School Finance

Last week, Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon
Commission on Catholic Education made the dispiriting but long-expected
announcement that the Archdiocese will
close or consolidate
nearly 50 schools. Keeping more than 150 schools open
with enrollment down a third over the past decade is creating enormous cost
pressure for the city’s parochial schools, and the Commission saw consolidation
as the best hope for saving the nation’s first diocesan school system, a key
part of Philadelphia’s heritage founded by St. John Neumann.

As we described in our 2008 report, Who
Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?
Catholic schools face
major challenges in the form of declining enrollments, fewer vowed religious
sisters and brothers available to teach students, and shifting population and
demographic patterns. These pressures don’t only impact Catholic Americans,
however. Anything that weakens the nation’s parochial schools means bad news for
education generally, for three reasons:

  • Catholic schools are
    relatively cheap.
    According to data from the National Catholic
    Educational Association
    , the average per pupil cost for Catholic elementary
    schools is just under $5,500, and the cost for high schools is less than
  • ...

Through a set of carefully selected and presented
research findings (he attaches seventy-five endnotes to his eighteen-page
paper), Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker uses this report to
refute what he calls the reformers’ “mantra”—that increased education spending,
in and of itself, will not lead to higher student achievement. Baker addresses
three related policy questions: Does money matter? Do schooling resources that
cost money (like class-size reduction) make a difference? And should states boost
funding for schools? Backed by his cherry-picked data, he answers yes to all
three. “When schools have more money, they have greater opportunity to spend
productively. When they don’t, they can’t,” his argument goes. Does that sound
to anyone else like a case for a blank check (unsurprising from the Shanker
Institute, a creature of the nation’s second-largest teacher union)? To his
credit, Baker does offer this disclaimer: There may be “better and more
efficient ways to leverage the education dollar toward improved student
outcomes.” In that case, we agree, because that’s the “mantra” most reformers
have actually been reciting.

For more on
this topic, check out Chris Tessone’s new

In this post, guest blogger Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, responds to "The Costs of Online Learning," a paper released today as part of Fordham's Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series.

The latest in Fordham’s digital learning policy series
tackles the tricky question of cost. And while the paper cannot offer
definitive answers for policymakers and school leaders, it does provide a
helpful primer on the overall economics of online and blended learning.

The top-line findings, that blended learning models cost an
estimated $8,900 per pupil (+/- 15%) and fully online schools cost $6,400 (+/-
20%), will surely be repeated in statehouse policy battles throughout the
country. But, those who actually read the short brief will quickly realize that
the authors have bent over backwards to caveat their findings in multiple ways.
The most important of these caveats? The author’s cost figures reflect
estimates of what online and blended schools are currently spending, rather
than what they should be spending. In other words, since we have little
understanding of how spending relates to...

month, the District of Columbia’s
CFO discovered
a nice chunk of unexpected revenue
, some $42 million, had come the city’s
way. The mayor promptly called for half of the money to go to the District’s
public schools. In apparent disregard of the law, however, the mayor wants to
give the whole $21M windfall to DCPS, bailing them out for a loss of federal funding
and mismanagement of the district’s food service and merit pay programs. See
Bill Turque’s characterization of the budget holes this bailout will fill:

DCPS said the extra $21.4 million budgeted by Gray is needed to address
several issues: Congressional cuts in federal payments ($4.5 million); overruns
in food service caused by higher labor and food costs and lower federal
reimbursements ($10.7 million); mandated merit-based salary increases for
teachers ($2.8 million); and the rising cost of excessed non-instructional
employees who were removed from school budgets but are being carried on the
central office books.
Privately, senior Gray administration officials said DCPS finances have
historically been plagued by cost overruns, attributable to persistent
overspending by school...

Money talk can put people off, especially in education, where the mantra for decades has been, "Just spend more!" In the "new normal" of flat education budgets, however, more money is not easy for school boards and administrators to find.

In many places, this has meant across the board layoffs and a reduction in services provided to kids. This new era presents a tough challenge for superintendents and school budget officers charged with balancing the budget and doing right by the youngsters in their charge. Schools must be empowered (and incentivized) to deliver instruction more effectively, improving both quality and cost-efficiency. Fordham works to provide resources for school leaders to do just that, as well as provide analysis and advice to policymakers hoping to make the jobs of K-12 leaders easier. (Check out our policy brief from last year for a few ideas for state policy.)

On this blog, I'll examine a broad range of topics related to school finance: state funding formulas, healthcare and retirement benefits for teachers, parent access to financial data, and more. I'll be joined from time to time by other experts from the non-profit and public sectors as well.


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

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.


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...