School Finance

Peter has already covered Trip Gabriel's NYT piece on digital learning this morning (and done, as always, a mighty fine job). And his post, which draws attention to our collective?and long-standing?deprioritization of robust, challenging curricular content and how that has created a knowledge deficit, is interesting stuff. But, he gives Gabriel's portrayal of the digital-learning landscape far too much credit.

As Peter points out, Gabriel falls into the weeds?and never gets out.

See, there are variations in online learning, each with its own positives and pitfalls. And to conflate them all?from otherwise unavailable AP courses offered in rural areas to supplemental afterschool math-tutoring programs to remedial credit-recovery courses?is to seriously undermine one of the most promising new innovations in education.

And Gabriel should have known better.

His piece starts (and to its credit, ends) on the topic of online credit-recovery programs. He draws the reader in early with an anecdote, showing how easily Daterrius Hamilton is skating through English 3, a course he had failed twice before. Daterrius reads snippets of Jack London instead of opening any of the author's full volumes. To complete his written assignment, the high schooler copy-pastes text from London's Wikipedia page onto his screen, formats some, and submits.

Through this tale, Gabriel has me hooked. Credit-recovery programs, online or otherwise?though the numbers are mushrooming in the online arena, are too-often of dubious quality. And to question the legitimacy of an online course that teaches a struggling student Shakespeare in...

Districts in many states are spending the last of their federal stimulus dollars, and their strategy for dealing with the resulting fiscal pressure is: freak out and fire people.

The combined weight of those state and federal cuts would force Florida's Volusia County school district to cut an estimated 900 employees, including teachers, administrators, and clerical staff, said Margaret A. Smith, the system's superintendent.

The district, which has a total operating budget of about $470 million, also might have to cut back programs in art, music, and physical education, as well as extracurricular and sports programs, she said.

Volusia County is a good object lesson in why it's turning out to be so hard for districts to do more with less and what that failure costs. Unable to adjust classroom staffing due to Florida's onerous class-size mandates, the district is requiring principals like Marie Stratton to pull double duty managing multiple schools. Based on her schools' enrollment figures, she's managing 35-plus teachers and who knows how many paraprofessionals, yet the district is powerless to increase class sizes by one kid to pay for the managerial capacity they need for each school.

Not that most districts are being all that forward-thinking even where they're free to innovate. The "creative steps" Ed Week reports that schools are considering involve sharing services with other districts. Good for what it's worth, but hardly high-impact.

District leaders, unions, politicians, and, frankly, parents need to recognize...

[caption id="attachment_15630" align="alignright" width="145" caption="Photo courtesy of Vox EFX"][/caption]

We're starting to seethe broad outlines of a budget plan that Republican lawmakers will present this week to slash $4 billion trillion in spending over the next decade. At first blush this sounds bad, bad, bad for education revenue?we don't yet know what the plan entails in terms of federal K-12 spending?but maybe not. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the plan would "essentially end Medicare" (and replace it with private insurance plans, subsidized by the government), plus:

The proposal would also convert Medicaid, the health program for the poor, into a series of block grants to give states more flexibility. And it is expected to suggest significant cuts in Social Security, while proposing fewer details on how to achieve them.

No doubt this will enrage the senior lobby?who will declare all of this dead on arrival. But to my eye, it puts Republicans firmly on the side of the young. If we don't address these entitlements, we'll have no choice but to devastate K-12 education budgets (and other social spending for children) for decades to come. Even huge tax increases won't be enough to address the long-term fiscal challenges (and most economists would tell you that those would be counterproductive anyway, as they would cripple the economy).

As for Medicaid, as we know from our home-state of Ohio, it has become the...

Teachers rallied at the State Capitol in Albany last night, in a last-ditch effort to get the legislature and governor to restore funds to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's?deficit slashing budget proposal. It doesn't seem to have worked.? The legislature worked into the night and passed ?the $132.5 billion proposal, closing a $10 billion deficit without raising taxes (the much ridiculed Empire State solons held firm on not imposing a ?millionaires tax?) and cutting state aid to education by a whopping $1.2 billion.

These are certainly tough times, but E.J. McMahon at the Empire Center takes off the gloves with a post this morning that offers a different perspective on the ?It's about the kids? argument made by many of the protesters who crowded into the Capitol. ??Not,? says McMahon in his short post. ?And he takes out after one teacher from a nearby school district who was at the rally and was quoted ?quoted in the Albany Times?as?saying "It's about the kids." ?

Actually, it's about teacher pay increases. It seems that nearly half those threatened jobs in Rotterdam-Mohonasen could be saved if the district's unions would accept a wage freeze recently requested by district officials.

McMahon then uses the considerable database his organization (a subsidiary of the Manhattan Institute) has amassed on public service employee salaries and their union contracts to reveal that the teacher was paid $92,522 in 2010, ?a nice increase from her $85,042 salary the previous year.? The raise...

How does your local school spend its money? If your district received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Arne Duncan knows:

Provided further, That each local educational agency receiving funds available under this paragraph shall be required to file with the State educational agency, no later than December 1, 2009, a school-by-school listing of per-pupil educational expenditures from State and local sources during the 2008?2009 academic year: Provided further, That each State educational agency shall report that information to the Secretary of Education by March 31, 2010. (p. 67 of the ARRA.)

These data came up at the Center for American Progress?American Enterprise Institute event on Title I a few weeks ago. As I recall, Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, said ED is still sifting through the data, and no decision has been made about whether they will ask for something like this on an ongoing basis from more school districts.

The Department should release these data (which they've had for a year) to the public, and they should strongly consider incentivizing states to require annual public reporting of school-level data. Rhode Island is already doing it, as I mentioned earlier this week. Releasing the data will ensure they get used to improve school spending and efficiency rather than sitting on a shelf somewhere.

? Chris Tessone...

Sometimes the right thing doesn't look great politically. New York City's efforts to future-proof its schools are coming under fire, with Manhattan's borough president pointing out that the city is spending half a billion dollars on technology (mostly network infrastructure) when it may have to fire thousands of teachers. This kind of spending is necessary, however, especially when the long-term sustainability of our present models of schooling is under fire. Never mind the fact that the city couldn't legally use the cash to pad the operating budget anyway ? the investments look smart on the merits.

As the Times article notes, many schools are already finding their infrastructure inadequate to support tools like smartboards, computer labs, and adaptive testing that are or will become standard features of 21st century schools. More importantly, NYC DOE's Innovation Zone schools are developing thoughtful methods for using technology in the classroom effectively, a sharp contrast to the "smartboards and fairy dust" approach to networking classrooms seen in some other districts and charter networks. In order to bend the cost curve so that tailored instruction for all kids is affordable, districts will have to spend more money on technology, not less. A half billion dollar investment may be tough to swallow, even in a huge district like New York City, but it should pay dividends for years to come.

? Chris Tessone...

As state and district education budgets shrink, it becomes doubly important to scrutinize line items, to think through cuts, and to trim fat in ways that won't negatively affect schoolchildren. Moore County, North Carolina seems to have missed that memo. ?The district is set to close one of its smaller elementary schools, Academy Heights.

From today's Wall Street Journal:

Academy Heights Elementary boasts a 98% pass rate on state exams, has an award-winning math program, and is ranked the second-best kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school in North Carolina. Yet it is slated to close at the end of the school year. Moore County Schools Superintendent Susan Purser said shutting down the school and sending its 265 children to nearby campuses was a ?painful last resort? to close an $8.2 million budget gap.

Closing high-achieving Academy Heights?the district's only year-round school?will save Moore County $500,000. Surely not chump change, but far off the $8.2 million in excess spending that needs to be leeched out of the budget lines. And surely not enough to justify shuttering the district's most successful school, possibly losing some of the district's most successful teachers, and almost guaranteeing 265 students an inferior education.

Scaling back budgets is an unenviable task. But before we open up the throttle on the budget-cuts train, let's make sure it's railed on the correct track. Take off the blinders, and actually look at how cuts will affect the kids. There are some smart ideas and how-tos out there.

?Daniela...

It's Christmas in Rhode Island: the state Department of Education has released a comprehensive new set of financial data for district and charter schools throughout the state. This is a welcome development given the Ocean State's $331M budget deficit and the need to do more with less. District budget directors and community members alike now have a powerful tool for finding inefficiencies and pushing for spending that is better-aligned with their most important priorities for K-12 education.

Other states (like New Jersey) have mandated that districts publish financial reports using a Uniform Chart of Accounts, a set of guidelines for classifying school and central office expenses and revenues. However, Rhode Island is the first state I know of that provides the reports and raw data in a format that empowers users to perform their own analysis easily ? in this case, using Microsoft Excel. RI's effort also includes the state's rapidly growing charter sector and benchmarks every district against charters and the rest of the state.

The level of detail is exceptional, with reports on spending in functional areas (face-to-face instruction, classroom materials, professional development), subject areas, even how much a district spends on retirees. (One spends 10% of their budget on retired personnel!) The reports could go further, of course. As far as I can tell, the data are not presented at the school level, which would be helpful for comparing spending within districts. Ensuring districts apply the rules faithfully and don't game...

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