Learn About: 21st Century | Charter Schools | Homework
Home / Edifier


The EDifier

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






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





March 22, 2013

What is it about Finland?

American education is suffering from Finn envy.  While the U.S. has been steadily but slowly climbing its way out of the mid-rankings on PISA — the international assessment of 15-year-olds — little Finland has been knocking the academic socks off of its OECD peers in math, reading and science.  So what do the Finns have that we don’t?

A lot has been made about the differences in culture. As many observers point out Finland is smallish, fairly homogenous and has a low poverty rate, slightly over three percent compared to our approximately 20 percent, and so they question how much of the Finnish way would transfer to our massive and massively complex system.

Even so, American educators and policymakers are so eager to uncover the Finn’s secret, they have created a new tourist industry for this off-the-beaten-track Scandinavian country. Interestingly, what they find both validates and contradicts reform policies advocated here in the U.S.

For one, Finland does not administer standardized tests  which has been a dominant feature of education improvement policies in the U.S. for over a decade. Homework is put off until high school in favor of play for younger students. Another surprise is that children aren’t required to start school until age seven, although voluntary preschool is available to all six-year-olds. Observers like me who believe data-driven policies and making Pre-k available to four-year-olds will help raise achievement won’t find much support here.

Finland also dishes up a potential moment of truth for so-called “reform” advocates, for the idea of merit pay, competition and other market solutions are alien concepts to their view of schooling. As one Finnish education official put it: “Real winners do not compete.”

There is one lesson that nearly all the edu-tourists take away, however. Teachers enjoy a high position of respect in Finnish society.  Finland actively recruits the top 10 percent of its college graduates to pursue master’s degrees in education, a credential most teachers possess. Teachers are trusted to develop lessons, design and administer assessments and grade students on their own. They also enjoy smaller classes and less time in front of students than their American counterparts. Those voices in the U.S. who call for bolstering the teaching profession as essential to improving achievement — a group in which I include myself — will find a great deal of support in the Finnish model.

An article in the Atlantic raises another characteristic of Finnish education that we have tended to overlook but that the Finns credit with their success.  The article’s author, Anu Partanen, explains:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background income or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

Equity in Finland is established through equal funding, free school meals, health care and access to guidance and counseling.  There are very few private schools. All schooling, Pre-k through college, is free. Apparently, investments in schools and children do make a difference.

To the skeptics, however, demography still explains everything about the gap between Finland and the U.S.  To this, Partanen cites research by Samuel Abrams of Columbia University who compared Finland to neighboring Norway, similarly homogenous but whose approach to education more closely resembles the U.S. Norway, like the U.S. and unlike Finland, is not far from the OECD average on PISA. But there are some takeaways that could be instructive for the U.S.

First, our efforts at equitable funding have not closed the wide financial gap between high- and low-poverty districts. Second, the investments we make in child services are pitiful compared to our international peers. Finally, greater attention to recruiting strong candidates into teaching and preparing them well, as well as developing effective school principals can go a long toward assuring all students get a good public education. Who knows? We might even be able to at least reduce our reliance on standardized tests.






June 4, 2012

Teacher’s pensions and school budgets

Do you have a pension? More and more, they are disappearing as employers switch to defined-contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) or 403(b) plans. And now I’m seeing more articles about the same switch happening to teachers, too.

For instance, according to the Lansing State Journal, the Michigan Senate just approved a bill that would end pensions for new public school employees, replacing them with “a 401-k style retirement plan.” The change is due, as it is in many places, to a growing unfunded liability in the current pension system.

Of course, we don’t know yet if the measure will be enacted. But seeing the article reminded me of how painful the choices have been for the past few years for those determining school budgets. Cut out the fat in school budgets? Sure. But when it comes to choosing between remedial reading and middle school band? That’s a hard decision, don’t you think?

Our report, Cutting to the Bone, explored how the recession was affecting school budgets, giving examples of the funding cuts and pension gaps schools were experiencing over a year ago.

What’s going on in your district? How would you make decisions like these?

–Rebecca St. Andrie

 

Filed under: funding,Public education — Tags: , — rstandrie @ 10:09 am





Older Posts »
RSS Feed