What exactly will the public support?

Managing Director, the District Management Council
Nate Levenson

Guest blogger Nate Levenson, author of Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools and a forthcoming Fordham Institute report on special-education spending, analyzes Fordham’s latest report, How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education.

“We should, but we can’t. The public will never support it!” In school boards and central offices around the country, these words end the discussion of many a good idea for more thoughtfully spending limited K-12 dollars.

John Q. Public is a lot more rational than many school and district leaders think.

I heard them time and time again as superintendent, when I floated more than a few nonconventional ideas for stretching the school dollar. I always countered with “How do you know what the public will support?” An honest answer would have been, “We don’t really know.”

Thanks to some much needed and insightful research from the Fordham Institute’s How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education, by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett, we finally do know what tactics the public supports (and loathes) when school budgets get tight. The good news is that John Q. Public is a lot more rational than many school and district leaders think and that some (but not all) of ed reformer’s favorite ideas have broad support. On the down side some very promising concepts lack widespread support.

Americans, according to this scientifically conducted study, want good value for their tax dollars. Quality seems to trump all else. Nearly three quarters believe that teachers with poor performance should be laid off first, regardless of seniority. A whopping 71 percent favor larger classes taught by one of the district’s best-performing teachers over a smaller class taught by a randomly chosen teacher.

The public also wants efficiency.

The public also wants efficiency. Nearly two thirds support closing schools that aren’t needed due to enrollment decline or merging small school districts to share services and staff. Even in special education, a place that most school administrators fear to openly discuss cost effectiveness for worry that they will be accused of balancing the budget on the backs of needy children, the public believes programs should be ended that aren’t actually helping kids learn. Most encouraging, the majority of parents of students with special needs feel the same.

While the country is ready for a focus on results rather than seniority or many past practices they are not ready to embrace digital learning. Nearly half want to stay away from blended learning and only 21 percent seem excited by virtual learning as a mainstream alternative to a teacher at the front of the class.

The study should fortify school leaders who want to focus on results and cost effectiveness. Unfortunately, there may not be many administrators around to fight the good fight and implement the new approaches. Fully 69 percent of the respondents supported cutting district-level administrators to the bare minimum, yet they supported nearly every choice that preserved teachers, such as reducing their pay or pensions rather than their number. This saddens me. District administrators comprise a tiny portion of most district budgets and tough times require strong leadership, not skeleton crews at the helm.

Armed with these new insights into the public’s psyche, district leaders and policy makers trying to do more with less finally know where there is room to maneuver and where a stronger case needs to be made. On net, the public seems ready to accept a new normal, which is welcome and timely.

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