School Finance

When it comes time to pick a career path, young Americans certainly don’t perceive teaching to be the fairest of them all—in any sense of the term. This new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership emphasizes how pension systems are especially unfair toward young teachers and examines the effects of two cost-neutral pension reforms on teacher compensation for the ten largest U.S. public school districts. The first reform is switching from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system, under which teachers accumulate little retirement wealth until later in their careers, to a “cash-balance” plan, which allows employees to accrue retirement compensation smoothly over their careers. The second reform—the “cost-equivalent” reform—decreases the share of teachers’ salaries devoted to retirement savings so that it matches the private-sector average, moving the difference into take-home salary. The authors concede that traditional DB pension systems do offer teachers the possibility of more retirement money. In most districts, however, that higher amount for a few comes at a cost to a great majority: The loss to teachers who choose to leave the profession after less than three decades exceeds the gains to those who remain. Indeed, the system is constructed on the assumption that many will drop out prior to receiving full benefits. That’s clearly off-putting to smart young folks considering taking up teaching, which means it’s also bad for teacher quality. The report’s recommendations do not address the elephant in the room—namely the huge unfunded pension liabilities...

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Education Gadfly Weekly

Opinion + Analysis: 
OPINION
Can you spell “C” as in “chemistry”?
NEWS ANALYSIS
Triangulating a trifecta of survey results
Reviews: 
BOOK
“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” This is carved into a massive stone wall on the FDR memorial in Washington, but it could have been the preface to this slender, timely, punchy book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. These authors make a...
BOOK
British author and director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, Gabriel Sahlgren brings us back to Economics 101 with the contention that there is one root cause of all problems afflicting education today: a lack of proper incentives for quality. He argues that the strongest...
Gadfly Studios: 
PODCAST
Is it all just politics in the Badger State? Have you ever heard of the Common Core? Mike and Brickman talk dairy, while Amber hashes out the latest Education Next survey results.

Back in June, we at Fordham released a critical review of the final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we explained at the time,

…using substantially the same criteria as we previously applied to state science standards—criteria that focus primarily on the content, rigor, and clarity of K–12 expectations for this key subject—our considered judgment is that NGSS deserves a C.

Our review team felt that these new standards fell short in a number of critical areas. Far too much essential science content was either missing entirely or merely implied. Science practices, while essential to K-12 science learning, were given undue prominence. And the inclusion of “assessment boundaries” meant to limit test development would like place an unintended but undesirable ceiling on the curriculum that students would learn at each grade level.

Besides all of that, our...

Back-to-school season is officially upon us and for many families that means new school supplies and backpacks and recalling where they stashed the warmer clothes. But if you're a public opinion pollster, back-to-school means it's time to dust off your old education surveys and see if anything’s changed from last year.

With three polls released this week (AP-NORC, PDK/Gallup, and Education Next),  trying to draw broad conclusions can be tricky given what, at times, seem to be fairly contradictory answers from the public. Some commentators have focused on what the data seem to show regarding hot-button policy issues such as testing or vouchers...

“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” This is carved into a massive stone wall on the FDR memorial in Washington, but it could have been the preface to this slender, timely, punchy book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. These authors make a persuasive case for improving the academic achievement of U.S. students—and thus America’s human resources—so that the nation thrives well into the future. Schools are where human capital gets built, they argue, and the acquisition of essential skills is better measured by standardized tests than by years spent in class. Equating 2009 NAEP data with 2011 PISA scores, the authors found that just 32 percent of U.S. students were proficient in math, earning a ranking of thirty-second in the world. More than half of Korean and Finnish students were proficient, while Shanghai topped the list with...

British author and director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, Gabriel Sahlgren brings us back to Economics 101 with the contention that there is one root cause of all problems afflicting education today: a lack of proper incentives for quality. He argues that the strongest system would be built on a functioning, choice-heavy education market. From there, his argument proceeds rationally: Readers are treated to a thorough explanation underpinning school choice as it relates to competition and quality. Sahlgren evaluates an impressive body of research, covering studies that are cross national (such as Hensvik’s 2012 finding that school competition eventually leads better-qualified individuals to become teachers), large scale, and small scale. And he uses all of this to arrive at his ideal education market, which includes, among other things, vouchers, closures...

Back-to-school season is officially upon us and for many families that means new school supplies and backpacks and recalling where they stashed the warmer clothes. But if you're a public opinion pollster, back-to-school means it's time to dust off your old education surveys and see if anything’s changed from last year.

With three polls released this week (AP-NORC, PDK/Gallup, and Education Next),  trying to draw broad conclusions can be tricky given what, at times, seem to be fairly contradictory answers from the public. Some commentators have focused on what the data seem to show regarding hot-button policy issues such as testing or vouchers.  But that’s only the tip of the survey iceberg. Consider also:

Common Core: This one is pretty easy to sort out across the rival polls: If you ask an American about the Common Core, chances are they will tell you they haven't heard of it. If they claim otherwise, there’s a good chance they are either lying or severely misinformed. 

That’s not a knock on the standards themselves or their backers. John Q. Public will learn more as CCSS morphs from a wonky D.C. political issue to an active reshaper of their local schools and state report cards.

Education Next flags the near-doubling of opposition to the standards, but the jump from 7 to 13 percent is far from a tectonic shift considering that support also climbed slightly from 63 to 65 percent.  The polls consistently showed that those who know about the CCSS generally like them....

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A Chicago public school and public library will begin to share space on Thursday, breaking ground for a new “library-within-a-school” model that may be “copied and mimicked all across the city,” according to an enthusiastic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Windy City’s schools and libraries have both seen financial troubles in the last couple of years. Library Commissioner Brian Bannon has clarified that proliferation of this model would be about “reducing storefront and leased space” and possibly result in moving libraries, not closing libraries. Gadfly likes efficiency and books—so hat tip!

The school-funding crisis in Philadelphia has reached the boiling point: After Superintendent William Hite issued an ultimatum stating that schools may not open in time if the district does not receive at least $50 million more in funding by Friday, August 16th, Mayor Michael Nutter announced that it would borrow the cash, apparently obviating that eventuality. Now that the district will be able to re-hire some laid-off staff members, the School Reform Commission—Philadelphia’s appointed school board—will vote on whether to suspend portions of state law to grant Hite the flexibility to re-hire for reasons other than seniority. The unions, naturally, are furious, but this appears to be the best possible outcome for students.

This week, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis asked the district’s Board of Education to stop approving new charter schools. The reason: Georgia’s Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Davis can withhold...

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Following the Tony Bennett flap, the A-to-F school-grading systems that Bennett championed are themselves under the gun. Some have argued in favor of increasing the number of measures upon which schools are graded, reflecting the variety of grades that parents see their children bring home from school every year. But at what point will more information become too much information? For a great discussion, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show.

After announcing its plans to withdraw from both Common Core–assessment consortia, Pennsylvania has clarified that it will in fact remain a member of both PARCC and Smarter Balanced—it just won’t be using either test. “Huh,” you say? The nominal difference means that the Keystone State will retain the right to “participate” in each group’s discussions.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Robert Samuelson argued that the fiscal crisis facing state and local governments can be boiled down to the clash of two interests: schools versus nursing homes. Samuelson characterized the impending pension crisis as a “prolonged squeeze” from retirement commitments to public employees, while we call it the “big squeeze” in our series of reports on retirement costs of teachers....

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It’s literally schools vs. nursing homes, argues the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson in a wake-up-call editorial on the impending pension crisis. What Samuelson called “a prolonged squeeze” from retirement commitments to public employees, we called “the big squeeze” from retirement costs of teachers.

The Big Squeeze

Samuelson makes two fundamental arguments that are the basis of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School-District Budgets, written by Fordham’s Dara Zeehandelaar and Amber M. Winkler (and based on three technical analyses conducted by Robert Costrell and Larry Maloney):

First, our swelling pensions are vastly underfunded: Some estimates put that liability at a trillion dollars. It’s a topic that came up a lot at our No Way Out? How to Solve the Teacher-Pension Problem event, cohosted with the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Second, cutting pensions is hard: Samuelson is right there, but it can be done. Look, for instance, at Wisconsin, which now requires employees to pay their fair share and gives districts latitude to curtail healthcare benefits, thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Budget Report Bill of 2011.

Had Governor Walker not taken action, tough decisions would have had to be made. Would Milwaukee Public Schools have to fire a quarter of its teachers or negotiate a 25 percent reduction in teacher pay?...

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The Washington Post profiled Josh Powell, a homeschooled young man, who—having never written an essay or learned that South Africa was a country—had to take several years of remedial classes at a community college to get back on track with his peers. Citing worry for his eleven younger siblings, all still being homeschooled by their parents, young Mr. Powell (now a Georgetown undergrad) urges that homeschooling to be subject to accountability. But just what kind of accountability? That’s a tricky question. This is a fascinating case—and a very touchy subject.

There’s a waiting list of about 1,000 students who want to take part in Louisiana’s new Course Choice program, which currently allows 2,000 youngsters to shop around for courses, virtual and otherwise, that are not offered in their home school. State Superintendent John White says that 100 applications pile in every day and that, to accommodate everybody, he’ll have to scrounge for money. The state Supreme Court has already ruled that a constitutionally protected source of public funding is off limits. White estimates that he’ll need another $1.5 million just to meet the current demand.

After reaching a long-awaited teachers’ contract in April, Hawaii’s $75 million Race to the Top grant, awarded in 2010, has finally been cleared of its “high-risk” label. Essentially, this means that the state will no longer have to endure stricter reporting requirements—and, as noted by Education Week, it is a big confidence boost as the...

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That charter schools struggle to find and finance adequate building space is a problem that has received well-deserved attention lately, but few reporters and analysts have documented the challenges charters face in entering the multi-trillion-dollar municipal bond market.

So a hat-tip goes to longtime charter and reform leader Nelson Smith for drawing attention to a worthwhile report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which found a lack of consensus among underwriters and investors as to what drives credit strength in the charter sector.

As they expand, more charters are turning to municipal bond markets to finance their building projects. When schools issue bonds, an investor essentially loans them money in return for regular interest payments until the bond “matures,” at which point the school repays the principal. School districts and other government entities issue bonds all the time, but many lenders continue to see charters as risky investments.

That perception has consequences for charters, which end up paying higher rates than schools districts, if they can find investors at all. And it’s a perception that seems to be based on a faulty picture of what makes a charter school viable for the life of a bond, which can last up to thirty years.

The overall financial condition of the charter school sector is sound, LISC analysts Elise Balboni and Wendy Berry report. The notion of credit risk often is fueled by high-profile defaults or potential defaults that imply that schools can lose their students or...

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