School Finance

The New York Times has a somber editorial today, lamenting the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, The School Lunch Barometer.

But there is another story here, that, in many ways, is equally distressing: the amount of food that goes to waste. As a recent Chicago Tribune story began,

On visits to lunchrooms in Chicago public schools, the Tribune watched as vast quantities of unpeeled fruit, vegetables, milk cartons and other items got pitched into the garbage.

And, of course, “The district doesn't track how much food gets thrown away.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did look and in a 2010 study, called Digging Deep Through School Trash, discovered that “[t]he most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, which was 23.9% of the total waste generated.”

This kind of profligate spending should inspire outrage; instead, indifference. According to Ron Haskins in a 2005 report for Education Next, the lunch and breakfast program costs us $10 billion a year. Though I am sure that some children benefit, the program is not so much a food program as it is a poster child for...

The Denver Post recently analyzed the cost of taxpayer subsidies to teacher unions
in the 20 largest districts in Colorado and found they added up to more
than $1M per year. In many places across the country, school districts
pay some or all of the salary and benefits of union presidents and other
functionaries who don’t teach for a single hour. The fact that the
practice is common doesn’t make it impossible to change, however:

Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen,
who started in June 2010, said she cut the district’s payments to union
members nearly in half last spring and will end the extra spending
altogether in January.

“I’d rather not make comments on the past,” Celania-Fagen said.
“Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students
in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer
dollars.”

It’s difficult to make an argument that taxpayers should be directly
subsidizing union leaders. Organized labor already extracts indirect
subsidies by skimming dues from teachers’ paychecks, sometimes against
the desires of teachers. Kudos to the Post for shining some
light on this....

Before jumping prematurely to the conclusion that Ohio's ability to achieve union buy-in for its Race to the Top plans is a good thing, let me stop you. Buy-in, cooperation, coalition-building are all nice ideas (and valued in the Race to the Top application -- states garner significant points for achieving LEA support), but unless Ohio unions? have had a dramatic change of heart as to what constitutes "reform," this collaboration sounds like trouble. Take this message (sent to district superintendents across the Buckeye State on December 30, 2009) from Ohio's state superintendent of public instruction, Deborah Delisle:

Please join representatives from the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Education Association, and the Ohio Federation of Teachers for a conference call to provide additional guidance and technical support in the completion of the Race to the Top Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

While unions in states such as Florida, Michigan, and Minnesota are in an uproar over their states' RTTT applications (calling them "fatally flawed," "unconscionable," insert insidious adjective ), Ohio's education chief sends out what sounds like a party invitation thrown by herself and two of her closest friends. All the more odd...

Which of the five states competing to be America's next Education Reform Idol did the most to collective bargaining and benefits during the 2011 legislative session? Consider our analysis below, and attend our event Thursday morning (8:30-10:00AM) to see key players in all five states defend their records in front of a panel of ed-reform celebrity judges?Jeanne Allen, Richard Lee Colvin, and Bruno Manno. And click here to cast your vote for Education Reform Idol.

Florida

This year, Florida required public employees to start contributing to their retirement plans. Workers are only asked to kick in 3 percent, but it's a start. (This was enough to spur a lawsuit nonetheless.) The state also increased the retirement age and applied other technical fixes to reduce its liabilities. Overall, the plan is expected to save the state nearly a billion dollars. Collective bargaining was not on the table in 2011, and likely won't be anytime soon. The right to bargain is?enshrined in the Sunshine State's constitution. (That being said, Florida's constitution also frames the state as right-to-work. For teachers, this means that they cannot be required to...

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty...

Creating Opportunity Schools coverThrough this report (prepared by Public Impact),
The Mind Trust proposes a dramatic transformation of public education in
Indianapolis, akin to the structural changes that have taken place in New
Orleans and New York City. It observes that great schools across the country
share a set of core conditions that enable them to help all students achieve.
Among these core conditions are the freedom to build and manage their own
teams, refocus resources to meet actual student needs, hold schools accountable
for their results(and close those that don’t perform), and create a system of
school choice that empowers parents to find schools that they want their
children to attend. To create success in the public schools of Indianapolis
(IPS), the Mind Trust proposes these bold moves: shift funding from the central
office to schools; give high-performing schools autonomy over staffing,
budgets, and curriculum; provide parents with more good choices; unite all
public schools under a new banner of quality called Opportunity Schools; and
allow the mayor and the City-County Council to appoint the IPS school...

Although state tax collections are on the rise,
and have returned to 2008 levels in many places, education advocates
shouldn’t kid themselves that the “new normal” of flat budgets and tough
resource allocation decisions will soon come to an end. Spending on
health care entitlements continues to grow rapidly,
according to the National Association of State Budget Officers’ most
recent report, while K-12 education loses ground as a share of state
budgets.

The education reform community needs to think beyond the next levy
referendum when it comes to providing resources to our schools. Health
care reform — specifically, containing the cost of entitlements like
Medicare and Medicaid — has become a major issue impacting American
schools. While a few forward-thinking groups like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education have grasped this and become active on health care policy in their state capitals, it’s not on most people’s agendas.

Yet the simple arithmetic is unavoidable: Medicaid can’t continue to
grow faster than the long-term growth rate of the economy without
sucking up more and more of state budgets. Education aid necessarily
suffers under any...

State Rep. Matt Huffman is trying to build support for a promising effort
to expand private school vouchers to more working-class families in
Ohio. In order to appease recalcitrant school districts, whose
executives vocally oppose the measure, he may remove any benefit
youngsters in wealthier districts could hope to get out of the program,
however.

Originally, the bill would have granted vouchers of up to $4,626
based on a family’s economic circumstances. But managers in more than
300 school districts have complained about the possible loss of state
and local funding, apparently afraid of competition for students’
dollars from the parochial school down the block. Huffman now wants to
limit the amount of each voucher to the total per-pupil aid the child’s
school district receives from the state. This means that children in
property-rich suburbs, where a growing number of poor families are concentrated,
could get just a few hundred bucks a year when they leave for a private
school, while many thousands of dollars stay with the school district.

It’s hard to imagine a worse trade-off: Districts get to keep the
cash without...

Van Schoales
CEO of A+ Denver

Guest blogger Van Schoales is the CEO of A+ Denver and a Colorado DFER advisory board member. This post originally appeared on the Democrats for Education Reform blog.

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great “spaghetti” western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
For those of you that don’t remember the movie, it was a tale of
intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly)
in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil
War. It’s one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography,
directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores
ever. Oh yes, there’s also the interesting sub-texts on war and the
West.

So, what’s the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant
(SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as
interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle,
conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside
...

Few issues as serious as the pension crunch are equally
as dull. Addressing unfunded liabilities and implementing defined-contribution
plans simply aren’t compelling calls to arms, despite the widening consensus
that the balance sheets of public-sector retirement-benefit systems pose grave threats to state budgets. That’s why the
clarity and concision found in this recent “solution paper,” penned by Josh
McGee for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, are so valuable. The piece may be
light on detail, but that’s part of the point: It doesn’t aspire to wonky
analysis. Instead, it aims right at policymakers and the public in explaining
why the set payouts of the traditional defined-benefit (DB) retirement-benefit
structure are unsustainable. McGee efficiently makes the case that
irresponsible pols inevitably underfund DBs, explains the challenges in
projecting their costs, and lays out how they incentivize expensive (and
counterproductive) employee behaviors. He then outlines the major cost-saving
alternatives on the table—including defined contributions, cash-balance plans,
and “stacked hybrids.” (OK, it’s just a little wonky.) There’s far more to this
complex topic than McGee includes in this brief paper (case in point: Fordham’s
recent ...

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