School Finance

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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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[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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Teachers rallied at the State Capitol in Albany last night, in a last-ditch effort to get the legislature and governor to restore funds to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's?deficit slashing budget proposal. It doesn't seem to have worked.? The legislature worked into the night and passed ?the $132.5 billion proposal, closing a $10 billion deficit without raising taxes (the much ridiculed Empire State solons held firm on not imposing a ?millionaires tax?) and cutting state aid to education by a whopping $1.2 billion.

These are certainly tough times, but E.J. McMahon at the Empire Center takes off the gloves with a post this morning that offers a different perspective on the ?It's about the kids? argument made by many of the protesters who crowded into the Capitol. ??Not,? says McMahon in his short post. ?And he takes out after one teacher from a nearby school district who was at the rally and was quoted ?quoted in the Albany Times?as?saying "It's about the kids." ?

Actually, it's about teacher pay increases. It seems that nearly half those threatened jobs in Rotterdam-Mohonasen could be saved if the district's unions would accept a wage freeze recently requested by district officials.

McMahon then uses the considerable database his organization (a subsidiary of the Manhattan Institute) has amassed on public service employee salaries and their union contracts to reveal that the teacher was paid $92,522 in 2010, ?a nice increase from her $85,042 salary the previous year.? The raise...

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How does your local school spend its money? If your district received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Arne Duncan knows:

Provided further, That each local educational agency receiving funds available under this paragraph shall be required to file with the State educational agency, no later than December 1, 2009, a school-by-school listing of per-pupil educational expenditures from State and local sources during the 2008?2009 academic year: Provided further, That each State educational agency shall report that information to the Secretary of Education by March 31, 2010. (p. 67 of the ARRA.)

These data came up at the Center for American Progress?American Enterprise Institute event on Title I a few weeks ago. As I recall, Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, said ED is still sifting through the data, and no decision has been made about whether they will ask for something like this on an ongoing basis from more school districts.

The Department should release these data (which they've had for a year) to the public, and they should strongly consider incentivizing states to require annual public reporting of school-level data. Rhode Island is already doing it, as I mentioned earlier this week. Releasing the data will ensure they get used to improve school spending and efficiency rather than sitting on a shelf somewhere.

? Chris Tessone...

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Sometimes the right thing doesn't look great politically. New York City's efforts to future-proof its schools are coming under fire, with Manhattan's borough president pointing out that the city is spending half a billion dollars on technology (mostly network infrastructure) when it may have to fire thousands of teachers. This kind of spending is necessary, however, especially when the long-term sustainability of our present models of schooling is under fire. Never mind the fact that the city couldn't legally use the cash to pad the operating budget anyway ? the investments look smart on the merits.

As the Times article notes, many schools are already finding their infrastructure inadequate to support tools like smartboards, computer labs, and adaptive testing that are or will become standard features of 21st century schools. More importantly, NYC DOE's Innovation Zone schools are developing thoughtful methods for using technology in the classroom effectively, a sharp contrast to the "smartboards and fairy dust" approach to networking classrooms seen in some other districts and charter networks. In order to bend the cost curve so that tailored instruction for all kids is affordable, districts will have to spend more money on technology, not less. A half billion dollar investment may be tough to swallow, even in a huge district like New York City, but it should pay dividends for years to come.

? Chris Tessone...

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