School Finance

Rarely do I come home from a school board meeting without wanting to scream, ?Call in the National Guard!??

To change metaphors, I could spin the globe, eyes closed, and put my finger just about anywhere on our little school district map to find what to my eyes looks like a train wreck and to others, based on the reactions,?the regular delivery van.?

Last night, our board received a ?hand carry? sheet titled, ?2011-12 Budget Development Information.?? (A ?hand carry? is always bad news; by definition, it is what the administration wants to spring on the board, at the public meeting, so it has no time to review it or prepare.)? Our tiny New York state district ? 2,000 kids ? faces a budget gap, according to the sheet, of $3,688,033 and a choice ? this is only preliminary, mind you -- between raising local property taxes 14.9% and laying off 32 teachers (16% of the total faculty) or raising taxes 3.9% and shedding 71 teachers (35%).? If it sounds Hobbesian, it's meant to.?

Sure, the district is overburdened with too many overpaid administrators and too many underpaid aides, too many uncoordinated programs, too many bad teachers,...

State mandates are coming under attack from local governments feeling pain from shrinking state payments. This paragraph in the New York Times' recent article on Texas schools is worth highlighting:

Terry Grier, the superintendent in Houston, said the city stood to lose 15 percent to 20 percent of its total budget. The district could still raise the local property tax rate a few cents and stay under the state-imposed cap, but it would produce nowhere near enough to cover the loss of state money, Mr. Grier said. One way to cushion the blow, he said, would be to lift state rules on class size and to let administrators single out unproductive teachers for layoffs, regardless of their seniority. ?Let us get out from under some of these state mandates,? he said.

Some other districts don't seem to be going down this path of looking for smart cuts, however. The?Wall Street Journal ran articles today ("Cities Act to Gain Budgetary Clout") and yesterday ("Tax Complaint: Too Low") detailing cities' efforts to raise property and income taxes above state-mandated caps, mostly to fill school budget deficits. Local governments and school boards who think the only way to avoid...

Liam Julian

Over at the Hechinger Report they're assessing the education stimulus?the $100 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that went, ostensibly, to schools. Race to the Top, the Department of Education's $4.3 billion grant competition, is particularly scrutinized. In Massachusetts, for example, where 250 million Race to the Top dollars found a home, nineteen districts have dropped out of the program. And despite the reputed ?buy-in? of Bay State teachers' unions?which had?agreed to make a ?good faith effort? to implement the substance of Massachusetts's Race to the Top application?they are now reconsidering pledges to employ students' standardized test scores?in judging teachers. Michele McNeil writes that ?Maryland,? another Race to the Top winner, ?made big promises in its application, too. And like Massachusetts, it is struggling with teacher-evaluation issues.? Maryland pledged to?have student test-score?growth?count for 50 percent of an instructor's job assessment, but ?so far, political and policy wrangles have prevented the fulfillment of that promise.? It's not all bad news. But it's a lot of bad news.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Well, I have to hand it to them: The folks behind Ed in '08 were successful after all. It just appears that the are achieving their goal--making education a central issue in the presidential election--four years behind schedule.

Read this Politico post and you'll see what I mean.

President Barack Obama, balancing his blueprint to recalibrate the nation's economy against a looming confrontation with Republicans over federal spending, will use the issue of education to help frame the budget debate.

As he argues for a budget that includes painful cuts to government-funded initiatives he favors, such as home weatherization programs, community development plans and even college Pell Grants, the president will use his bully pulpit to defend spending more on education?a domestic issue that has been overshadowed by debates about the economy and the health care overhaul.

But this is completely cynical. Sure, the President will call for a few small-scale programs that Republicans will oppose, like extending Race to the Top (for districts this time, not states) and recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers. But this is "school uniforms"...

As Alyson Klein of Ed Week reported yesterday, the House GOP offered a ?slice and dice? funding bill on Friday night that cuts federal education funding ?far below current levels and far below what President Barack Obama wanted in his never-enacted fiscal year 2011 budget request.?? ?Nearly $5 billion would be cut from DOE's 2010 $63.7 billion budget, reports Klein, if the Republicans have their way.? ?

Title I money would be cut by $693.5 million, special education by $557 million, and Head Start by a cool $1 billion.? The GOP rejected Obama's request for another $1.3 billion for Race to the Top ? and there's ?no money? for the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program.?

The list of specific cuts can be scary ? Even Start ($66m), Striving Readers ($250m). Literacy Through Libraries ($19m), Civic Education ($35m), New Leaders for New Schools ($5m), Teach for America ($18m), and 21st Century Community Learning Centers ($100m).

Though this is a first shot over the budgeting bow, as Klein points out, the proposal is for a fiscal year that started last October ("never enacted") ?-- another reason for stocking up on the survival gear in the basement ?--...

Alyson Klein at K-12 Politics (Education Week) is reporting what?may not be too surprising: that conservatives on the Hill don't much care for increased federal education spending.? But it's the setup to the Cato Institute's always understated case against federal meddling that is priceless:

Just in case the message hasn't gotten through, school districts should know that the new Republicans in Congress really don't think that more money equals better student outcomes. The most popular item at the hearing today? A chart by the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson essentially saying that the federal government has spent $2 trillion over the past half century, with nothing to show for it in terms of student results.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we'll be talking real money.

As Mike has emphasized (see the podcast here?or with Chris' Treat the Disease post earlier today) the current fiscal challenges facing school districts will not solve any of our education problems unless we take advantage of the crisis to weed the garden of costly, nutrient-sapping ?non-educational practices like single-salary schedules and tenure.?

?There were questions on issues like teacher retention, and even whether school districts can save...

As Bianca noted yesterday, legislators in Ohio are pushing major changes to the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions in the state, among them teacher unions. Many of the proposed changes, like eliminating step-and-lane salary increases, would be very positive.

One change struck me as odd among the proposals: a ban on districts paying more than 80% of teachers' health care costs. I get where the proposal is coming from ? when state and local tax coffers are full, politicians (school board members among them) love to win points with unions through huge giveaways to teachers. It's not a response to demands in the labor market, but blatant vote mongering. We see the fruits of these popular but irresponsible moves when tax revenues dry up.

If onerous state mandates like step-and-lane are removed, one hopes some Ohio districts will step up to develop better, more effective human capital policies that drive student achievement and attract high performing teachers. What if the part of the labor market those districts target demands benefits covering 85% of health care costs in exchange for smarter accountability and better instruction? Why tie districts down in new ways while cutting old mandates?...

Last year at this time I was unveiling my Share the Pain plan (I liked the coincidence that STP is a famous fuel additive, ?with the racer's edge"), which included a staff salary freeze and cutting out busing for anyone who lived within a half mile of school.? Those two items alone would have saved nearly a million dollars and the jobs of a couple dozen teachers.? Alas, unlike the racer's edge, my STP went nowhere and a lot of teachers and other staff went looking for work.

This year, I'm mainly watching as the crowd gathers at the cliff's edge.? I did, however, pass on Stretching the School Dollar to my board colleagues and do also share suggestions that come my way, including this wonderful stream-of-conscious Blackberry email from a veteran elementary school teacher: ?

Ok, well, here are some thoughts.?

Co-integrated classrooms are not working.? We need more self-contained special education classes.? Instead of having two teachers in a classroom.? Have one.? Extra Content classes in [the school] are horrible and a waste of time and not working.??Have one special area teacher to one class for even one period a day- it would be better.? Give


New York hates to be behind its Hudson River rival ? New Jersey ? but new Empire State Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing a nice job keeping up with his Garden State comrade-in-chief Chris Christie with education blasts.?

This morning, Cuomo makes an appearance on the front page of the New York Times,?uttering?unsympathetic comments about ?the salaries of some of ?New York's school superintendents; most notably, one Long Island schools chief, who makes $386,868 (over $500,000 with?benefits!) overseeing just 6,687 students and a budget of just over $176 million; that's?more than double the governor's?salary but a bit less than the $133 billion that the Governor oversees.? Said the Times:


Said Cuomo:

I understand that they sometimes have to manage budgets, and sometimes the budgets are difficult.? But why they get paid more than the governor of the state I really don't understand.

In fact, according to the Times, Cuomo,? who will be making $179,000 to run New York State, is earning less than?more than 40 percent of the state's 700+ school superintendents.? (Christie is proposing a $175,000 cap on most of New Jersey superintendents, thank you very much.)

Whether this "alternative villain" is...

Selective public high schools in DC, educating mostly affluent students, receive more dollars per pupil than open enrollment neighborhood schools. That's the (not very surprising) finding of a new analysis by the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, a local advocacy group.

DC, like many large urban districts, has an ongoing discussion about how appropriate these kinds of magnet programs are. As detailed in the report, they're usually expensive. Some in DC think this is money well spent to keep high-earning professional families in the city; others contend that the money should be spent where it would have the highest impact on student achievement, usually in high-poverty schools.

The more surprising part of the news is that this kind of data is available and transparent to district leadership in DC at all, much less to the general public. Too many systems apply average salaries to school budgets districtwide, giving them very little visibility into how spending in a given school matches up with the community's priorities. Marguerite Roza's recent book, Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go? describes this problem in some detail.

No matter where a community comes down on magnet schools...