School Finance

We at Fordham strongly believe school districts can and should learn to spend their dollars more effectively. That said, I can't agree with Kristi Bowman's idea that Congress should mandate "fiscal accountability measures" in its reauthorization of ESEA:

Congress could require that as a condition of receiving funding under the ESEA, each state must: (1) help school districts create immediate, additional cost savings; (2) publicly monitor districts' fiscal health and create a plan for escalating involvement when a district nears and reaches fiscal crisis; and (3) assist in stabilizing districts' revenues for the long term.

I'm not sure why there should be a role for the federal government in this (the paper on which the EdWeek article is based seems to boil this down to "because it's important" and "because the Feds can"). That is far from the only worry I have, though. Bowman also calls for a federal maintenance of effort mandate for all state school spending throughout the country. Not only would it make fiscal crises worse (if you can't cough up enough state funding, you lose your federal funding!), but innovative state policies to save money would now be illegal.

There are some good ideas here, too, though. Bowman calls for state governments to have plans in place ahead of time to restructure financially troubled school districts; many states have simply not thought this through. She's wrong that funding cliffs and fiscal crises can be eliminated, but the consequences need not be so...

Recent pieces by Jay Greene and Kevin Carey serve as effective bookends on the current ESEA debate picking up steam in Congress. They both appear to dislike the ?tight-loose? formulation to federal policymaking that was first championed by Fordham and is now heralded by Secretary Duncan and others?though of course for opposite reasons.

Let's start with Jay. In a witty and amusing blog post yesterday, he proposed a drinking game for readers of Fordham's new ESEA proposal, due out next week. (Clearly Jay has seen it?or at least heard about it?or else simply knows us very well.) From Jay's post:

Tight-Loose ? The Fordham folks will say that they favor being tight on the ends of education, but loose on the means. ?Never mind?that dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means. ?My instruction for the drinking game is that every time you see the phrase ?tight-loose? you can take a shot of your choice. ?We are loose about the means but tight on the requirement that you numb yourself to this edu-babble.

Let me give you a little hint: If you play this game, you will get very, very drunk indeed.

But I'm at a loss for why the concept of ?tight-loose? strikes Jay as so preposterous. Try this: Start by looking at the list of potential mandates that Congress could attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

  1. States
  2. ...

Georgia is on the road to eliminating seniority-based layoffs throughout the state. The big news is that they're replacing it with a flexible, sensible option for performance evaluation to be determined by local school and district managers.

GA's Senate Bill 184 sets three basic policies. First, local school boards cannot use length of tenure as the "primary or sole determining factor" in deciding whom to lay off during reductions in force. Second, performance should be the primary determining factor in making these layoffs. The bill states clearly that "one measure of [teacher performance] may be student academic performance." That is, local districts are free to decide how much to weight to assign to test scores and the like, and for which teachers they're relevant. Third, the bill establishes a commission of teachers, ed school profs, school managers, and others to identify effective professional development opportunities by 2015 to help all teachers improve their craft. It looks likely that the governor will sign the bill into law.

Some teachers and union folks say we can't evaluate teachers until we have a universally-valid evaluation system. Some reformers cling to a magical 50% weight for student test scores (or value-added) for performance evaluations, as if that's applicable to every locale and circumstance. Both approaches are wrong-headed. This bill moves in the right direction of setting a broad framework for reductions in force while empowering districts to work out the details locally.

? Chris Tessone...

As you probably know by now, the President and Congress came to a budget agreement late last night that will keep the government operating through the end of the fiscal year. The deal apparently includes a five-year reauthorization of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a popular voucher program for kids in the District:

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program ? which provides low-income District students with federal money to attend private schools ? is a top priority of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The program was closed to new entrants by Democrats in 2009, but Boehner has sought to revive and expand the program. The House passed a Boehner-authored bill last month -- the SOAR Act -- to reauthorize the program for five more years, and that bill will be included in the final spending deal and signed into law by Obama.

The SOAR Act includes the so-called "three sector" payments, meaning that DCPS and public charter schools will also benefit from the program. I worked in the charter financing office in DC last summer and saw how much good those funds have done for the charter sector in the city. This seems like a big win for school choice and all kids in DC.

?Chris Tessone...

Amy Fagan

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out from the Education Writers Association meeting in New Orleans. It's an annual gathering (ends tomorrow) of education reporters and folks from various education-related groups.?(To follow the ongoing Twitter conversation about it,?check out the hashtag?#ewa2011.)

There are various panel discussions going on, but earlier today Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at a?lunch session. Aside from praising the common-standards effort and the Race to the Top program, here are?a few of the more interesting tidbits:

*When asked about Cathie Black stepping down from her post as NYC schools chancellor this week, Duncan gave Mayor Bloomberg credit for making a change when he saw it wasn't working: ?That to me is real leadership.?

*Duncan is still hopeful about reauthorizing/fixing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind.

* On the issue of budget cuts in states/school districts, he said some people are being creative and innovative while others are paralyzed by the situation. But he said simply opting for across-the-board cuts ?doesn't make sense to me.? When pushed a few times by Bill Turque of the Washington Post to give examples of where he'd actually make cuts if he was a school leader, Duncan said he'd look outside of the classroom (administrative offices, etc.), invest in technology, look at purchasing options and healthcare, and avoid cutting early childhood education or narrowing the curriculum. (As a...

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...

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