The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 21. June 2, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Where's the Tea Party when you need it?
Insider proof of the madness of local control
Opinion | Peter Meyer

Bending the special-ed cost curve 
It requires multiple approaches
News Analysis | Chris Tessone

Ohio’s charter schools: Threats from within 
Quality must trump quantity—and profits
News Analysis

Hitting it big in Clark County?
Are the three cherries aligning for reform in Vegas?
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Condition of Education 2011
Data, data, everywhere—and not a Catholic school to spare
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

Steering Capital: Optimizing Financial Support for Innovation in Public Education 
Even innovation must be guided—and funded
Review | Chris Tessone

Preparing for Growth: Human Capital Innovations in Public Charter Schools 
How the best-of-the-best attract talent
Review | Kathryn Mullen Upton

From The Web

A Texas high school arms race 
Thumbs down to turnarounds, up for a rethink to special-ed services, and way up for Clark County
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

When it comes to evaluating teachers, trust (and empower) the principal
A smart option that neither unions nor reformers want to consider
Flypaper's Finest | May 31, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Memento mori: Let us now praise the power of memory 
A plug for rote memorization on Memorial Day
Flypaper's Finest | May 30, 2011 | Peter Meyer

IMPACT: Teachers' perspectives
The first in a series giving voice to D.C. educators
Gadfly Studios | June 2, 2011


I’ll trade you two students for one teacher 
And I’ll even throw in a copy of Education Next
Briefly Noted

Uncle Sam and accountability
Come to Fordham on June 15 for a debate on the feds’ role in education

AEI: O, they need U
Rick Hess is hiring a new research assistant

Show your smarts in Seattle 
Internship opportunities with CRPE

Have a special interest in teacher unions? 
Discuss Terry Moe’s new book at AEI on June 8

Stretching the School Dollar
Some quick tips for districts on how to cut costs while maintaining educational integrity
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Where's the Tea Party when you need it?
By Peter Meyer

A friend emailed earlier in the week: “Breathtaking.” It was the first of many such emails and phone calls.

Each was referring to a Monday night vote by our local board of education (of which I am a member—though my gadfly tendencies often lead other board members to shut me out of processes, which happened quite clearly during our recent budget-making ordeal). The vote was to impose a budget that raises the local property tax levy by 9.8 percent (triple the New York state average). This wasn’t the first time the board had made this decision—we had originally voted on the tax increase back in April. Yet it was soundly rejected—by a 3 to 1 margin—at the polls on May 17. So back to the board it came, through a back-alley channel known as the “contingency budget law.” How we got to this point—and what has happened since—is a story worth telling.

First, some context. Mine is a tiny (2,000 student) district in upstate New York. It’s a poor community with average family income of just over $30,000, and an unemployment rate of about 9 percent. (Conjure up a Richard Russo novel and you’ll get the picture.) As such, it depends largely on aid from the state and federal governments. (Local sources account for much less than half of our district’s funds.)

So when the Empire State cut support to districts by $1.2 billion simultaneously as federal stimulus dollars were running out, it hurt. The state cut meant a loss of about a million dollars, the ARRA “funding cliff” another million. If you add the “roll-up” expenses (the so-called fixed costs associated with items like contracts and pensions), you suddenly, have a budget “gap” of over $3 million on a $41 million budget. Not good. Something had to give.

To plug the hole, our board opted for a lose-lose proposition: Cut roughly 10 percent of the staff (i.e. twenty-two teachers) and increase the local tax levy by roughly 10 percent (more than double the increase on the ballot in surrounding districts and nearly three times what our state school-board association says is the average proposed increase across the state’s 658 districts).

Of course, there were other options. The teachers union had adamantly rejected a salary freeze—which would have saved an estimated $300,000. To them, a tax increase was much more palatable. Why? A couple of Sundays ago, leaving church, a district official pulled me aside and whispered, “You didn’t ask how many teachers live in the district.” “No,” I said—and then I guessed, “fifty percent.” She smiled. “Try 13 percent.” So the vast majority had no qualms with sticking it to local property owners. In fact, many of these other teachers lived in districts that were increasing tax levies by just one and two percent (and where teachers were taking wage freezes!).

There were other possible cuts on the table, too, but all were rejected. Take busing. We could save nearly $500,000 by not busing students who lived within a mile-and-a-half of school. (Parents rejected that out of fear of students walking alone.) Sports? Untouched. In fact, my suggestion that each school (we only have four) and administrative department come up with its own recommendations for cuts was soundly rejected. It’s hard to break old habits, even in tough times.

It is an argument for more local control, not less—provided, of course, that one doesn’t transform that impulse into more local board control.


So, on May 17, we (the board) took the budget to the voters. I expected it to be close, but instead it was a blowout. The tax increase was soundly defeated, 1,249 to 424, but then the contingency budget clause reared its ugly head. Before ink on the cast ballots was dry, the board of education, voted (4 to 3) to adopt the budget anyway.

You see, New York State law says that a local district may impose a “contingency” budget—allowing an increase no higher than the previous year’s Consumer Price Index (CPI)—without voter approval. In other words, if the board proposes a contingency budget (which we did) and the voters reject it (which they did), the board nevertheless has the authority simply to impose it. Since last year’s CPI, according to our state officials, was 1.6 percent, our $41 million budget proposal was well within contingency limits.

Yes, I was flabbergasted. The voters got it. The board ignored them. But—and here we have the best argument possible for increased local autonomy instead of less—because of state law, hammered out in back rooms by powerful union interests, local voters were denied their electoral rights. It is an argument for more local control, not less—provided, of course, that one doesn’t transform that impulse into more local board control.

But that wasn’t the end of the fight. At our next board meeting, a week after the original May 17 vote, a crowd of 200-plus angry taxpayers packed the school cafeteria where we hold board meetings to take our superintendent and principals and teachers and the board of education to the proverbial woodshed. “This is a democracy!” emanated from irate mouths of taxpayers. The public tongue-lashing continued: “This is not the USSR!” was also used several times, though in this matter I’m sorry to say the resemblance is striking. And at some point in the haze of hoorahs and cheers as the board voted to rescind its decision to increase the tax levy, I felt a whoosh of air behind me and turned to see (no lie) M. de Tocqueville, notebook in hand, scurrying from the room. (At this riotous May 24 meeting, one board member changed his vote, swinging the board from 4 to 3 in favor of the tax levy to 4 to 3 opposed.)

But, alas, that was only Round Two. The fight ended abruptly in Round 3 this past Tuesday night with a TKO: Despite a flurry of long and hard—and well-attended—budget workshops over the past week, and hundreds of suggestions offered for how to cut expenses and increase revenue, to improve the rejected budget, the board, again by a vote of 4 to 3, reimposed that same rejected budget. Not a penny changed.


There are several lessons here.  

  1. Congress has nothing over local political skirmishes when it comes to sharp-elbowed tactics. And need it be repeated? The lower the stakes, the bloodier the conflict. The silver lining: Board meeting attendance spiked.
  2. Anyone thinking about centralized control—federal or state—should volunteer for a local school board. Or shadow any of our students’ or teachers’ or voters’ for a day. The variety of possible interactions in this tiny place should give any distant policymaker pause. And should remind all that it should be voters who control the boards, not the other way around.
  3. The unions have no place in schools. With 80 percent of our teachers living outside the district, they had zero stake in the property tax-levy question, which was bad enough. But bigger than that are the statutory protections they enjoy in the aptly named Empire State. Between the contingency law and the so-called “Triborough Amendment” (which allows for automatic raises during a contract stalemate) teachers are all but guaranteed salary increases in perpetuity. (Sometimes, during board meetings, as I looked out at the audience of mostly teachers, they very much looked like an army of occupation.)

How we got from a state constitution requiring that the legislature “provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated” to laws taking away the right of citizens to determine what they spend for that “free” education is a long and hard legal and policy road. I know this, here in the trenches, the events of the past couple of weeks have been enough to take your democratic breath away.

Peter Meyer is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is an editor for Education Next and regularly contributes to Fordham’s Flypaper blog. This piece is adopted from a series of blog posts Meyer wrote for Flypaper on the dealings of his local school board. The full series of posts, entitled “Field Notes,” can be found here.


News Analysis: Bending the special-ed cost curve
By Chris Tessone


Photo by Ashley Good

Fordham’s recent look at data trends in special-education populations peered under the surface of special-ed funding—but it couldn’t dive fully into those murky waters. But with some states ostensibly spending two or three times as much per student as others, it would appear that savings can be found in this $110 billion-plus lake of school spending—without negatively impacting kids. To that end, some districts are now turning to private companies, like Futures Education, to provide quality services to disabled youngsters at a lower cost. Such firms can play a dual role. First, they are more flexible than public-school districts at providing services where and when they’re needed, hiring and retaining only the staff necessary to serve the present pupil population. If a district employs ten speech therapists on staff, it must find ways (and salaries) to keep all ten busy. A private company that hires contractors, on the other hand, can stay lean and mean. Second, because these firms are somewhat removed from the difficult politics of special ed, they may have more courage—and ability—to say no to unneeded or ineffective services. (This is not unlike the vilified but vital role that insurance companies—or Medicare—play in the healthcare system.) Of course, outsourcing special-education services is not without barnacles. Shady operators will have every incentive to overcharge and underdeliver. As such, districts must consider which services they’re outsourcing, and to whom—and what mechanisms they’re using for provider accountability. Still, this form of “public-private partnerships” could both save money and provide a path to more individualized instruction for all youngsters—so by all means let’s give it a try.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on private special-education services from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Districts Hire Outsider to Trim Special Ed. Costs,” by Nivri Shah, Education Week, May 24, 2011.


News Analysis: Ohio's charter schools: Threats from within

Gadfly has criticized Ohio lawmakers for their efforts to water down charter-school accountability in the Buckeye State. If upheld in the state’s biennial budget (due to be finalized by month’s end), these provisions would downgrade the charter movement in Fordham’s home state to a “full-fledged contender for America’s worst.” An in-depth article in last weekend’s Dayton Daily News spotlights the worst of those legislative provisions and the man who appears to be responsible for them (despite denials by some House members): David Brennan, Akron industrialist and founder of White Hat Management. This firm is currently being sued by the boards of nine Ohio charter schools for illegally usurping their independent oversight and authority over said schools. But if the budgetary provisions passed by the Ohio House were to stand, that court case might be moot. White Hat would be allowed to continue operating all schools sans oversight, despite its slipshod educational-performance record: Two thirds of the schools it operates are rated D or F by the state. (To be fair, many of these schools serve kids who had previously dropped out.) It’s no wonder, then, that Brennan—who has lined GOP pockets with millions of dollars in campaign contributions—lobbied the Republican-controlled Ohio House to insert language that would allow White Hat to “keep secret details of how it spends… public money.” Gadfly is cautiously optimistic that this can get set right before the budget is completed. Two days ago, the heavily Republican Ohio Senate removed these harmful charter-school provisions from the budget bill. Now, however, House and Senate must work out their differences—and there is early evidence that the Speaker isn’t about to yield. Presumably Brennan isn’t, either.

Charter oversight could be eliminated with new legislation,” by Tom Beyerlein, Dayton Daily News, May 29, 2011.

Ohio Senate budget restores some aid to schools,” by Jim Siegel, Columbus Dispatch, June 1, 2011.


News Analysis: Hitting it big in Clark County?

Antique Dime Slot Machine

Photo by Jan Crumpley

Dwight Jones gained a rock-star reputation during his time at the helm of Colorado’s state education department. (Among other things, he was the commissioner during enactment of the Rocky Mountain State’s pioneering teacher-evaluation legislation.) Though he hasn’t been in Clark County, NV for long (having been lured to the nation’s fifth largest district in December), he’s already making big moves. Last week, Jones released a dynamite education-reform blueprint, redolent with both familiar reform elements (e.g. performance-based pay and value-added growth modeling) and some cutting-edge proposals. He would, for example, dramatically increase principal autonomy in successful schools, bundling like-performing schools into “performance zones,” each with its own level of support and oversight. “The aim is to achieve more laserlike focus on student performance,” Jones explained. Of course, with education’s hydra-like governance structure (district superintendents work with teacher unions and school boards within the constructs of state and federal legislation), no entity may make unilateral decisions. But that’s part of the appeal and intrigue of Clark County. Jones appears to have a soulmate in Nevada governor Brian Sandoval (though a stick-in-the-mud legislature still poses problems in Carson City). The district's rather abrupt move from growth-and-prosperity to population loss and budget woes makes it even more challenging--and interesting. The slot machine wheels on education reform in Vegas are still spinning but at least a couple of cherries have already shown up in the little window.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Jones's blueprint and Clark County from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Blueprint for school overhaul unveiled,” by James Haug, Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 27, 2011.

Governor didn’t get much on education,” by Editorial Board, Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 2, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Condition of Education 2011
By Gerilyn Slicker

Condition of Education cover imageThis latest portrait of American education from the National Center for Education Statistics is, as usual, dense with useful information. Perhaps most interesting are the large shifts on the school-choice front, with charter enrollment ballooning and private-school enrollment losing air. Over the past decade, the number of public charter-school pupils more than quadrupled—from 340,000 students in 1999-2000 to 1.4 million students in 2008-09. At the same time, private-school enrollment has deflated. While these schools taught 6.3 million students in 2001-02, private schools educated 5.5 million youngsters in 2009-10—a 13 percent decrease. Intriguingly, the pattern varied by school type. While enrollment in independent and secular private schools remained constant, religious schools saw sharp declines. Catholic schools were, once again, hit the hardest. Some other findings come as no shock (though maybe they should): Total per-pupil expenditures rose by 39 percent (in constant dollars) from 1989-90 to 2007-08, for example. On the good-news front, drop-out rates have declined for whites, blacks, and Hispanics over the past thirty years. Along with its parsed K-12 data, this year’s edition focuses on postsecondary education, documenting significant increases in total college enrollment and degrees as well as a bump in for-profit postsecondary enrollment (from 3 percent in 2000-01 to 9 percent today). In total, higher-education enrollment now trumps that of high schools: The nation boasted 17.6 million undergraduates in the fall of 2009 (and 2.9 million postbac students) and 15 million high schoolers (in 2008-09). Choose a preferred topic, dive in, and get a little nerdy.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the Condition of Education from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Susan Aud, William Hussar, Grace Kena, Kevin Bianco, Lauren Frohlich, Jana Kemp, Kim Tahan, Katie Mallory, Thomas Nachazel, and Gretchen Hannes, “The Condition of Education 2011,” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, May 2011).


Review: Steering Capital: Optimizing Financial Support for Innovation in Public Education
By Chris Tessone

Steering CapitalInnovation is a buzzword in many ed-reform circles nowadays—with its presumed capacity to alter, upend, and replace familiar systems that aren’t working well. To disrupt the status quo requires cold, hard cash placed in the right hands, however. Bellwether Education’s new report articulates the financial barriers to educational innovation, focusing on the “irrational, idiosyncratic” world of education philanthropy; public policies that crowd out entrepreneurs; and an overall shortage of investment in R&D and technology in the education world. Offering alternative perspectives and approaches, the authors look at trends in other sectors and analyze the key elements of effective social-capital markets. Successes seem to hinge on public-, private-, and philanthropic-sector collaboration, particularly in creating diverse sources of investment capital, focusing on metrics and evidence instead of compliance, and providing a healthy dose of transparent, useful data. Bellwether’s offering has some affinities with a recent paper by Kristi Kimball and Malka Kopell in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which argues that foundations should fund a broader portfolio of solutions to social problems and engage in less micromanagement of the projects they support. You’ll find no arguments from us against this kind of “tight-loose” approach to education philanthropy.

Kim Smith and Julie Petersen, “Steering Capital: Optimizing Financial Support for Innovation in Public Education,” (Washington, D.C.: Bellwether Education Partners, April 2011).


Review: Preparing for Growth: Human Capital Innovations in Public Charter Schools
By Kathryn Mullen Upton

Preparing for Growth coverThe growth of high-performing charter schools—and their charter-management organizations (CMOs)—is critical for such schools to become sound alternatives for additional needy kids. To expand, however, CMOs must overcome the challenge of finding superior teachers and school leaders. To see how this has been done and can be done, this Center for American Progress report profiles Green Dot, IDEA Public Schools, High Tech High, KIPP, Rocketship Education, and Yes Prep and explains how they have dealt with organizational growth and human-capital challenges. It seems that these successful CMOs have three things in common: They formalize recruitment, training, and support processes and infrastructure; they get the most mileage from available talent by narrowing and better-defining staff roles; and they import and induct management talent. Toward that end, many of these organizations have developed their own recruiting tools and candidate evaluations. Some offer extensive professional development aligned with their organizational cultures. Most believe in cultivating in-house talent, often by identifying future school leaders during the teacher-hiring process. Others have created and implemented their own certification programs. Well worth your attention, whether or not you’re a CMO junkie.

Christi Chadwick and Julie Kowal, “Preparing for Growth: Human Capital Innovations in Public Charter Schools,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, May 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: A Texas high school arms race

Mike and Rick talk substantively (for a change) about Clark County’s education blueprint, private special-education service providers, and utopian hopes for turnarounds. Amber geeks out with stats from the latest Condition of Education and Chris audibles for a Texas high school football stadium.

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


Flypaper's Finest: When it comes to evaluating teachers, trust (and empower) the principal
By Mike Petrilli

…If pay and employment decisions are to be based on teacher performance, at least in part, we need evaluations that can stand up to scrutiny (and to lawsuits). Simply put, we won’t make much progress in terminating our least effective teachers (either for cause or because of budget pressures) until we have evaluation systems that are fair, trustworthy, and rigorous. And it’s only common sense that one element of those evaluations should be an assessment of how much students are learning under the teacher’s charge.…

There is an option that neither reformers nor the unions want to consider: Trust the principal. In most of American life, individuals are evaluated by their managers, who have a lot of discretion over their employment, their salaries, and any bonuses they might receive. In the best organizations, those managers collect plenty of data before making their decisions—peer reviews, outcome data, etc.—but none of this is meant to substitute for human judgment….

This piece originally appeared on the New York Times’s Room for Debate blog on Tuesday.

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Memento mori: Let us now praise the power of memory
By Peter Meyer

…As educators, we need to remember that good memories are paths to good living—and our schools must do whatever they can to teach the habit of remembering. Memories are stamps on the psychic DNA. “Handed down from my father” is the cliché. How many presidential speeches give credit to mothers and fathers, a teacher?…

Our lives are not anything other than living what we have learned—and what we have learned is in our memory. This is why I cringe every time I see “rote memorization” ridiculed.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: IMPACT: Teachers' perspectives


As Ohio and other states struggle to reach agreement on how to gear teacher policies toward effectiveness and performance, we went into the field to ask D.C. teachers already participating in a rigorous evaluation system what they think. This is the first of a video series that we’ll continue throughout June.



Briefly Noted: I'll trade you two students for one teacher

  • According to the Census Bureau (hat tip to the EIA Communiqué for this), the 2008-09 school year saw 157,114 fewer students enrolled in public education. It also saw 81,426 more public-school teachers join the profession.
  • Hey, wonky education-policy addicts! Stop shaking and get your fix. The summer issue of Education Next is out—with some top-notch articles on blended learning, dual-enrollment programs, and New York’s Commissioner of Education (from Fordham’s Peter Meyer).
  • NCTQ just earned itself a powerful ally. The reformist band of state superintendents, known as Chiefs for Change, just threw its support behind the organization’s review of colleges of education.
  • Frank—and wise—talk from Nick Shundak, an education-school professor who not only sees major tears in the fabric of teacher training, but also recommends ways to go about mending them.
  • With public-education quality so uneven, what’s a mobile military family to do? Start a charter network with schools at each of the U.S.-based installations to which they’re assigned. That’s the plan of a grassroots group out of Hawaii, anyway—and one supported by the House Appropriations Committee.
  • Teachers from New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Colorado are stepping into the twenty-first century, with the creation of an open-source “resources clearinghouse” for Common Core adoptees to freely share resources, best practices, and lesson plans.


Announcement: Uncle Sam and accountability

Is it time to turn the page on federal accountability in education? To probe this question, head to Fordham on June 15 at 4:00PM for a vigorous debate featuring Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress, William Hite of Prince George’s County Public Schools, Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, and Fordham’s own Mike Petrilli. Checker Finn will moderate—and then lead participants on a tour of Fordham’s rooftop patio. For more information or to RSVP, click here.


Announcement: AEI: O, they need U

The education shop at the American Enterprise Institute is hunting for a smart, outside-the-box thinker with gumption, a knack for researching, and a passion for education reform to work as a research assistant with Rick Hess. Those who think they fill the bill can learn more about the position, including how to apply, here.


Announcement: Show your smarts in Seattle

The Center for Reinventing Public Education has a handful of exciting internship opportunities (based in Seattle) for inspiring education reformers. Intrepid, hard-working individuals interested in higher-education policy, housing and K-12 education policy, social-media marketing, or video and digital media should steer themselves to CRPE’s internship page for more information.


Announcement: Have a special interest in teacher unions?

Terry Moe, Deborah Meier, and Heather Harding (Teach For America VP of Research and Public Policy) will discuss Moe’s provocative new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools, at AEI on Wednesday, June 8 from 3:30PM to 5:00PM. More information is available here.



Fordham's featured publication: Stretching the School Dollar

Stretching brief cover

This new policy brief lists fifteen concrete ways that states can “stretch the school dollar” in these difficult financial times. Written by Marguerite Roza, senior data and economics advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute, 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. In other words, this challenging climate is an opportunity to make some real changes in education.


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

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (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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