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September 16, 2015

Budgets, data and honest conversation

Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others.  In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.

Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.

So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.”  Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.

I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.

On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000.  Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.

In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.

Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 10:11 am

March 27, 2015

One in six chance you won’t get funding for child care

In an issue report authored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), federal child care subsidies were vastly underused in fiscal year 2011. The report found that of the population of children eligible (i.e., 14.3 million in 2011), 83 percent did not receive federal assistance. That translates into just shy of 12 million children (11.8 million) who did not receive financial support to attend child care. In terms of state assistance, the numbers and percentages are only slightly better. Of the 8.4 million children who were eligible to receive child care subsidies under state rules (which can be, and often are, more restrictive than the federal eligibility parameters), only 29% did so (i.e., 71% or 5.96 million children did not receive child care subsidies).

The numbers can continue to be shocking. Here are some other trends reported within the ASPE brief. First, analyses reveal that amongst children from families between 150% and 199% of the federal poverty limit (for 2011), 96% of these families were not served.

Another finding from the 2011 data reveals that the older the child, the less likely they were to receive a subsidy. Moreover, children ages 10 to 12 were more than four times as likely to not receive child care subsidies compared to children ages 0 to 5. This was also true for 6- to 9-year-olds, who were half as likely to have received a child care subsidy compared to those younger (yet still twice as likely as the 10- to 12-year-olds)!

Provided as an appendix to the report, some background information is provided on this sample of children and their families. Included in this table, are the numbers of families with parents employed for 20 or more hours a month and you can compare this across age ranges. Looking at the total sample, 84% of all eligible families fell into the highest category of employment yet, of this same sample of working families, only 1 in 5 of them received child care subsidies.

Although we would not expect that the same 84% of working eligible families is the same group as the families who did not receive any child care assistance, but clearly there is a big disconnect somewhere in the system. One would suspect that the families who are working as much as possible would be those that need child care (let alone financial assistance for it) the most. Moreover, children (and families) living in poverty are already more likely to face enormous obstacles and as positioned for in our “Changing Demographics of the United States and their Schools” article, these children can especially benefit from programs such as preschool and participation can lead to fewer behavior problems and reduce the likelihood of school expulsion later in their academic career. This misalignment of need and services is unsettling and will be something that we should continue to monitor for change. – David Ferrier

January 8, 2015

EdWeek’s Annual State of the States Report Card: How does your state compare?

Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2015, which included its State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors with an overall B average while the nation as a whole earned a C. Out of the three categories each state and the nation were graded on, the nation earned the highest marks in the Chance for Success Index with a grade of C-plus.  In the other two categories– School Finance and Student Achievement– the nation earned a C and C-minus respectively. Massachusetts earned the highest grade in both the Chance for Success Index as well as the student achievement categories while Wyoming took top honors in the School Finance category by earning a B-plus.

Massachusetts has consistently ranked among the top states for several years. Several other states have consistently ranked near the bottom. Such a contrast highlights the fact states differ significantly in the performance of their public schools. This is important to point out as most states that received high marks by EdWeek also compared favorably to high performing countries while states that received the lowest EdWeek grades typically scored below most industrialized countries. While these grades are not necessarily reflective of the effectiveness of each state’s public schools since they don’t take into account how much students improved their academic performance while in school, they do provide valuable information on how well their students are prepared to enter the global labor market upon graduation. EdWeek’s grades indicate that some students are more likely to be prepared than others simply due to the state they were born in. ­­


Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report card:

Composite Score

How well do states prepare their students for success?

  • U.S. public schools earned an overall grade of C.
    • The grade is an average of the nation’s Chance for Success, School Finance and Student Achievement grades.
  • No state earned an A but Massachusetts earned top honors by receiving a B. New Jersey, Maryland and Vermont also received B’s although they earned slightly lower average scores.
  • Wyoming earned a B-minus placing it among the top 10 for the first time in EdWeek’s rankings.
  • No states earned a failing grade but three states earned a D (Mississippi, New Mexico, and Nevada).
  • Thirty-one states earned grades between a C-minus and C-plus.

Chance for Success Index

What are the odds that the average child who grows up in a particular state will do as well as the average child in the top-ranked state, at each stage of his or her educational life? (these stages are: the early childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood)

  • Massachusetts ranked first for the eighth consecutive year by receiving an A-minus. New Hampshire also earned an A-minus while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus as they did a year ago.
    • This means that children in Massachusetts have the best chance of achieving positive life outcomes, according to EdWeek.
  • On the other hand, children in Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi have the least chance of achieving positive life outcomes by earning a D and D-pluses, respectively once again.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2014.

School Finance

How much do states spend on their schools? Is the spending distributed equitably?

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance as it has for the past couple of years.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A-minus to a B-plus but still received the highest grade of any state just as it has for seven consecutive years. However, seven states received a B-plus this year compared to just three last year.
  • On the other hand, 15 states earned a D-plus or lower with Idaho the only state to earn a failing grade.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Vermont spent the most per pupil with $18,882 and Utah once again spent the least with $6,688.
  • States differ in how much of their taxable resources they spend on education.
    • West Virginia and Vermont spent the greatest proportion of their taxable resources on education at 5.1 percent
    • Conversely. North Carolina and North Dakota spent the least of their taxable recourses on education with 2.4 and 2.3 percent respectively.
  • States also differ in how much is spent between districts.
    • Alaska had the largest difference between the funding of their highest and lowest districts where districts at the 95th percentile in per pupil funding spent nearly $14,000 more than districts at the 5th percentile.
    • On the other hand, the disparity in Florida was less than $2,000.  On average, the disparity between high and low spending districts nationally was $4,559 per pupil.

K-12 Achievement Index

How do states compare on the academic achievement of their students in elementary through high school?

  • Public schools improved slightly since 2012- the last time the index was reported—but still earned a C-minus just as in 2012.
    • The grade is based on the academic status and growth over time in math and reading scores, narrowing of poverty-based achievement gaps, as well as high school graduation rates and the performance on the advanced placement test.
  • Massachusetts was once again top of its class just as it has since 2008 by earning a B. Maryland and New Jersey scored slightly lower, but still earned a B and B-minus respectively.
  • Just two states–Mississippi, and the District of Columbia– received failing marks compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.


About Quality Counts

The nation and each state are graded in three categories (Chance for Success; K-12 Achievement; School Finance; Standards). However, new data is only available for the Chance for Success and School Finance categories.  Grades for the Student Achievement category are the same as last year because they are primarily based on NAEP results which are released every two years. Results from all three categories are combined to provide a composite grade in each state and the nation as a whole. — Jim Hull

July 18, 2014

How productive is your district?

Since the onset of the great recession, most states have been implementing higher academic standards while simultaneously cutting funding for their public schools. Basically, school districts across the country have been asked to do more with less. As I wrote in Cutting to the Bone there is simply no fat left to cut to enable school boards to balance their budgets. Many would have to make cuts in areas that would directly impact student achievement. Hence, the goal is no longer to find cuts that avoid negative impacts on students, it is to find cuts that have the least negative impact, even if they certainly benefited some students.

While school funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels anytime soon school boards continue to fight for the revenues they need to ensure all students are prepared for success following high school. In the mean time, boards are doing the best they can with the resources available to them. However, the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues in a recent report some districts are getting a better return on investment of their education dollars than similar districts. This means there are some districts that are spending less and are obtaining better results in terms of student outcomes than other districts within their state that serve similar students.

Accurately calculating the return on investment of school districts is notoriously complex due to such issues as differing accounting practices between districts and districts providing different services. As such the data is not always available to make a true apples to apples comparison of what districts spend on providing similar services. The report itself even points out the limitations of comparing the productivity of school districts. However, such limitations shouldn’t prevent districts from finding out for themselves how their productivity compares to other districts in their state. CAP’s new interactive web tool allows districts to do just that. Such comparisons may not be perfect but they provide a starting point to determine how effectively districts are spending the dwindling funds they have. Districts can use these comparisons to find out how more productive districts are using their dollars and determine if such practices would benefit their district.

Access to such information-as imperfect as it is– provides school boards an additional resource on how to they can best utilize their limited funds to improve student outcomes.—Jim Hull

Filed under: funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 1:22 pm

May 16, 2014

State of Preschool 2013: Enrollment drops, but quality rises

Earlier this week, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University released its annual State Preschool Yearbook for the 2012-2013 school year, which offered both some good and bad news regarding preschool enrollment, funding, and quality.

For the first time since NIEER began reporting on preschool trends in 2001-2002, there was a decline in enrollment. Over 9,200 fewer three and four-year-olds were enrolled during 2012-2013 than during 2011-2012. The state-by-state analysis shows that 20 states increased enrollment during this time period while 11 states saw their enrollment decline, however, the states with declining enrollment tended to be much more populous states, such as California.

When adjusted for inflation, state funding for pre-K increased by $30.6 million in 2012-2013. Although this does not make up for the massive cuts that took place during the previous school year, this increase combined with declining enrollment resulted in a $36 increase in state spending per student. Per pupil spending varied greatly between the 40 states (plus D.C.) that offer state pre-K. Nebraska and South Carolina each spend less than $2,000 per child, while D.C. spends over $14,000 and New Jersey over $12,000 per child.

While progress has stalled or regressed in some areas, many states improved the quality of their pre-K programs based on the NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks. These benchmarks measure quality based on factors such as class size, standards, teacher’s level of education and specialization in early childhood, and student-teacher ratio. For the first time, all state-funded pre-K programs (53 total) used comprehensive early learning standards. Four states, as well as, one of the three programs in Louisiana, met all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks. Meanwhile, 16 states met eight or more of the benchmarks.

Overall, preschool saw some successes and faced some struggles this year. The decline in enrollment, although modest, is somewhat surprising given the increased attention that policymakers have been paying to early education initiatives. It will be interesting to see what enrollment numbers look like in the coming years. However, this modest enrollment decrease also represents a pause in the trend toward spreading little funding over more and more students each year, which expanded access but jeopardized quality in recent years. Quality is an area where things are looking up. Although there is still a lot of work to be done in meeting all of NIEER’s benchmarks, the progress that has been made over the last decade is promising and most programs are continuously working to improve the quality of pre-K education they offer.

For more information about the impact high quality prekindergarten can have on students check out CPE’s Pre-K research here.

-Patricia Campbell

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