Regarding cost, the public seems to “get it” but results need context

associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators
Bruce Hunter

Guest blogger Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, analyzes Fordham's latest publication, How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education.

The public knows a good deal about their schools.

The new Fordham Institute poll regarding how to reduce the cost of public education shows in part that the public knows a good deal about their schools and the effects of the now four-year long recession/depression public schools are experiencing. Unfortunately, the poll either didn’t fill in context or didn’t report contextual information.

The public gets it—compare its opinions with actions being taken:

  1.  Sixty-nine percent say cutting central administration is a good idea. That has happened according to a series of AASA surveys of school districts, which found that 34.1 percent reported central administration cuts in 2010-11, 30.7 percent in 2011-12, and 23.5 percent anticipate such cuts in 2012-13.
  2. Seventy-four percent responded that cutting teacher pay was a good idea, but only 14 percent wanted teacher layoffs. Anecdotally, there have been pay freezes; however there have also been massive layoffs. For example, school districts reported that 42 percent cut aides in 2010-11, 43.8 percent in 2011-12, and 35.85 percent anticipate such cuts in 2012-13. Similarly, 37.9 percent reported laying off core subject teachers in 2010-11, 40.7 percent in 2011-12, and 35.6 percent anticipate such cuts in 2012-13. Layoffs of Special-education teachers, foreign-language teachers, and school nurses were 300 to 400 percent smaller than of other teachers, aides, and central-office staff. What would the public make of that?
  3. Sixty-three percent responded that merging school districts was a good idea. That is happening, but under the radar. The latest Digest of Education Statistics (2011) reports that in 1979-80 there were 15,944 regular public-school districts and only 13,629 in 2009-2010. Unfortunately, there is no count of superintendents because NCES refuses to count superintendents in the Schools and Staffing Survey. AASA does try to cobble together counts of superintendents. Last year we found fewer than 12,000 individuals with the title “superintendent.” Either we didn’t find them all or reports of shared superintendents in merged districts are real.

Other poll findings need context. For example, seeking layoffs by effectiveness not experience overlooks existing labor contracts and state law. Freezing pay was a favored option in the poll, but we don’t have data on how common that was, except anecdotally where it seemed common.

It is interesting that the one question concerning the cost of special education drew the response that there ought to be limits to costs in some circumstances. However, in reality there aren’t limits except those set by the courts, which have high attendant costs. And the cost limits set by the courts have moved steadily upward. No wonder charter schools shy away from the high-cost special education students.

Finally, the poll did not include the cost of meeting nonnegotiable federal and state mandates regarding everything from class size to what can be served for lunch. Leaving out the cost of mandates gives an incomplete picture of what the public would say if given more context. But all in all, the poll does a service by shedding some light on cuts the public would make.

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