School Finance

When I get a call from a reporter on a Friday, it typically means that a government agency is trying to dump bad news.  When I get a call from a reporter on the Friday before Thanksgiving week, I know that a government agency is trying to dump really bad news.

The feds spent several BILLION dollars and got terribly disappointing results—but, tragically, the results are predictable to anyone familiar with the history of “turnarounds.”

And so it is with the U.S. Department of Education’s quiet release of results from the first year of the massive School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. (See Alyson Klein’s Ed Week coverage.)

The headline is simple: The feds spent several BILLION dollars and got terribly disappointing results—but, tragically, the results are predictable to anyone familiar with the history of “turnarounds.”

Almost three years ago, in an article for Education Next called “The Turnaround Fallacy”, I detailed how and why previous turnaround efforts failed so consistently and predicted that future efforts would amount to the same. Chapter 4 of my new book, The Urban School System of the Future, extends that argument with even more evidence.

It’s not just me. Tom Loveless’s 2009 Brown Center Report showed the dramatic failure of turnaround efforts over 20 years, and David Stuit’s remarkable and devastating 2010 study powerfully reinforced these findings.

Now the Department, doing its job, is trying to paint the new data as a good-news story. But that clearly...

After weeks of Sandy-induced delay and reports of discontent among union membership, Newark teachers approved a “groundbreaking” new contract Wednesday,1,767 to 1,088. The new deal includes bonuses for high performance, an important first step for performance-related teacher pay in a state that has historically been a bastion of union strength and intransigence. Its value from a reform perspective, however, is mostly symbolic: Heavily subsidized by private donors (see Zuckerberg, Mark) despite Newark’s already-breathtaking per-pupil spending, the agreement would offer yearly awards of up to $5,000 to educators rated “highly effective”—a designation that would factor in fellow teachers’ evaluations. A traditional compensation option would also be available to teachers who prefer the status quo: hardly a transformative or replicable model.

The new Newark contract is hardly a transformative or replicable model.

Even still, approval was far from certain: Despite the strong support of media-darling Mayor Cory Booker and the blessing of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, many rank-and-file union members expressed strong reservations about the deal—one caucus within the union even warned that “it means indentured servitude for education workers.”

The union membership was right to take the deal. As Weingarten said, it is “a win for students, a win for teachers and a win for Newark.” National and local AFT chiefs deserve plenty of credit for making it happen: Reformers often gloss how challenging it must be for open-minded union leaders to persuade teachers to overcome decades of dogmatic resistance to the reform agenda. Hot on the heels of ...

Charter schools in at least six cities and counties will benefit from local bonds and levies that voters approved on Election Day. Collectively, that means more than $500 million[1] of local tax dollars over the next several years for charter-school facility or operating costs in Cleveland; San Diego; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Metropolitan Denver (including school districts in Denver proper, Aurora, and Jefferson County). Why the sudden generosity in places that (with the exception of Denver) historically have barely tolerated charters, if that? Some charter leaders say school systems might have realized that it’s become harder to ask parents to pay higher taxes only for district schools when so many more of them are choosing charter schools for their children. Indeed, voters in these regions have joined a handful of other cities that, over the past few years, have set aside local dollars for charters by ballot initiative, when most districts and state legislatures still refuse to do so. Of course, voters might have never seen these ballot questions had it not been for legislators (like those in Colorado) who rewrote laws a few years ago, forcing districts to “invite” charters to discuss the needs of all public schools before requesting bonds or levies. But whatever the reason, the response from voters is encouraging: A whopping $350 million share of a $2.8 billion bond in San Diego will aid charter-school facility needs over the next several years; charters in and around Denver may see $150...

The School District of Philadelphia, which has been leaking students even as the city’s school-age population has risen, is now scrambling to keep its sinking ship from capsizing. The city’s School Reform Commission (SRC), which operates in place of a board of education, will close forty schools next year and an additional six every subsequent year until 2017—a tough sell, but the right call when many schools sit half-empty. Meanwhile, the SRC has also announced that it will borrow $300 million to keep the district above water through the end of the school year, a fact that underscores how important it is that the SRC make wise choices with their planned school closures. Previous downsizing efforts by the SRC have raised red flags. For example, when Pepper Middle School was shuttered in March, there were complaints that students had been reassigned to schools of lower quality. In way of allaying such fears, the SRC does claim that these upcoming school closings will be “more informed by academic performance than previous rounds of closures.” We certainly hope so. They don’t need to look far for a solid example of how to navigate the downsizing process.

Philly schools borrow $300M for expenses,” The Associated Press, November 8, 2012....

Six days after the election, and by a miniscule margin, Washington State became the forty-second state to allow charter schools. Charter advocates and operators will have plenty of work ahead if they want to convince such a polarized electorate (which rejected charters thrice before) that the forty schools they’re now permitted to open will add quality and innovation to the state’s public school landscape. The battle is won, but the war will continue.

Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) has released the preliminary findings of their study on the impact of the GreatSchools program in D.C. and Milwaukee—and the news is good! The GreatSchools program runs an online search engine to help parents discover their children’s schooling options. The programs in the two cities studied went further, providing in-person parent training to supplement the materials. CEPA found that these programs successfully influenced parents to select higher-performing schools. Disseminating information, the goal of so many groups (ourselves included), is not always enough; groups that actively try to educate parents about their options should be lauded and replicated.

Mayor Bloomberg’s fiscal plan for 2013, which proposes to shrink Gotham’s budget by $1.6 billion, caused an uproar earlier this week. It all began when a court stopped the city from selling additional taxi medallions as a revenue raiser, leaving a $635 million deficit. To plug the hole, Hizzoner’s budget would apparently...

Late last week, the US Department of Education announced the 20 winners of the latest “Investing in Innovation” competition.

On its website, the Department has a number of documents worth checking out if you’d like to learn a little more about the competition itself and those awarded funds.  Here are the things that jumped out at me.

  • I had never heard of most of the winners.  Of late, the ed-reform community has become enamored of a number of flashy tech organizations that focus particularly on hybrid learning and the transition to Common Core.  Most of these winners are outside of that cool-kids lunch table.  Lesson to reformers: We should start grazing around the rest of the cafeteria.
  • Almost three times the amount of money was given to “validation” awards (up to $15m) than to “development” awards (up to $3m); no money was given to the largest “scale up” categories (up to $25m).
  • Grants were pretty well spread among the five absolute-priority areas, such as “Teachers and Principals,” “STEM,” and “Parent and Family.”  However, only one award was given in the area of “Standards and Assessments” (to Jobs for the Future for work in the Rio Grande Valley and Denver, CO).  This is a huge surprise, given the number of organizations that talk wide-eyed about the intersection of technology and Common Core.  I would’ve expected a bunch of winners in the area of formative/interim assessments, lesson plans, online courses, etc.
  • After lots of justified complaining that previous competitions
  • ...

While the focus of Tuesday’s election was on the presidential race, many voters across the Buckeye State also gave a yea or nay for their school district’s levy proposal.  According to the Hannah Report, 192 district levies were on ballots this election day, and a little over half of them passed (55 percent). If your district asked for a renewal of a tax levy, it was more likely to pass (87 percent) compared to new levies, which passed at a 37 percent rate.

Despite these figures and the ever-tightening fiscal climate, Tuesday spelled victory for several districts asking for new levies. For example, Cleveland voters approved a $15 million levy. Cleveland Municipal will be able to reinstate regular school days and gym and music classes, which were previously cut. Akron City Schools also has cause for celebration with the support of its $7.9 million levy. To find out how your district’s levy did, see the Ohio School Boards Association’s webpage.

Lots of people are weighing in on the implications of Tuesday’s election results.

  • Eduwonk Rotherham has a good piece in Time magazine lamenting Tony Bennett’s loss (my thoughts on that here), celebrating the wins for charter schools, and noting the continued strength of teachers unions when they are tested.
  • Mike comes to many of the same conclusions.  Tom Luna’s losses get his attention, as do a number of results from the Midwest.
  • Stergios also highlights the charter wins and the fallout from Bennett’s undoing (particularly regarding Common Core) and adds accountability and ESEA reauthorization to the list of affected subjects.
  • Naturally, the prolific Rick Hess has a series of posts on the subject, declaring the night a split decision for reformers.  He emphasizes the union wins and the subtle split in the reform community between conservatives and progressives.  See here for his take on Bennett’s loss and its implications for Common Core.
  • The WSJ’s Stephanie Branchero also concludes that voters are divided.  Branchero discusses Luna’s losses, the charter win in WA, and CA’s decision to spend more on schools.
  • Politics K-12 is already looking ahead, surfacing the five big issues facing Secretary Duncan during the second term.

One final thought from yours truly: Lots of reformers, especially those in the ed-tech camp, continue to think that Common Core is just about the best thing produced in eons.  So there’s a good deal of cheerleading going on, and most reform practitioners...

The results are in and Ed Reform, our non-partisan candidate, had a mixed performance. Let’s see how eight key races and referenda turned out:

    Tony Bennett
    Ed Reform Idol Tony Bennett's loss was an unexpected blow.
    Photo by Joe Portnoy.
  • Tony Bennett lost his re-election bid. There’s no sugar-coating it: This one hurts. Bad. As I wrote on Tuesday (and profanely explained to the Huffington Post), this was a referendum on the most aggressive reform agenda in the country. Despite being massively outspent, the unions managed to get one of their own elected to this critical post. We’ll have to wait for more data to determine the degree to which conservatives also punished Bennett for his support of the Common Core (perhaps inadvertently egged on by Arne Duncan’s tone-deaf cheerleading). But it’s no secret that some of them are gleeful. If they were the deciding factor, it will go down as one of the stupidest moves in the annals of education-policy history. Bennett will be fine (I suspect he’s already getting calls from Florida, Ohio, and other states looking for a hard-charging education leader). But a union-backed state superintendent is going to do her best to wreak havoc on the state’s new voucher program and much else. (Just ask choice supporters in Wisconsin, where state superintendent Tony
  • ...

The Fordham Institute sends out hearty congratulations to Mayor Frank Jackson and his staff, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon, the city’s business community, district supporters, teachers, students, and the voters of Cleveland on the passage of the district’s levy—a key component of the Plan for Transforming Schools. It was a hard-fought campaign that was successful in the end due to the day-to-day and door-to-door diligence of its supporters.

As Fordham’s Ohio VP Terry Ryan wrote on this very blog back in February, this effort to make Cleveland one of the nation's school-reform leaders – with its sights fixed firmly on finding, funding, and nurturing what works in education for the sake of the students themselves—is a significant step forward for all Cleveland families. And on this morning of November 7, implementation is now at hand.

All involved with that implementation must be mindful of what was promised and what must be delivered:

  • Increasing the number of high-performing schools, both district and charter, while closing failing schools;
  • Maximizing enrollment in Cleveland’s existing high-performing district and public charter schools;
  • Investing in promising schools by giving their leaders additional resources, the freedom to build high-performing teams, and the ability to make financial and instructional decisions based on their students’ needs;
  • Seeking (and finding) flexibility in the hiring, retention, and remuneration of teachers; and
  • Sustaining both district and public charter transformation schools.

We applaud the work done to create and to pass the plan and look...