Removing Negativity From Budget Cutting

by BY DONALD R. McADAMS

It’s easy, according to Tea Party voters. You can improve academic performance with less money if you just get rid of fat in the central office and eliminate waste throughout the system. You have almost as many administrators as you have teachers, they say. You don’t need more money; you just need to focus what you have on teaching and learning.

 

A newly elected school board member delivered this speech at a board meeting in a large Texas school district, in almost these very words. The board member actually believed half of the district’s employees were administrators.

 

Board-Savvy McAdamsDon McAdams

What’s a superintendent to do, starting this school year with reduced programs and larger classes, the results of the past year’s budget battles, knowing even less money is likely to be available in 2012-13 — and with so much misinformation floating about?

A Reality Check
The first step is to face reality and recognize the facts. Education funding may never return to recent levels. Unless taxes are raised, the money just isn’t there. And in most states, the voters have shown they have no interest in paying higher taxes.

Furthermore, critics have a point: Education spending has increased dramatically in recent years. Since 1970, average per-pupil expenditures after inflation have more than doubled. From 1990 to 2007, student enrollment nationwide has grown by 22 percent, but teacher employment has grown by 41 percent. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics show that the number of instructional positions has jumped since 1960 from about 40 per 1,000 students to more than 100.

Finally, most voters and many legislators don’t understand school district budgets. They don’t realize that, although teachers may not make up much over 50 percent of the workforce, frontline educators providing services directly to students — principals, librarians, special education aides, instructional support staff, etc. — account for about 70 percent of districts’ budgets. And most other employees work in maintenance, transportation and food service. The central office seldom consumes more than 4 percent of a district’s budget.

Given this reality, what is to be done? Budgets likely will need to be reduced, and every superintendent knows this will require deep cuts in instructional spending because that is where the money is. Boards of education and the voters who elect them also must understand this.

Superintendents must thoroughly educate their boards about districts’ budgets. This means not just showing where the money goes but looking at cost effectiveness, that is, linking inputs to outputs. Effectively measuring educational outputs requires clear definitions, multiple metrics and robust systems. And linking inputs with outputs means unbundled accounting systems that show unit costs.

Creating systems to provide this information is not easy, but if educators expect the public to support public education, they must demonstrate why that support is needed and not just with slogans, emotional appeals and unsupported value claims. They must put before the public data that demonstrate that taxpayers are getting value for the dollars they have invested.

Strategic Moves
Public opinion is where the battle for school funding will be fought. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

Board-savvy superintendents must make certain that major budget decisions are the decisions of a thoroughly educated board and an informed public, and with as much public input as possible.

Finally, if cuts are required, make them strategic — that is, follow Rahm Emanuel’s advice: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Labor costs have risen dramatically in public education, primarily because of lack of innovation, and innovation has been stifled by union work rules and legislative mandates. Boards and superintendents need to work together in this crisis to build public sentiment not just for adequate funding but also for deregulation and legislative relief.

The big leverage points are (1) how students are grouped together, how many are in the groups and how often the groups are reconfigured; (2) who teaches and how those who teach are compensated; (3) how teachers are deployed to deliver instruction; and (4) how effectively and widely technology is used.

Little Elm, a growing school district with more than 6,000 students outside Dallas, is an example. Under the leadership of Superintendent Lynne Leuthard and an involved and well-trained board of education, class sizes are increasing by two to three students for grades 5 and up, but educators are being used more creatively, and online learning is being strategically integrated into the curriculum.

No one likes budget cuts, but if there must be cuts, they should be democratic cuts. Let the people understand and take responsibility for the spending cutbacks and their consequences, and let the people and the policymakers also understand that with deregulation, innovation can improve productivity, ameliorate the pain and perhaps even make it possible to do more with less.

Don McAdams is chairman and founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: mcadams@crss.org