School Finance

The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped ???small bombs??? as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?

To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining???and entrusting to management???such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.

Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State's teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham???as veteran advocates for ???smart cuts??? and ???stretching the school dollar??????have been drawn...

More bad news for charters in DC ? according to the Post's Bill Turque, Mayor Vincent Gray will hold the city's Uniform Per Student Funding Formula constant and cut the facilities allowance to public charter schools by $200 a head in order to help close a budget gap of over half a billion dollars.

Of course, school funding in Washington is far from "uniform." Retirement funding for DCPS teachers falls outside the formula, the city spends hundreds more per student on capital projects for traditional public schools than the $2,800 per student available to charters, and DCPS receives revenue from other city agencies outside the formula. Last year's Ball State study of charter school funding assessed the gap between DCPS and the charter sector in DC at over $12,000 per student in the 2006-07 school year.

Despite this sizable funding gap, the District's charter schools have performed at least as well as traditional district schools, with several star charter operators doing much better. They're doing more with a lot less and should be encouraged both for the choices they provide to parents here and for their admirable efficiency. Instead, Mayor Gray has decided it's "fair" to cut support for highly efficient schools of choice as much or more than support for less efficient district schools. That seems like a missed opportunity to save money in the long run and drive better outcomes for kids.

?Chris Tessone...

Education politics just got weirder: liberals are now for "local control," and Tea Party conservatives are against it. At least that one's way to read the situation in Madison. [quote]

Everyone knows that school reform has long foundered at the local school district level. Powerful teachers unions, with the help of state and national behemoths, get their friends and allies elected to the boards with whom they negotiate. Those boards--whether out of niceness, naivete, or negligence--make promises that taxpayers can't afford. Education spending goes up, and productivity goes down.

Governor Scott Walker wants to change that equation by taking certain issues off the bargaining table. This has been characterized as union-busting or political advantage seeking--and perhaps it is. But fundamentally it's a vote of no confidence in local school boards--for if they could be counted on to put the public's interest first, the state of Wisconsin wouldn't need to tie their hands in terms of the salaries or benefits they could offer.

It's true that Walker's proposal isn't the only solution to the problem of political imbalance at the local level. Instead, he might have called on his Tea Party supporters to take local boards by storm by getting themselves elected--and then pushing a harder bargain at the negotiating table. Alternatively, he might have called for a statewide teachers contract, as one prominent commission did a few years ago, so that the public could be represented by a serious advocate (himself).

But his approach--defanging the...

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that some teachers--facing layoffs, pay freezes, and the rest--would strike out in violence. But it's inexcusable all the same. See today's story from Idaho:

The night after Idaho's school chief publicly detailed changes to his plan to overhaul the state's K-12 education system, vandals spray-painted his truck and slashed two of its tires as it was parked outside his home.

He was heckled a few hours later at a coffee shop, and he says he filed a police report after an angry teacher showed up at his 71-year-old mother's home over the weekend.

Debate over Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's plans to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent have dominated the legislative session this year, and emotions have been running high at legislative hearings and in public.

In the latest incident, Luna said he woke up before dawn Tuesday and found his name painted on the truck with a slash through the letters.

"I'm not pointing any fingers at any individuals or groups, but there's no doubt in my mind" the vandalism involved the reforms, he told The Associated Press. Nampa police are investigating and have not yet determined a motive or identified any suspects, Deputy Chief Craig Kingsbury said.

I worked with Tom at the U.S. Department of Education; he's a sweet man pushing a very mainstream reform agenda. If this can happen in Idaho, what can we look forward to in strong union...

The Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association have teamed up with Michele McNeil, Education Week's federal policy editor, to produce a comprehensive report on the impact of the gargantuan education stimulus program from two years ago ? the largest one-time investment ever ? and found: ?not so much. ?

Reporters from 36 news outlets in 27 states spent nearly three months examining the impact thus far of this historic influx of cash. Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the nation's schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last. They found that the stimulus package's long-term impact on public education is far from certain. Indeed, many of the resulting policy changes are already endangered by political squabbles and the massive budget shortfalls still facing recession-battered state and local governments.

Though there are a few bright spots in the report, the overall message is that our public school systems, burdened by bureaucracy, mandates, strings, labor contracts, and indecision, have a?tough time making financial decisions that improve student achievement. It's not exactly pouring good money after bad, but it's clear that most educators haven't read Stretching The School Dollar. ?And now that the money is gone ? see what's happening in Texas ? only the smart ones will survive.? Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

Rarely do I come home from a school board meeting without wanting to scream, ?Call in the National Guard!??

To change metaphors, I could spin the globe, eyes closed, and put my finger just about anywhere on our little school district map to find what to my eyes looks like a train wreck and to others, based on the reactions,?the regular delivery van.?

Last night, our board received a ?hand carry? sheet titled, ?2011-12 Budget Development Information.?? (A ?hand carry? is always bad news; by definition, it is what the administration wants to spring on the board, at the public meeting, so it has no time to review it or prepare.)? Our tiny New York state district ? 2,000 kids ? faces a budget gap, according to the sheet, of $3,688,033 and a choice ? this is only preliminary, mind you -- between raising local property taxes 14.9% and laying off 32 teachers (16% of the total faculty) or raising taxes 3.9% and shedding 71 teachers (35%).? If it sounds Hobbesian, it's meant to.?

Sure, the district is overburdened with too many overpaid administrators and too many underpaid aides, too many uncoordinated programs, too many bad teachers, too many special ed kids, no curriculum -- but chopping-block budget numbers are always limited to teachers so that?parents will start conjuring up images of classrooms of 50 and 60 students.? Oh horror!

The real horror, however, was on a one-page sheet ? this was not on the agenda...

State mandates are coming under attack from local governments feeling pain from shrinking state payments. This paragraph in the New York Times' recent article on Texas schools is worth highlighting:

Terry Grier, the superintendent in Houston, said the city stood to lose 15 percent to 20 percent of its total budget. The district could still raise the local property tax rate a few cents and stay under the state-imposed cap, but it would produce nowhere near enough to cover the loss of state money, Mr. Grier said. One way to cushion the blow, he said, would be to lift state rules on class size and to let administrators single out unproductive teachers for layoffs, regardless of their seniority. ?Let us get out from under some of these state mandates,? he said.

Some other districts don't seem to be going down this path of looking for smart cuts, however. The?Wall Street Journal ran articles today ("Cities Act to Gain Budgetary Clout") and yesterday ("Tax Complaint: Too Low") detailing cities' efforts to raise property and income taxes above state-mandated caps, mostly to fill school budget deficits. Local governments and school boards who think the only way to avoid layoffs is to raise taxes should learn from supes like Dr. Grier who know that flexibility in the hands of smart district leadership is worth big bucks.

?Chris Tessone...

Liam Julian

Over at the Hechinger Report they're assessing the education stimulus?the $100 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that went, ostensibly, to schools. Race to the Top, the Department of Education's $4.3 billion grant competition, is particularly scrutinized. In Massachusetts, for example, where 250 million Race to the Top dollars found a home, nineteen districts have dropped out of the program. And despite the reputed ?buy-in? of Bay State teachers' unions?which had?agreed to make a ?good faith effort? to implement the substance of Massachusetts's Race to the Top application?they are now reconsidering pledges to employ students' standardized test scores?in judging teachers. Michele McNeil writes that ?Maryland,? another Race to the Top winner, ?made big promises in its application, too. And like Massachusetts, it is struggling with teacher-evaluation issues.? Maryland pledged to?have student test-score?growth?count for 50 percent of an instructor's job assessment, but ?so far, political and policy wrangles have prevented the fulfillment of that promise.? It's not all bad news. But it's a lot of bad news.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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