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August 04, 2009
July 12, 2010
July 15, 2010
Last week Ohio
Education Matters (a subsidiary of the KnowledgeWorks
Foundation) hosted a forum
for Ohio superintendents and district leaders looking to save money. Figuring
out ways to “do more with less” in K-12 education is an urgent matter
(especially follow last week’s repeal
of Issue 2), which is why Fordham has been prodding school districts for quite
some time to think proactively on this issue.
(See a summary of our recent event, “Working
Smarter Together”; coverage of our “doing more with less” events
in education from this past spring; or highlights from last year’s “Stretching
the School Dollar” event
– or that accompanying book.)
The event featured Fordham friend Rick Hess (director of
education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute) as well as superintendents
from school districts across Ohio recognized by OEM’s benchmarking
study for exceptional cost-savings measures.
These on-the-ground “efficiency experts” included
superintendents from Canton City (Michele Evans); Perry Local in Stark County (John
Richard); Sandy Valley (David Janofa); Western Reserve (Charles Swindler); and
Salem City (Tom Bratten). Except for Canton, the majority of examples of cost-savings
and service-sharing came from districts that are fairly small.
It was apparent by the way superintendents in the audience
were taking diligent notes that they are really in the market for new ideas.
Several good ones emerged:
Overall, district superintendents – at least those in the
room – seemed to understand the need to cut costs and operate leaner. But as
Rick Hess aptly pointed out – “optimizing” by cutting corners on things like
electricity and busing can only go so far.
Given the serious trouble districts will be in over the next
decade – because of withering federal stimulus dollars, a real estate market
that won’t fully bottom out for several more years, and competing pressures on
state budgets (namely Medicaid) – it’s time to start rethinking the way K-12 does business. Hess explained scenarios in
which schools could re-configure the use of teacher talent; take better
advantage of technology (a la Rocketship and Connections Academy); and do a
better job of understanding the value of each dollar (for example, a teacher
making $70,000 is essentially paid $4,600 for patrolling the cafeteria during
lunch duty – why not have her use that time for instruction?).
By the end of the event, two challenges to achieving real cost-savings
(especially the “rethinking” kind) were crystal clear. First, K-12 leaders
still have an aversion to attaching dollars and cents to children.
Superintendent Evans (Canton) noted that it’s “a sick thing” to delineate costs
per pupil and that she never anticipated talking about money so much when she
took on the role of superintendent. If tracking your spending can help drive
more money toward people and programs that make the most difference, per-pupil
budgeting is actually a very student-centric way of doing business. It’s dysfunctional
Secondly, after hearing Hess’ speech – my table was buzzing.
I asked one district leader from a central Ohio school district what she
thought of his ideas. Her response? “We’d love to try some of those things
(virtual learning; re-imagining staffing structures; paying great teachers
more) but we’re sort of boxed in. Unions, regulations, rules, etc. make it very
difficult for us to change much of what we do, especially when it comes to
That sounds familiar.