3 lessons learned on school spending

On Friday, I'm leaving Fordham to join the See Forever Foundation in D.C., which operates the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools and an Academy at New Beginnings, D.C.'s secure facility for committed youth. (The Academy was recently profiled on Rock Center.)

Before I go, I'd like to share a few of my takeaways from a year and a half of reporting and opining on the nation's school finance challenges.

1. Policy only takes schools so far

Around the country, reformers have won modest breakthroughs on education policy, especially at the state and local level. Charter schools' access to facilities has improved somewhat, administrators have been given greater spending flexibility, mayors have won control of urban systems and installed reform-minded leadership.

Policy cannot mandate high-quality outcomes.

Policy cannot mandate high-quality outcomes, however. Even with new flexibilities and opportunities, too many schools continue to do the same old, same old. Clearly K-12 education as an industry needs to develop greater leadership capacity in order to use newly-won flexibility to full effect.

Reformers are getting ahead of the curve, however. The emergence of the PIE Network, CEE-Trust, CRPE's portfolio districts, and other efforts illustrate a growing, healthy emphasis on implementation.

2. Teacher pay and benefits are badly broken

The United States is one of the biggest spenders on education in the OECD, yet starting teacher salaries are low. That reflects our primary strategy of the last two decades: When problems crop up, we throw more and more teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and coaches at the problem. As a result, the enormous K-12 spending pie is divided into many tiny slices, and there's not much left for competitive salaries to attract high-potential new teachers.

The bloated retirement and healthcare benefits typical of most public school systems are even worse aligned to new teachers' needs. Most new educators will not stay in the profession, in the same pension system, long enough to build up meaningful retirement savings. And in states across the country, legislators are saddling newbies with most or all of the cost of unfunded pension liabilities, making the picture even worse.

Major reforms are needed if we want to put a fantastic teacher in every classroom—starting with higher pay, smarter benefits, and leaner staffing loads overall.

3. School finance is not yet "future-proof"

Charter schools educate a significant and growing portion of public-school students in America. Digital learning is a nascent but promising strategy for providing parents with more educational options at lower cost. The lines between secondary school and college are blurring with the increased popularity of early college high schools, community colleges, and online courses. Our system for financing public education is not equal to the task of funding any of these exciting new developments appropriately.

Paul Hill wrote about this issue eloquently in our recent book, Education Reform for the Digital Era. The fact is, education finance actively crowds out promising innovations. Geographically restricted school districts still control most of the education dollar, and the boards that govern them still restrict parent choice and spend public dollars on schools that look more like 1952 than 2012. Until parents have more control over how the education dollar is spent, our students will miss out on the full potential of innovation—those named above, and new ideas no one is even discussing yet.

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Fordham began its formal work on stretching the school dollar back in 2009, when the global financial crisis presaged difficult cuts to K-12 education budgets. I'm cheered by the fact that policymakers and major players in education reform (including Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates) recognize the "new normal" of flat budgets and the need to do more with less.

There's a great deal of work to do. Most of it will take place on the ground, in school board meetings, city council sessions, and the offices of school leaders tasked with providing a fantastic education on a thin dime. There are more resources available now than ever to help schools operate more efficiently—we now need the will to change our schools, reward great teachers, and see good policy through to implementation.

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