Why school systems cannot lose weight

There's plenty of evidence that state and municipal budgets are strapped these days, due to shrinking tax revenues from a faltering economy, declining property values, etc. It's also clear that a number of school systems are feeling the pinch. (See here and here, for example.)

In some places, particularly in the northeast and midwest, the revenue shortfall is exacerbated by eroding enrollments resulting from large-scale demographics and from people moving to more salubrious, prosperous (and, often, less heavily taxed) locales.

The question du jour is how, besides complaining and asking for more levies and such, are U.S. school systems responding to the fiscal crush.

Not well, it appears--and not surprisingly, because we've known for ages that they, like other public sector entities, are really great at growing and adding but really bad at shrinking and cutting. That's because the conventional wisdom in educator-land is that any reductions are bound to damage the quality of schooling, maybe even the level of student performance.

Yet the conventional wisdom sometimes harbors fallacies and illusions, too. Half a dozen such sophisms may be at work here.

First, the long-term trajectory of public school spending in the United States (like that of the stock market) is up, up, up, and more up, despite temporary bear markets. Spending per pupil on public education, expressed in constant 2005-06 dollars, was $4328 in 1970-71, $5438 a decade later, $7472 in 1990-91, and $9266 in 2004-05.

Second, despite the passage of more than four decades, our public education system has not yet internalized the central lesson of James Coleman's celebrated 1966 report and a million subsequent studies: there's no reliable link between the resources going into schools and the learning that comes out. Here and abroad, some superbly effective schools operate on cramped budgets in shabby facilities, sometimes with enormous classes, even as too many generously funded schools in fancy digs are places where children learn very little.

Third, observe the tendency to seize upon budgetary stringency as a rationalization for achievement gains that may not materialize. Especially worrisome is the habit that many state and local officials (and most current Democratic office-seekers) have slipped into: proclaiming that No Child Left Behind is toast unless Uncle Sam antes up billions more to pay for implementing it. Because they will always find the billions too few, they seem to be stockpiling an excuse for later education failure. How much easier to blame skinflints in Washington than to undertake the heavy lifting needed to change one's school system into a high-performance enterprise.

Fourth, in too many town meetings and legislative hearings, the budget pinch is also becoming a sneaky, self-serving way for the public-school monopoly to strike out at charter schools and other unwanted rivals. This takes the form of scapegoating the competitors as thieves who pilfer scarce dollars from the "real" public schools--and as a luxury that perhaps the state or community might experiment with in flush times but cannot afford when money is tight.

Fifth, we see signs of the "Washington Monument gambit," i.e., the threat by the National Park Service that, if it doesn't get more money, it won't be able to keep one of the Capital's foremost tourist attractions open for visitors. Its counterpart in public education is to say that, if we have to cut our budget, we'll have to (take your pick) eliminate sports, increase class size, abbreviate the school year, scrap gifted education, end after-school programs, curb college counseling, close the school library, etc., etc. That's how school systems think about budgets: in terms of "programs" and "services," not efficiencies, productivity, or such tradeoffs as personnel versus technology.

Sixth, that's because public schools have a terrible time coping with budgetary adversity. They put nearly all their money into salaries and benefits--about four-fifths of their operating budgets, says the Census Bureau--and they keep hiring more people and giving them across-the-board raises. Then they confer tenure and enter into contracts such that it's nearly impossible to let anyone go, much less cut their wages.

Columbus, Ohio offers a current case in point. On October 1, the Dispatch reported that enrollments this year are down 1500 kids and that this has led to pink slips for nine educators. Look at those numbers again: 1500 fewer pupils and 9 fewer teachers. If you assume an average class size of 20, 1500 kids are taught by 75 teachers, not nine. If the Columbus Public Schools were a business, or even a rationally-budgeted enterprise, a drop in "sales" of 1500 customers would lead to the riffing of 75 employees, or thereabouts. Certainly more than nine.

Note, too, that the nine people let go were six gym teachers, one health teacher, and two librarians. Decide for yourself whether phys ed, health classes, and libraries are frills. But please also ask yourself what sort of management structure leads to such a tiny total reduction in force.

The regular world isn't like this. Airlines facing bankruptcy have been renegotiating contracts, cutting unprofitable routes and flights, slashing salaries (from mechanics and cabin attendants up to top executives) and laying off thousands of employees. They've also been merging. Banks are merging. General Motors and Chrysler may merge. Admittedly, they're also seeking fat federal bailouts lest they close altogether. But they're truly downsizing, closing plants, firing scads of people, and ending unprofitable product lines.

When's the last time you heard of school systems merging to save money? When did you last hear a school board talk about pay cuts or contract renegotiations? Of laying off less productive and higher-priced workers? What about introducing distance learning and teacher aides in lieu of more full-fledged teachers with ever-smaller classes?

Yes, of course, airlines can scrap flights and hot meals while schools cannot eliminate students needing to be served or stop feeding them at lunchtime. But airlines also opt for smaller planes and lower-salaried pilots when they must. Technology replaces baggage handlers and check-in people. The Internet substitutes for reservation offices and staff. Why can't public education think that way? Put some of its creativity into devising cheaper ways of doing things? It could, of course, but so far it seems to prefer whining, scapegoating, slamming rivals, threatening to shut down its most popular offerings, and explaining that any shortfalls on the student-achievement front are nobody's fault but the taxpayers'.

A version of this article first appeared in 2003, the last time our schools wrestled with a downturn in revenue.

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