Stretching the School Dollar

In our recent documentary on the schools in Sciotoville, OH, you hear a big-dollar word used over and over: facilities. The Tartans of Sciotoville go to class in a building that dates from around 1914. The community would love a new facility—but bricks and mortar don't come cheap. Ohio community schools (that is, charters) get no state and local funds for facilities, meaning they have to scrimp and save out of operating funds or find private dollars to build.

Down the road from Sciotoville Elementary Academy, which is housed in modulars and packed with students, is a brand-new traditional district school built with public funds and under-enrolled. (Many of the kids it was built to serve go to SEA!) Charters across the country suffer from the same disparities.

Sciotoville school
Maintaining or replacing aging school facilities presents a challenge to many rural communities
 Photo by Joe Portnoy.

It's not only charter school pupils who sit in old, dilapidated buildings, though. Some traditional schools have benefited from a boom in new construction, but others have missed out. The high school my mother attended, which was aging when she graduated decades ago, is still open at the ripe age of 91 today. Small-town superintendents across the country who haven't benefited from tobacco settlements or state largesse can certainly sympathize.

There isn't an easy...

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Special education has been one of the few spending areas largely exempted from budget pressure since revenues took a hit following the 2008-09 financial crisis. This is due largely to maintenance of effort requirements that put districts in danger of losing federal dollars if they dared to touch the special ed budget. The Department of Education issued guidance to ease the burden last year but announced last week that they're pulling the rug out from under administrators, caving to special interests "after further review" (and, not incidentally, following an angry letter from activists at the Center for Law and Education). The new guidance states that once a district commits to a given level of spending on special education, it can (almost) never cut back, a very tough mandate given the present fiscal environment for schools.

Students with special needs certainly deserve additional resources to help them be successful in the classroom. Almost no one questions that nearly forty years after the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, thanks to that law and the work of advocates. However, ring-fencing the money dedicated to these students puts the majority of students served in the general education program at greater peril as they are exposed to 100 percent of the reductions needed to balance district budgets.

Obsessing about maintenance of effort also hides the reality that money does not guarantee quality.

This makes the decision of whether to identify a child for special education services very high-stakes—on one...

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I am pretty good at math. Unsurprisingly, the story about why I am good at math has a lot to do with a few exceptional teachers I had growing up in a small coal-mining town in Illinois.

One in particular was Mr. Nagrodski, my high-school math team coach, who seemed to conjure talented mathematicians out of thin air. In the late 80s, he pushed for a major acceleration in the junior-high math curriculum in our district so that more kids were ready for tough math classes in high school. He convinced the district to let him teach those tough math classes, which hadn't been offered before he arrived. As a result, his teams won state math competitions year after year after year—and not incidentally, turned out far more talented students of mathematics than anyone would have guessed could come from a little town of four thousand. (Among many other accolades, Mr. Nagrodski, was profiled in Fortune magazine back in 1991 as one of “25 Who Help the U.S. Win.")

By the time I was a middle schooler gearing up for Mr. Nagrodski's infamously difficult math team practices, roughly half of my class of 75 or so kids had been identified as gifted and was placed in advanced math courses. I doubt there was much red tape to cut through to get to this point--just a superintendent and a couple of principals to convince. 

Not all rural schools work well, but when they do, they can be truly transformational. Most schools in...

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Last week, the Hoover Institution's Eric Hanushek argued in Education Next that liberals and conservatives' optimism about weighted student funding was misplaced. Hanushek argued instead for performance-based funding: schools that drive their students to better performance should get more funding, while failing schools should not be financially rewarded. I'd like to offer a few reasons why education reformers should still be bullish about funding that follows kids.

Weighted student funding is needed for parental choice to thrive.

Choice is no longer simply about charter schools for a small number of children. A few cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are close to majority-charter or beyond. As Paul Hill noted in a recent paper for us on digital learning, our antiquated school finance system can barely keep up with the growth of online schooling, much less provide parents with robust options to piece together an education for their kids from a variety of providers—online, brick-and-mortar, after-school, and even community colleges and four-year universities.

It better aligns resources with needs.

There are certainly challenges to getting every dollar under the control of parents. Hanushek is right that local funds would not follow a weighted formula established at the state level. State formulas could adjust for those local dollars as a temporary measure, however, and more muscular state reform of school finances would not necessarily impinge on local autonomy. (See the case studies in Bryan Shelly's book, Money, Mandates, and Local Control in American Public Education for more on...

Maybe not, is the answer from a recent poll of New York State teachers conducted by the Empire Center. The poll found that 70 percent of public-school teachers would have considered a defined-contribution retirement option had they been given the chance, and a quarter felt they definitely would have chosen a 401k-style plan over a traditional pension. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that most teachers (about two-thirds of those surveyed) felt such non-traditional plans were good retirement options, roughly the same number as approved of traditional pensions.

It's not clear that young workers value a benefit that many of them will never receive.

The cost of providing teacher pensions is on the rise in many states, New York included. It's also not clear that young workers value a benefit that many of them will never receive. Only a minority of educators teaches for a full career in the same pension system and receives the full retirement benefit offered.

The Empire Center poll asked teachers about one possible alternative, a hybrid plan that would provide a basic level of financial security through a small traditional pension, with a 401k-style individual account on top. Raegen Miller at the Center for American Progress has argued for cash balance plans, which are similar to traditional pensions but provide more portability and do not implicitly rob younger teachers by giving them poorer benefits relative to more experienced teachers.

The retirement "time bomb"is not going away, meaning policymakers in many states need...

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Expanding
access to higher education—and preparing students well for postsecondary
challenges during K-12—is a key priority for the nation's economic
competitiveness. The last year alone has seen a variety of initiatives to bend
the cost curve, including Rick Perry's $10K
bachelor's degree
and MIT's
certificates
(or "badges") for online learning. Community college enrollment
also boomed
during the financial crisis, with students and parents hunting
for a decent education at a "Great Recession"-friendly price. Since
college costs have grown
faster than inflation
(or health care!) since the early 1980s, improving
access and controlling costs must be linked.

Nassau Hall, Princeton
There's nothing "un-American" about choosing an affordable college over an a elite school.
Photo by Chris Barry.

Paul
Krugman sees something sinister
, even un-American, in all this talk of
value for money, however. He quotes Republican Presidential candidate Mitt
Romney on this point as proof that the GOP doesn't care about education:

Here’s what the candidate told [a student worried about college
costs]: “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a
little lower price where you can get a good education. And, hopefully, you’ll
find that. And don’t...
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Ask
almost any leader of a growing urban charter school about their biggest
worries, and real estate is likely to be at the top of the list. City-dwelling
young parents want schools that are convenient to their homes and—increasingly—public
transit. Government has (appropriately) high expectations of school buildings
but provides little to no money for charter school facilities in most
jurisdictions. Educators and school leaders want all of the above to provide a
fantastic experience for their students—without breaking the bank. This is not
something the real estate market can provide in most cities. 

Newark skyline II
Cities like Newark, New Jersey are experimenting with creative uses of space to improve education options.
Photo by William F. Yurasko.

To
make the problem even more difficult, city centers are redeveloping, with
entire neighborhoods gentrifying, building mixed-use housing and innovative
commercial spaces. Young professionals who a generation ago might have fled for
the ‘burbs as they settled into careers and started having children are now
staying. This has resulted in vibrant, revitalized neighborhoods—but the
pressure continues to build on large urban school districts to provide
high-quality seats to meet the needs created by this cultural shift. 

Increased
density and the creative reuse of...

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Once upon a time, corporate IT departments lived by the
slogan "no one ever got fired for buying IBM." Big Blue's products
were a safe bet in a rapidly evolving industry. The over-reliance of the
Fortune 500 on that safe bet proved to be a
problem for those companies
, which missed out on innovations adopted by
more nimble rivals, and for IBM itself, which stagnated in the absence of
pressure from customers to push the envelope. District schools suffer from the
same "buy IBM" problem, with state policies and district budget
decisions making it difficult for principals and teachers to adopt promising
new options for delivering instruction.

An EdWeek piece today documents the struggle
ed-tech startups wage to get their products adopted, and catalogues a number of
promising companies that are gaining headway despite those challenges. One of
the greatest barriers is the fragmented but highly regulated market that
results from the "buy IBM" mindset of thousands of risk-averse
districts:

In addition, big
...
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Guest
blogger Layla Bonnot is a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Is the number of free and reduced-price lunch
participants an accurate proxy for the number of poor kids in America’s schools? New Jersey’s acting education
commissioner, Chris Cerf, isn’t so sure. A recent article in The Star-Ledger highlights Cerf’s two concerns: first, that the
self-reported basis of Free and Reduced Lunch Program (FRLP) participation
makes the count prone to errors and—potentially—fraud, and second, that this
number alone might not be a reliable proxy for the number of students living in
poverty.

20111019-FNS-RBN-1767
Mr. Cerf, I wouldn’t throw out school lunches quite yet—maybe just add a few other ingredients into the mix.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The issue of fraud in the lunch room pops up every couple of years. Detailed audits
have shown that some students who should receive benefits do not, some parents or
schools make honest mistakes on the application, and yes, there are some
instances of fraud. Given our current situation of squeezed budgets and a
National School Lunch Program that cost $9.7 billion in FY 10 and relies on
self-reported income, those small instances of fraud can really add up (A...

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How much does an "adequate" K-12 education cost?
What about a "reasonable" education? Courts weigh in on these
questions regularly; last year alone saw a New
Jersey ruling
demanding half a billion more in state support for the
so-called Abbott districts, as well as a Colorado
case
that questioned voters' judgment about what constituted appropriate
support of a "thorough and uniform" school system. This year brings
an interesting new development to the table: New Hampshire voters may tell
the state Supreme Court to butt out entirely
.

There's a lot to be said for the Granite State's
typically libertarian approach.

There's a lot to be said for the Granite State's
typically libertarian approach. As the Hoover Institution's Rick Hanushek said
to Ed Week after the Colorado ruling, the
courts are not a good place to adjudicate the ongoing academic research on the
role of school spending in driving achievement. In particular, the record of New Jersey's Abbott
districts, the recipients of billions of dollars in additional court-mandated
state support since the mid-1980s, is abysmal.

This highlights one of the most fundamental criticisms of
activist meddling in school finance systems by courts: quality rarely, if ever,
enters the picture. Judges simply assume that poor performance implies
inadequate funding, and that layering more money on top of failing systems will
improve student outcomes. Anyone in the corporate world who...

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