The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 1. January 6, 2011.

In This Edition

New from Fordham: Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for Policymakers

Stretching the School Dollar Policy Brief cover

This new policy brief lists fifteen concrete ways that states can “stretch the school dollar” in these difficult financial times. It argues that budget cuts alone, without concurrent reforms, could set our schools back years. But by addressing state mandates around teacher tenure, “last hired, first fired” policies, minimum class sizes, and more, states can free local leaders’ hands to make smart, courageous cuts and do more with less.

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Opinion and Analysis

How states can stretch the school dollar
Fifteen clear and specific ideas for the budget battles to come
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

The road paved with good intentions
Some thoughts on the Brown Center’s latest
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Republicans rediscover education
At the state level, at least
News Analysis

Donkeys stand for children
The unions get some real competition
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (FAST)
Stellar results with small budgets? Five stars for some Lone Star schools!
Review | Amber M. Winkler

States’ Progress and Challenges in Implementing Common Core Standards
Still we’re left asking, “now what?”
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Shut Out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for Today’s Army
Another indication of our education system’s low expectations
Review | Chris Irvine

From The Web

No Al Pachino for Amber
In this week’s podcast: Crawl out of budget holes, grab some campaign contributions, and smile at the camera
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull

Instead of facing up to the budget crisis, the unions and their friends change the subject
It’s easy to criticize from the stands
Flypaper's Finest | January 5, 2011 | Michael Petrilli

New teacher contract in the Queen City
One year and 1,000 hours of negotiation later
Flypaper's Finest | January 5, 2011 | Jamie Davies O'Leary

Extras

The cast of Jersey Shore would be disappointed
A market emerges in South Africa while another re-emerges in Virginia
Briefly Noted

Never dull in Nevada
Nevada Policy Research Institute seeks education-policy analyst
Announcement

To Dream the Impossible Dream
Four approaches to national standards and assessments
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: How states can stretch the school dollar 
By Michael J. Petrilli

If you’re a governor, legislator, budget director, or other state official, you don’t need to be told that education spending cuts are coming. After years of non-stop increases—national K-12 per-pupil spending is up by one-third in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1995—our schools now face near-certain repeated annual budget cuts for the first time since the Great Depression. In some states and districts, reductions will be dramatic—10 percent or even higher. And these new revenue-trend levels are likely to be semi-permanent, what with increased pressure on the public purse from the retirement of Baby Boomers, Medicaid and Medicare costs, debt payments, and other demands.

The challenge for education policymakers is not only to cut carefully so as not to harm student learning, but better yet, to transform these fiscal woes into reform opportunities: to cut smart and thereby help our schools and students emerge stronger than ever. Today we’re releasing a new policy brief to help state lawmakers do exactly that.

The first step for state officials is to recognize that they don’t actually control the bulk of school budgets; districts do. It will be local school boards, superintendents and their staffs, as well as charter schools, intermediate agencies, and other sub-state consumers of education dollars that will decide, at the end of the day, what gets axed or repurposed.

The worst case scenario is for states to make across-the-board cuts to their education formulae while leaving all manner of harmful laws, regulations, mandates, obsolete programs, and practices in place.  
   
 

Do they simply lay off all the newest teachers? Get rid of art and music classes? Charge fees for extra-curricular activities, or out-of-zone busing? Or do they think big and restructure teacher compensation, rethink personnel assignments, exit ineffective staff, embrace more efficient delivery systems, push for union concessions around health care-benefits and pensions, and apply innovation to reduce reliance on some personnel?

Local leaders will decide. Yet state lawmakers are far from powerless. They create the frameworks within which these choices get made. Funding formulas and myriad state laws and regulations have enormous impact on the spending decisions of districts and schools. In some states, for example, policies are on the books that require extra pay for teachers who earn a master’s degree. Other states mandate the number of sick days districts must offer their employees, tying the hands of local leaders and driving up costs. The worst case scenario is for states to make across-the-board cuts to their education formulae while leaving all manner of harmful laws, regulations, mandates, obsolete programs, and practices in place.

For instance:

Ø  If reformers want local districts to consider new approaches to teacher pay—e.g., approaches that don’t rely on seniority and raises tied to mostly meaningless master’s degrees—they probably have to make changes at the state level. In Ohio and sixteen other states, the law requires districts to adopt salary schedules with “steps and lanes” based predominantly on years of service and college-credit-based credentials.

Ø  If reformers want districts to stop the nonsensical practice of “last hired, first fired,” which peels off the newest and most energized (and least expensive) teachers and other staff, they’d better make sure that their own states don’t mandate it.

Ø  If policymakers think that strategic increases in class size—and some new approaches to instructional delivery, such as adroit use of online learning—make both budgetary and educational sense, they have to ensure that state barriers don’t preclude this.

It was no accident, of course, that such restrictions made it into the state books. For each policy that affects resource allocation, there is a stakeholder group ready to defend it. State policymakers have their work cut out for them. But if they are ready for a rumble, here are fifteen ways they can stretch the school dollar—and knock some counter-productive policies off the books at the same time:

  1. End “last hired, first fired” practices.
  2. Remove class size mandates.
  3. Eliminate mandatory salary schedules.
  4. Eliminate state mandates regarding work rules and terms of employment.
  5. Remove “seat time” requirements.
  6. Merge categorical programs and ease onerous reporting requirements.
  7. Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system.
  8. Pool health-care benefits.
  9. Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions.
  10. Move toward weighted student funding.
  11. Eliminate excess spending on small schools and small districts.
  12. Allocate spending for learning-disabled students as a percent of population.
  13. Limit the length of time that students can be identified as English Language Learners.     
  14. Offer waivers of non-productive state requirements.
  15. Create bankruptcy-like loan provisions.

This is an ambitious, politically perilous agenda, to be sure. But it’s also the one approach with the potential of not only protecting the existing quality of schools, but also setting the stage for the kinds of reforms not possible in previous years. In this far-reaching scenario, closing budget gaps also has the effect of unlocking commitments, policies, practices, and habits such that available education dollars can be used differently to better serve students.

Are we up to the challenge?

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Opinion: The road paved with good intentions
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings has generally done good work since its founding in 1992. Under Russ Whitehurst’s leadership, it has recently stepped up its productivity and many of the resulting reports and symposia have been first-rate, notably including a series of concise task-force reports on such topics as school choice and the role of value-added analysis in teacher evaluation.

Would that this were also true of its latest task-force product: “Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education.”

On the upside, this report is surely well-timed. Charter schools and the charter movement need many a repair, the current programs of federal support for them have sundry archaic features, and the hoped-for upcoming reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB is the obvious place for a makeover.

Yet, despite themselves, this task force of eminent scholars, charter-friendly policy wonks, and thoughtful analysts fell into a familiar trap: the illusion that any number of seemingly worthy repairs, recalibrations, and reforms in a complex policy domain can (and should) be brought about via a slew of adjustments—all finely tuned, of course—in federal regulations, conditions, incentives, funding formulae, and reporting requirements.

This is wishful thinking—to put it kindly—and especially dismaying when it emanates from a group that includes smart economists, statisticians, and recent alumni of the very government that they now ask to jump through complicated hoops. Frankly, they should know better. These folks have seen up close what government can and cannot do. And yet they now drink the Kool-aid—and want you to sup it with them.

Surely, it’s tasty stuff. The Brown Center Task Force sets forth twenty recommendations for changes in federal charter-school policy and, while some of them are a bit wonky (designed more to benefit researchers in the long run than needy kids in the short term), all are sound and would contribute to a stronger and more effective charter-school enterprise in the United States.

If, that is, they were not just enacted and funded but also faithfully and accurately implemented—without glitches, political pushback, bureaucratic resistance, or unintended consequences—by every level of government and every institution that is involved with this enterprise.

Here are a few specimens:

  • Under “data collection and use,” the task force asks Uncle Sam to make federal charter-school aid “contingent upon charter schools being subject to lottery rules that require the design and implementation of lotteries by entities that are qualified to carry out the task, operate with clearly documented procedures, and are independent of the charter schools in which the lotteries are being conducted.” Surely a worthy thought, but now try to picture the federal regulations that spell out qualifications for lottery-conducting entities and a system by which to police compliance with those regulations. (Another worthy-in-concept-but-impossible-to-orchestrate-from-Washington proposal calls for “stratified” lotteries designed to foster pupil diversity and geographic balance.)
  • Under “information to support choice,” the task force wants districts publicly to report school-specific data on such matters as truancy rates, availability of “enrichment programs” and “success of students at the next level of education.” Parents, analysts, and policymakers would indeed benefit from such information but to get it—and make sure that it’s accurate, timely and comparable—somebody would have to make (and monitor and enforce) rules and protocols for “truancy” (what if a kid cuts out of school at noon?), for “enrichment programs” (does cheerleading qualify?), and for longitudinal tracking of youngsters after they leave their schools.
  • Under “facilities,” the task force urges Washington to “provide incentives to districts to allow charters to take advantage of surplus district facilities, for example, by giving districts that do so priority preference points in federal discretionary grant competitions….” Another appealing idea, but putting it into practice would alter the decision-making processes of a bunch of non-charter programs—and doing this fairly would mean making rules for what exactly constitutes a “surplus” facility and precisely what it means to “allow charters to take advantage” of such facilities. (Does charging one dollar below market rate qualify?)

And so the report takes us through seventeen more good ideas, every one of them burdened with enormous implications for regulation, compliance, and monitoring.

A few weeks back, we adults assured doubting children that Santa Claus is “real.” But we also reminded them that, if they ask for too many gifts, they may well end up with coal in their stockings—or nothing at all. That advice applies to public policy, too. The Brown Center wish list is directed to the selfsame federal government, let us recall, that cannot assure freedom from salmonella in your supermarket eggs, the same government that is clumsily patting you down at airports, the same government that has enormous difficulty keeping its diplomatic cables secret and its incoming parcels bomb-free.

That’s also the government that has already tried multiple times to move the mountain of American public education by applying leverage and incentives in Washington. Remember NCLB? Not only did it not produce more than a soupcon of the desired result, it also fed a big bad backlash. Why do smart folks persist in believing that it will work better with their ideas? How much can we realistically and reasonably expect Uncle Sam to do and do well?

Not, alas, as much as the Brown Center task force wants it to do. These recommendations won’t be enacted (surely not in their current form) and, if they were, they wouldn’t be implemented and, even if they were implemented, they wouldn’t be done well or consistently. Instead of Santa Claus and sugar plums, this initiative would yield a mantle hung with coal-filled stockings, and all sorts of other undesirable and unintended consequences. It would end up being deemed another failure of government—and maybe of the charter-school concept, too.

Carry this line of thinking into more politically sensitive domains and the fallout could be truly damaging. Imagine, for example, a parallel Brookings Task Force taking up the question of how federal policy might further the implementation of the new Common Core academic standards, leading to twenty recommendations in that vein for the next round of ESEA. Then picture the Tea Party response. It’s hard to imagine a faster formula for strangling the standards in their cradle.

And so a plea to Brookings and others: Please rein in your expectations for what Uncle Sam can do, which is but a few of the twenty items on the Brown Center list and others like it. Most of the rest would be properly directed to states, to charter-school authorizers, to philanthropists, to school districts—but not to Washington. Remember what misdirected policy guidance will bring to your stocking: coal—or nothing at all.

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News Analysis: Republicans rediscover education

The GOP in Washington might not yet have its ducks in a row when it comes to education policy, but Republicans at the state level are a whole different story. These renegade reformers—Tony Bennett and Chris Christie immediately spring to mind—all have something in common: the man who serves as their education mentor. We refer, of course, to Jeb Bush—who has stepped into the fore of the national education-reform movement with his Foundation for Excellence in Education. While the governor of Florida, Bush brought a rigorous accountability system to the state, expanded charter schools and school-choice options, launched a far-reaching virtual-school program, and fostered early experiments with performance pay. Now, Bush has emerged as a thought leader on issues ranging from school choice to digital education, and has been acting as a sounding board for policymakers across the country, offering counsel on the nitty-gritty of policy and pointers on how to sell controversial proposals to elected officials and the public. And his soap-box audience is growing, as more and more state Republicans see education reform as a necessary means to a right-sized budget. From Maine to Minnesota, newly elected officials are taking to the podium to limit union power, rethink Cadillac benefits, and restructure teacher-tenure legislation. With their increased power and influence following the recent November elections—at least six states, Ohio among them, boast a Republican governor, Senate, and House—don’t be surprised to see major reforms pushed through on the coattails of the budget crisis. And don’t be surprised if many of those reforms look as if they were born in Florida.

Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions,” by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, January 3, 2011.

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News Analysis: Donkeys stand for children

Still think the push-back against teachers unions is just a GOP thing? Think again. Illinois—a long-time blue state—is considering a bill that would link teacher tenure to student performance, allow districts to fire underperformers more readily, and dramatically curb teachers’ right to strike. And it is a handful of Democratic legislators who are leading the fight. Several of these lawmakers received campaign support from the reform group Stand for Children, which contributed $600,000 to nine candidates in Illinois last November. No longer do Democrats have to rely on the teachers union for campaign cash and organizational muscle—they now can advocate for change without facing political suicide. As the Wall Street Journal’s Stephanie Banchero writes, “the fight in Illinois is a microcosm of the shifting sands in national education policy” (remember Colorado?). Expect to see more like this as budget woes continue, the union line becomes increasingly tiresome, and Michelle Rhee gets her political machine up and running.

Illinois Attempts to Link Teacher Tenure to Results,” By Stephanie Banchero, The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2010.

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Short Reviews

Review: Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress: Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (FAST)
By Amber M. Winkler

This timely and useful study provides precisely the type of information that financially-strapped school districts need to trim their bottom lines—without sacrificing student learning. Written by Susan Combs, The Lone Star State’s fearless comptroller, at the behest of her state legislature, the report identifies Texas school districts that achieve strong student performance while keeping spending growth at bay. Quite an assignment in a state that increased its per-pupil spending by 63 percent in the last decade (and that’s after taking enrollment growth into account). To determine which districts could deliver this formidable one-two punch, Combs employed two metrics. First, she and her team used a value-added model (controlling for various student, district, and campus characteristics) to measure academic progress over three years in reading and math. Then, they devised a spending index for each district and campus by comparing them to their “fiscal peers” (sites that serve comparable numbers and types of students and operate in similar cost environments). Based on a combination of these two metrics, value-added and spending data, each district or campus received a rating of one to five stars, indicating the extent to which it produced strong academic growth at a lower cost compared to peers. Five-star ratings, meaning fantastic student progress and low spending compared to fiscal peers, are rare. Only forty-three of the 1,235 school districts and charter schools analyzed received a five-star rating (eleven of which were charters). To bump up that number, the report offers cost-cutting solutions for districts—like relaxing class-size limits and sharing facilities and services. Though it stops short of recommending cutting teacher positions, the report takes a hard line on the ballooning administrative posts in Texas. Eliminate 1,500 positions, and bring the state back down to its 1998-99 levels, recommends Combs. It’ll save roughly $115 million annually in salaries alone. Along with the written report, FAST includes a nifty website that allows districts to compare their achievement, expenditures, and resource allocations to other districts. “The FAST system is a national innovation that should be copied by other states,” says Eric Hanushek. We couldn’t agree more: If we are going to do more with less, we need to know what the more or less gets us.

Susan Combs, “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress,” Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (Austin, TX: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, 2010).

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Review: States' Progress and Challenges in Implementing the Common Core State Standards
By Daniela Fairchild

If adoption of the Common Core state standards in ELA and math marks a state’s first baby step, then the implementation of these standards will be its first marathon. To ascertain how well states are moving through this multi-faceted implementation process, the Center on Education Policy surveyed state deputy secretaries of education in forty-three states: Thirty-six of those respondent states have at least provisionally adopted the Common Core standards, and eleven were Race to the Top (RTTT) winners. The major findings: On key implementation issues, like curriculum and assessment alignment, states still have miles to travel. The vast majority of states don’t expect full implementation of the standards until 2013 or later. And one truly interesting nugget: Only twelve of the states surveyed plan to supplement the Common Core standards with their own state-specific content. Another eleven will adopt the Common Core standards as are, and still eleven more are undecided as to their course of action. In fact, if there’s one message that comes from the study, it’s that many states still don’t know what they plan to do in terms of implementation. They may have started the race, but the question of “now what?” still looms large.

Nancy Kober and Diana Stark Rentner, “States’ Progress and Challenges in Implementing Common Core State Standards,” (Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy, January 2011).

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Review: Shut out of the Military: Today's High School Education Doesn't Mean You're Ready for Today's Army
By Chris Irvine

Americans felt the earthquake of a “Sputnik moment” back in December with the announcement of the 2009 PISA results. This report from Education Trust delivers a non-trivial aftershock. More than one in five American youth who take the Armed Forces Qualification Exam (AFQT) fail to meet the minimum competency standards for enlistment. Note: this group is drawn from the slim 25 percent of youngsters in the U.S. who are even eligible to take the test in the first place (a high school diploma and certain level of physical fitness being among the prerequisites). Further, African American and Hispanic students score significantly worse than whites; about 40 percent and 30 percent of the two groups, respectively, fail to meet the Army’s standards. Truth be told, the study has many limitations—the most notable of which are the self-selected sample (including only individuals who voluntarily chose to take the test) and lack of socio-economic-status data. Still, the message is clear: The United States isn’t only under-educating future college-goers, as PISA results attest, it’s under-educating would-be service men and women as well. Though these individuals possess high-school diplomas, they lack the reading, math, science, and problem-solving skills needed to serve our nation. As Ed Trust states, “The loss is theirs—and ours.”

The Education Trust, "Shut Out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for Today’s Army," (Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, December 2010).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: No Al Pachino for Amber

Big Brother watches as Mike and Janie dive into budget holes and talk campaign contributions. Amber is more interested in the difference between choice and options, while Chris just wants to steal Mike’s lines.

The Education Gadfly
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.

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Flypaper's Finest: Instead of facing up to the budget crisis, the unions and their friends change the subject
By Michael Petrilli

The New Year is shaping up just as I predicted, with Diane Ravitch and the teachers unions criticizing budget-cutting proposals but offering no real alternatives of their own. ... In the absence of new ideas—and different policies—local districts will carry out predictable and harmful cuts that will hurt kids and impede achievement....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.

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Flypaper's Finest: New teacher contract in the Queen City
By Jamie Davies O’Leary 

After a year of “tedious” negotiations, strong recommendations from The New Teacher Project, and a considerable amount of hype (mostly from board members or union officials, so consider the source) that the contract was “historic” and “the most progressive home-grown reform” in the country, a new teacher contract for Cincinnati Public Schools has been ratified.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.

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Extras

Briefly Noted: The cast of Jersey Shore would be disappointed

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Announcement: Never dull in Nevada

The Nevada Policy Research Institute—based in Las Vegas—is on the search for a motivated, results-oriented education-policy analyst. The candidate would be a strong writer, researcher, and analyst. That description fit you to a T? Roll the dice and apply here.

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Fordham's featured publication:

To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America's Schools

Education-policy leaders from across the political spectrum flesh out and evaluate several forms that national standards and testing could take. See which version the Common Core most closely resembles.

The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Amanda Olberg, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at thegadfly@edexcellence.net. Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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