later, it’s clear that the Secretary’s warning was right on point. Many states face bona fide budget crises and, as a recent report by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and ex-New York Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch warns, these strains will worsen in the coming years. Depressed housing values have meant skimpier property-tax revenues for schools; voters have balked at passing local levies; federal “stimulus” dollars have dried up; Medicaid costs are headed through the roof. Once limited to a handful of budget-conscious superintendents and state officials, discussions about how to curtail education costs are taking place in virtually every district and school across America.

Is America ready for this sour fiscal lemon? Is there any possibility of lemonade, i.e., making reforms in a time of budgetary stress that might not otherwise be possible? Secretary Duncan thought so:

My message is that this challenge can, and should, be embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.

Opportunities worth seizing are indeed within reach. (Although during today's game of "chicken" over "sequestration" of chunks of the federal budget itself, Secretary Duncan is signaling his dismay that cuts may indeed have to be made!) But which opportunities should be seized most firmly? And which will the public back? It little avails an education leader or elected official to suggest a well crafted (and, for some, doubtlessly painful) trade-off if voters balk, parents rebel, and the community grumbles. If the public won’t back elected leaders who make painful decisions, there’s every reason to fear that the current education-budget crunch will persist and deepen.

With the help of expert survey researchers at the FDR Group, we at Fordham tried to gauge the fiscal zeitgeist. Our findings appear in How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education, which presents results from a nationally representative survey of American adults, including parents of school-age children. We asked them to wrestle with many of the same budgetary trade-offs that face today’s school boards and superintendents.

We didn’t expect cheers to greet the prospect of education-budget cuts. But this national survey makes clear that the jeers can be minimized, because the U.S. public supports many (though not all) of the tough calls that district leaders will need to make. What we learned:

Americans show realism and common sense relative to smarter education spending.

The public is well aware that its schools are in financial straits. They recognize the futility of “rely[ing] on tax increases to close the deficit.” They think districts could get by with fewer administrators; teachers could forego raises in order keep their jobs; stronger instructors teaching larger groups of pupils trump small classes; layoffs (when unavoidable) should be determined by effectiveness, not longevity; responsible retirement savings begin with the individual; and the quality of special education, like everything else in education, should be gauged by outcomes, not inputs. That all makes sense to us, too.

At the same time, the public has a couple of priorities askew when it comes to education cost savings.

Sure, there are grounds for caution about digital learning. It’s new and, like many innovations, has sometimes over-promised and under-delivered. But online and blended learning, properly done, are among the most promising of the “opportunit[ies] for innovation and accelerating progress” that Secretary Duncan referenced. They can save money in the education budget, too, and yield more bang for the available bucks—just as the astute application of technology has done in nearly every other sector of our lives. Yet Americans remain deeply skeptical.

We also question the public’s judgment regarding the value of non-teaching staff, an employment category within K-12 education that has ballooned in recent years. Consider this: The number of teachers in U.S. schools grew by 43 percent from 1986 to 2009. (Student enrollments rose by just 24 percent over this time period.) But the “instructional support staff” working in our schools increased by a stupefying 150 percent! How much of this growth is truly necessary for school effectiveness? And is it more valuable than employing (and retaining) better teachers?

Taxpayers sometimes want to have their cake and eat it, too.

If forced to choose between pay cuts and layoffs, for example, 74 percent prefer cutting all teacher salaries by 5 percent versus laying off 5 percent of the instructional staff. At the same time, however, 67 percent favor “extending teachers’ workday by one hour and using the time to collaborate with other teachers and tutor students.” Sure, we can try to wring more productivity out of our historically inefficient system of public education. But maybe not by demanding that all teachers do more while earning less. Wouldn’t laying off 5 percent—preferably the least effective 5 percent—preserve morale and inspire confidence in the remaining teachers, who’d continue to see their hard work rewarded?

Mostly, though, Americans are pretty sensible about how to slim down public education. The big challenge is turning those sound views into prudent yet forceful actions. Public sentiment alone doesn’t shed the budgetary pounds. There’s lot of hard work ahead, many calories to be burned, much strength and endurance to be mustered. Dynamic, visionary, yet astute leadership is also going to be needed—the budgetary equivalent of personal trainers and daily exercise regimens. Such leadership must make the case for efficiency and adherence to its new diet-and-fitness plan. If not, public education will lumber under the burden of its own weight—and fail to make the gains in speed, agility, and stamina that it so clearly needs to do its vital job under today’s fiscal conditions and educational demands. As candidates court voters for state and local (and national) elections this fall, they should draw courage from the knowledge that the public will have their backs if they face these issues head on.

Note: Question wording in charts may be edited for space. Complete text and data are available in the appendix to How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education.

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