Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: How states can stretch the school dollar
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.
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.
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.
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:
- End “last hired, first fired” practices.
- Remove class size mandates.
- Eliminate mandatory salary schedules.
- Eliminate state mandates regarding work rules and
terms of employment.
- Remove “seat time” requirements.
- Merge categorical programs and ease onerous
- Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system.
- Pool health-care benefits.
- Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions.
- Move toward weighted student funding.
- Eliminate excess spending on small schools and
- Allocate spending for learning-disabled students
as a percent of population.
- Limit the length of time that students can be identified
as English Language Learners.
- Offer waivers of non-productive state
- 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?
Opinion: The road paved with good intentions
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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”
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.
Review: Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress: Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (FAST)
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.
Review: States' Progress and Challenges in Implementing the Common Core State Standards
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.
Review: Shut out of the Military: Today's High School Education Doesn't Mean You're Ready for Today's Army
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.”
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: No Al Pacino 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
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Instead of facing up to the budget crisis, the unions and their friends change the subject
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....
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: New teacher contract in the Queen City
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.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: The cast of Jersey Shore would be disappointed
- Who will
be the Deborah Gist or Michelle Rhee of 2011? The Christian Science Monitor offers a list
of eight school chiefs to watch this year. A few will turn your head.
- As the
public-school system in South Africa collapses, parents are turning to an emerging
affordable private-education marketplace to educate their children.
Questions of regulation, public-sector push-back, and teacher quality weigh
heavy in this up-and-coming
nation. Take heed and keep watch.
- In the
wake of an
embarrassing oversight, Virginia legislators have proposed
amending the state’s textbook adoption regulations. What those in Old
Dominion don’t understand is that minor tweaks just aren’t enough: It’s a mad,
mad world out there!
have adopted the Common Core standards in ELA and math. So, now what? For a
nugget of insight into that question, check out Common Core’s ELA curriculum maps.
states drag the red pen across budget line items this year, Gadfly proposes one
no-brainer cut. Stop paying
to test high schoolers for steroids! Over the past four years, New Jersey
has dropped $400,000 to find juicers in high-school locker rooms. To date, they’ve
only identified one.
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.
Fordham's featured publication:
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.