Money talk can put people off, especially in education, where the mantra for decades has been, "Just spend more!" In the "new normal" of flat education budgets, however, more money is not easy for school boards and administrators to find.
In many places, this has meant across the board layoffs and a reduction in services provided to kids. This new era presents a tough challenge for superintendents and school budget officers charged with balancing the budget and doing right by the youngsters in their charge. Schools must be empowered (and incentivized) to deliver instruction more effectively, improving both quality and cost-efficiency. Fordham works to provide resources for school leaders to do just that, as well as provide analysis and advice to policymakers hoping to make the jobs of K-12 leaders easier. (Check out our policy brief from last year for a few ideas for state policy.)
On this blog, I'll examine a broad range of topics related to school finance: state funding formulas, healthcare and retirement benefits for teachers, parent access to financial data, and more. I'll be joined from time to time by other experts from the non-profit and public sectors as well.
A bit about me: I came to K-12 education from the private sector, where I worked as a management consultant in the hospitality industry. I left to pursue an MBA at Duke University, and during that program I was a summer fellow with Education Pioneers working in charter
The New York Times has a somber editorial today, lamenting the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, The School Lunch Barometer.
But there is another story here, that, in many ways, is equally distressing: the amount of food that goes to waste. As a recent Chicago Tribune story began,
On visits to lunchrooms in Chicago public schools, the Tribune watched as vast quantities of unpeeled fruit, vegetables, milk cartons and other items got pitched into the garbage.
And, of course, “The district doesn't track how much food gets thrown away.”
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did look and in a 2010 study, called Digging Deep Through School Trash, discovered that “[t]he most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, which was 23.9% of the total waste generated.”
This kind of profligate spending should inspire outrage; instead, indifference. According to Ron Haskins in a 2005 report for Education Next, the lunch and breakfast program costs us $10 billion a year. Though I am sure that some children benefit, the program is not so much a food program as it is a poster child for government waste -- and, in this case, a systemic abdication of adult responsibility.
I participate in a lunchtime reading program at one of our schools and so get a close-up view of the problem: children picking at food, eating little, tossing away lots, including, of course, the Styrofoam
The Denver Post recently analyzed the cost of taxpayer subsidies to teacher unions in the 20 largest districts in Colorado and found they added up to more than $1M per year. In many places across the country, school districts pay some or all of the salary and benefits of union presidents and other functionaries who don’t teach for a single hour. The fact that the practice is common doesn’t make it impossible to change, however:
Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who started in June 2010, said she cut the district’s payments to union members nearly in half last spring and will end the extra spending altogether in January.
“I’d rather not make comments on the past,” Celania-Fagen said. “Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer dollars.”
It’s difficult to make an argument that taxpayers should be directly subsidizing union leaders. Organized labor already extracts indirect subsidies by skimming dues from teachers’ paychecks, sometimes against the desires of teachers. Kudos to the Post for shining some light on this. Hopefully the districts they found that don’t track these costs at all will start paying attention in light of the story.
Although state tax collections are on the rise, and have returned to 2008 levels in many places, education advocates shouldn’t kid themselves that the “new normal” of flat budgets and tough resource allocation decisions will soon come to an end. Spending on health care entitlements continues to grow rapidly, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers’ most recent report, while K-12 education loses ground as a share of state budgets.
The education reform community needs to think beyond the next levy referendum when it comes to providing resources to our schools. Health care reform — specifically, containing the cost of entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid — has become a major issue impacting American schools. While a few forward-thinking groups like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education have grasped this and become active on health care policy in their state capitals, it’s not on most people’s agendas.
Yet the simple arithmetic is unavoidable: Medicaid can’t continue to grow faster than the long-term growth rate of the economy without sucking up more and more of state budgets. Education aid necessarily suffers under any scenario where government continues to pay for rapid, unchecked increases in entitlement spending.
The political reality is equally stark: The AARP and other lobbying groups for recipients of state-financed medical care are very good at protecting these entitlements, and deficit hawks usually form a lonely minority in opposing their demands. Bipartisan reform efforts are beginning to
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.