Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Where's the Tea Party when you need it?
By Peter Meyer
friend emailed earlier in the week: “Breathtaking.” It was the first of many
such emails and phone calls.
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.
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
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.
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).
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
are several lessons here.
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.
- 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.
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.)
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
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 listen to commentary on private special-education services from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Ohio's charter schools: Threats from within
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.
News Analysis: Hitting it big in Clark County?
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
|Click to listen to commentary on Jones's blueprint and Clark County from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: The Condition of Education 2011
This 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 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
Innovation 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.
Review: Preparing for Growth: Human Capital Innovations in Public Charter Schools
The 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.
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.
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
…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
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.
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.…
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
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
- 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).
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.
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.
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
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.