Rationing School Costs

(I need to dash out of the house. I've been in denial about Christmas for too long and I really need to buy some gifts, but before I brave the highways and the malls, I want to point you to an excellent article by Andrew Rotherham in Time Magazine.)

Rotherham writes that it is time to sensibly examine and reign in the costs of education.

In 1970 America spent about $228 billion in today's dollars on public schools. In 2007 that figure was $583 billion. True, some of the increase can be traced back to growing enrollments, better programs, and improved services for special-education and other students, but much of the increase is just a lot of spending without a lot to show for it. And given all the various pressures on state budgets (including our aging population, health care costs and the substantial obligations states and school districts owe for pensions and benefits), the golden age of school spending is likely coming to an end.
Rotherham remains on my good side by saying that the answer isn't to cut back on special education. He writes that that we need a clear accounting of education spending. Many budgets don't include teachers salaries (the largest expenditure of any budget) or the cost of maintaining the building. All that needs to be on the same spreadsheet.

He says that we should examine where resources are going and spend wisely. For example, small class size is appropriate for at-risk kids in the lower grades, but might not be appropriate in other situations. Perhaps we should do more with online learning. I would have liked to see other suggestions.

The biggest issue is why education funding is so poorly managed. It's because education is largely a state and local matter. Arne Duncan really has no control over what my school district spends money on. There isn't anyone overseeing expenditures in local towns. School boards spend money and release complicated and misleading budgets, which parents and other taxpayers can't understand. Parents and even school leaders have very poor understanding of what education programs work and what don't.

On Tuesday, I had a very frustrating conversation with school and parent leaders this week about how money would be better spent on writing workshops, rather than on more money for technology for the classroom, when we already have tons of computers and smart boards that are gathering dust in the back of the classroom. FYI, when someone tells you that they "love your passion," they are really saying that they think you are crazy.

We need leadership on education. Someone to provide guidance to local schools about spending priorities and smart education policy. They are overwhelmed, misinformed, and confused.

36 thoughts on “Rationing School Costs

  1. I have to dash out, too–but in my opinion, school finance is a mess because the people tasked with building the budgets and spending the money are very nice people who are not financial wizards. They’re educators.

    Like

  2. “In 1970 America spent about $228 billion in today’s dollars on public schools. In 2007 that figure was $583 billion. True, some of the increase can be traced back to growing enrollments, . . . .”
    I hate statements like this that don’t try to trace the different sources of the increase. It allows one to sloppily suggest that much (or a non-negligible amount) is the result of “fraud”, “waste”, “mismanagement” . . . . and then move to the premise that we can spend less money and get just as good services as we currently have.
    I do think there’s mismanagement (after spending some time in the NJ sites, I’m convinced it’s particularly egregious in NJ). But, I’d only want to see that argument with numbers attached. How much of the increase is “mismanagement?” How much of it could we fix? How much time do we spend on trying to make sure that kids with special needs *only* get exactly the SpED services that can be shown to be effective? How much time, energy, and money do we spend on doing the same math for the “regular” kids.
    I went and read the article, so that I wasn’t dismissing it out of hand. But, on reading I find absolutely nothing of value in Rotherham’s article. It’s the standard talking point babble of those who think we can reduce government spending by being more efficient, but talk without numbers. We’ve heard the same argument about welfare, ssi, jobs programs, health care, . . . . I guess the only difference is that the anti-spending advocates usually don’t suggest simply dismantling public education.

    Like

  3. I’d love to hear more about your discussion of writers workshops v technology. One of the insights that came to me when I was discussing vaccinations and autism (and, yes, learned that “love your passion” and dear in headlights looks really meant that folks thought I was crazy) was that I had to learn to talk to people the way they needed to be talked to (rather than as though they were rational reasonable people discussing ideas).
    What’s the attraction of technology investments in your community? Do they believe that’s how their kids will get jobs, by knowing something about that computers? Are they facing technological barriers themselves that make them overvalue simple skills (like knowing how to send email or do a google search)? Do their kids have less access to computers out of school, making it seem like their kids need that reinforcement in school?
    Do they think writing is unimportant?

    Like

  4. Here in Ontario, education budgets are set by the province. Local boards exist but their power to levy taxes is gone and their decision-making limited. I would be interested to see what that’s done with budgets. Not as much as it might, given the aging infrastructure (it costs more to heat these old buildings since few schools have been built except in new communities since the 70s) and the administrative mandates.
    BTW, tiny pedant’s note: it’s “rein in” spending, not “reign in.” The first expression is being lost in a society that doesn’t spend a lot of time on horseback or driving a buggy!

    Like

  5. “Maybe you should run for school board. I know a good campaign manager…..”
    I keep telling Laura that, but for some reason, she just won’t do what I (a stranger on the internet, on the other side of the country) tell her to do. Perhaps you’ll have more luck!

    Like

  6. Ha. I’m not sure that one school board member could make a difference in this situation. There is such morass and a status quo culture in this town — probably every town — that it would take a superhero to turn around a school system.
    Wrote a long paragraph explaining more about the details of the technology v. writing debate, but then deleted it. Not sure who is reading this blog anymore.

    Like

  7. As someone who just came back from my kindergarten daughter’s Hanukkah Concert where the fundraising was for another Smart Board for the grade five class, I’d love to read your summary of the details of the technology v. writing debate. And bj, I think that the questions you pose are very useful.
    My back of the cigarette pack analysis has me worried that we are being seduced.by.technology and ignoring some basic writing skills in the process.
    Cue “in the old days when I was in school”…

    Like

  8. “Wrote a long paragraph explaining more about the details of the technology v. writing debate, but then deleted it. Not sure who is reading this blog anymore. ”
    Yeah, that’s a tough one. And, I do agree that you have to assume that folks in your town might be reading.

    Like

  9. Laura- wish i could hear more about the debate (tech vs writing) but understand your cautiousness. I would love to hear your thoughts generally about teaching writing, methods that work, ways to help kids overcome hatred or fear of writing etc. Both my kids dislike writing in the context of school and I have no clue how to change this.They love all the other subjects but writing (esp more “creative”writing) fills both of them with dread. (both will write things like song lyrics or letters to friends with gusto but formal assignments bore one of them and cause fear in the other). How could their school (which is a real good school overall) change this for them? I feel my older had lots of writing in her earlier grades (2-4th) and that made her hate writing more. Maybe she would be even more uncomfortable with it if she hadn’t had those bi-weekly or more writing assingments but it sure doesn’t seem to have given her any comfort level with writing! I think thoughts of writing just bring up all the times she was in tears because she didnt’ know what to write!
    Anway, it’s one area of their education which I feel uncomfortable with. And i’m curious to hear your thoughts on the whole thing.

    Like

  10. Our hostess’s politics are not quite mine, but I would certainly vote for her for the school board. If she could get the local school to spend more on writing workshops and less on technology, maybe I’d even move to her town.
    I don’t think the issue has much to do with Arne Duncan versus the local school board, though. Congress loves appropriating money to “bring internet access to every classroom” and that sort of nonsense.

    Like

  11. Well…
    First of all, in the 1960s, educated women had far fewer opportunities generally, and teaching was one of their options. Districts could grossly underpay teachers and get away with it.
    Second, I start to tense up when I hear people say that small class sizes are not the answer. In my city, there are 27 kids in each first grade classroom. There are 32 kids in the fourth grade classrooms. This is TOO BIG. It’s too big logistically; it takes forever just to line that many kids up and take them somewhere, and because they’re constantly getting into each others’ space (because they don’t really FIT into the space) the teacher has to mediate all sorts of “he’s ELBOWING me” / “she stepped on my foot!” sorts of conflicts. Sometimes due to turnover the class size falls to 25 and that makes a huge difference.
    On the other hand, this year I moved my daughter to a charter school. Which gets less money per student AND YET manages to have a class size of 25 kids in the 4th grade. In part because they employ fewer support staff. I look around at the district school my younger daughter still attends, and it’s not as if I see lots of people sitting around, but I do seriously wonder what purpose some of the support staff serve.

    Like

  12. Would love to hear more about writing vs. technology. I’d most definitely quote you when I’d get in one of my rants.
    You should run for school board.
    Naomi, are the smaller class sizes possible b/c the charter school is excluding special needs kids? Most of our non-classroom staff seems to fill that role.

    Like

  13. I’ve only thought about it a little, but the other countries which outperform the US, and do it with much lower (GDP-weighted?) spending, seem to do it with:
    (1) HIGH level of social control. Families, shame, something.
    (2) MUCH higher expectations. You’ll be doing algebra in your sleep by 9th grade, calculus by 12th. If you have to learn it by rote and 1,000 repetitions, you best get started!
    (Whether or not this result is “good” or “worth it” is debatable).

    Like

  14. “Many budgets don’t include teachers salaries (the largest expenditure of any budget) or the cost of maintaining the building.”
    Here’s an issue I’ve never seen mentioned: why do public schools need to own their buildings? Isn’t routine maintenance the sort of headache that it would be wise to hand off to a landlord? I have the general impression that a lot of cities are terrible at maintaining older schools (and in general that maintenance is one of those things that government does very poorly). My kids’ school currently rents classroom and office space from a church, although it’s in the process of building a junior/senior high school.

    Like

  15. Why are churches better at maintaining a facility than schools? Off hand, I can’t see why the church-associated private school would be less able to maintain its facilities than a church itself would be. Is it that one’s involvement with the school would be more transient? in your specific instance it’s probably also that the school doesn’t have a lot of capital, while the church is willing to rent (probably at a value that doesn’t fully consider the market value of the space — they’re probably not going to run a bar in the space, for example, or laser tag).
    Who would be the owner of the space the public school is in? Landlords who specialize in public schools? Should we do the same divestment of other properties that contain government run institutions (i.e. City Hall, the libraries, community centers, . . . .).
    I do agree that school budgeting seems incredibly opaque, but I’ve found that I feel that way about the budgeting of all large institutions — they all seem very dense, requiring esoteric knowledge.

    Like

  16. Should we do the same divestment of other properties that contain government run institutions (i.e. City Hall, the libraries, community centers, . . . .).
    Pittsburgh sold its water system, kind of. It is very likely to do a 50 year lease on its parking, including metered spots (i.e. the very streets). It’s because we’re double-plus broke and not allowed to go bankrupt (the public sector retirees are the biggest creditor. The school district is in better shape, so they haven’t sold any occupied buildings. They ought to sell their central office building if they get into trouble as it sits on prime real estate.

    Like

  17. bj,
    I have the feeling that routine maintenance isn’t a governmental forte. Have you ever noticed how completely foreseeable maintenance issues tend to turn into crises when local government is involved? Oh no, pot holes! Oh no, the school roof is leaking! Oh no, the road washed out (as it does roughly every five years)!
    It is inconvenient not to have a building of one’s own (our school has 13 grades right now, and everybody is praying for the new school building to be finished before there’s another grade to accomodate). However, I’ve often heard Dave Ramsey urging small business people not to buy buildings prematurely. As he puts it, when you buy a building, that puts you into the real estate business, which is probably not your specialty. Why should a school superintendent who is struggling with instructional issues also have to worry about how to pay for a roof or a complete plumbing overhaul or figuring out how to make a building handicapped accessible? It’s much better if superintendents and principals spend their energies figuring out educational problems rather than maintenance issues.

    Like

  18. “It’s much better if superintendents and principals spend their energies figuring out educational problems rather than maintenance issues.”
    They hire someone to manage facilities. Which is also what Steve Jobs does instead of bothering his beautiful mind with plumbing issues.
    This is a ridiculous argument.

    Like

  19. Our daughter is in a 41-year-old school building that’s older than I am and older than the elementary school I attended. I’m quite impressed with how well it’s maintained, as are most of the others in Austin ISD.
    What I’ve seen elsewhere is small-town school districts playing shenanigans when someone wants to build a new facility (sometimes for perfectly valid–but unpopular–reasons), and rather than articulate their motivation they stop maintaining the existing facility. After a few years of this, the building becomes more expensive to maintain than to tear down, and suddenly there’s a crisis that requires building the new facility.

    Like

  20. What I’ve seen elsewhere is small-town school districts playing shenanigans when someone wants to build a new facility (sometimes for perfectly valid–but unpopular–reasons), and rather than articulate their motivation they stop maintaining the existing facility.
    I saw that happen. The bond issue failed at the polls and the kids had class in trailers for many years.

    Like

  21. “What I’ve seen elsewhere is small-town school districts playing shenanigans when someone wants to build a new facility (sometimes for perfectly valid–but unpopular–reasons), and rather than articulate their motivation they stop maintaining the existing facility. After a few years of this, the building becomes more expensive to maintain than to tear down, and suddenly there’s a crisis that requires building the new facility.”
    I’ve heard of that sort of thing, but I wonder whether it’s not just incompetence or indifference rather than actual malice. They may not know what ongoing maintenance requires.
    “They hire someone to manage facilities. Which is also what Steve Jobs does instead of bothering his beautiful mind with plumbing issues.”
    I thought that crumbling facilities were a very big problem in the public school world. At least that’s what Jonathan Kozol says.

    Like

  22. “I thought that crumbling facilities were a very big problem in the public school world. At least that’s what Jonathan Kozol says. ”
    Lack of money. A problem that won’t go away if public schools rent a building. If slumlords can’t maintain apartments in inner cities, what makes you think school-facility-renters will?

    Like

  23. I thought that crumbling facilities were a very big problem in the public school world.
    I’m just not seeing it. I’ve spent a lot of time in schools, churches, and offices and while public school facilities are only surpassed by small businesses for bad aesthetics, I’d put them at the top for good maintenance. At the bottom of the list would be the private top-20 university I attended, where sewer pipes bursting in dorm ceilings and brick walls so poorly laid that you could wiggle them with one hand and get a 1-foot amplitude sine wave going were part of the experience.
    I find it hard to believe that it’s that different an hour up I-35, although I know that in Texas you can’t generalize from one ISD to another. However, it’s easy to believe that the kind of anti-pubic-school FUD that circulates among religious and alternative private school marketing nowadays would be prevalent in the heart of Baptist country. But perhaps my eyes have deceived me — got a link to this Kozol fellow?

    Like

  24. Ben,
    Kozol is a totally different critter from what you’re thinking. He’s the guy who wrote Savage Inequalities, which is about school visits he did between 1988 and 1990.
    http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Inequalities-Children-Americas-Schools/dp/0060974990
    It’s been a while since I read Savage Inequalities, but the Cliff Notes summary of Kozol’s technique is that first he goes to an inner city school in NJ, where the kids study among open sewers and scurrying rats and have a small dish of thin gruel for lunch and are taught by whichever of the janitorial staff shows up for work. Then for contrast he goes to the fancy pants suburban school in the region where the kids each have a flying pony and have peacock tongues for lunch and get taught by a staff comprised of all of the inspiring savior teachers from the movies.
    Of course, 1990 was 20 years ago.

    Like

  25. I don’t mean to hijack the thread, but on the way to school today I thought about the argument that Higher Ed costs are rising in proportion to consumer goods because teaching isn’t scalable, rather than because of a student loan bubble, or luxury dorms, or such. The authors posted a graph mapping the cost of college onto the cost of dentistry to demonstrate their point. But has anyone looked for correlations between the cost of college and the per-student expenditures on public K-12?

    Like

  26. Naomi, are the smaller class sizes possible b/c the charter school is excluding special needs kids? Most of our non-classroom staff seems to fill that role.
    No. That’s not the answer here. Charter schools are public schools; if there are more students than spots, they have to do a lottery, take all comers, and find ways to serve their needs. My daughter has an IEP for Asperger’s and goes for supplementary social skills stuff twice a week. They also have staff to do ELL stuff, a speech therapist, etc.
    And at the charter school, these staff also return e-mail and phone calls! (sigh)

    Like

  27. “The authors posted a graph mapping the cost of college onto the cost of dentistry to demonstrate their point.”
    I don’t think I’d go for the comparison to dentistry. Dentists are continually switching to fancy new technology and techniques, as well as doing things like (I kid you not) providing patients with a hot, lavender-scented wash cloth with which to towel off after a procedure (that was my Embassy Row dentist in DC) or a complimentary paraffin dip for the hands (my Texas dentist). Maybe hair cuts would be a better example of a service that isn’t scalable?
    If I had to guess, I would expect that college expenses are much more out of control than K-12, just because K-12 is nearly all paid with cash, while college runs largely on borrowed money.

    Like

  28. Dentists are continually switching to fancy new technology and techniques
    My dentist has a very interesting passive aggressive relationship with his assistant. I don’t think that was a technique so much as who they were.

    Like

  29. “Naomi, are the smaller class sizes possible b/c the charter school is excluding special needs kids? Most of our non-classroom staff seems to fill that role.”
    I’ve been wanting to mention something for a while. I’m thinking that the often-stated distinction that public schools have to take kids and private schools don’t may be a bit oversold. A couple of months ago, I was babysitting for a 4-year-old speech delayed child who was getting repeatedly expelled from his public school for behavior (biting, throwing toys, hitting, etc.). He’d go to school Monday and then be out for the rest of the week. Eventually, the problem was ironed out (new teacher, etc.), but for a while, it wasn’t looking good.
    Now, it is true that my kids’ private school wouldn’t have taken a child with such a severe speech delay. However, once the kids are in the school, the administration does work very hard to keep them. One of my kids has had a number of rather spectacular episodes over the years, but she’s still there, and she’s only been sent home early once over the course of 3.5 years. Not getting expelled is pretty much job 1, as far as I’m concerned, and knowing that it’s possible makes me a better school parent. First of all, I’m more selective about what I complain about, and secondly, I work harder to collect brownie points.

    Like

  30. I’m thinking that the often-stated distinction that public schools have to take kids and private schools don’t may be a bit oversold.
    My parochial school took on an expelled 3rd grader who had a lot of problems. At the time, my dad said the problems were because of abuse and now that the kid’s dad was gone (prison, I think), the kid might do better. He did do better, very noticeably better, for several months. Then he pulled a knife on the principal* and he was expelled. I now suspect, he was also getting the early twinges of what would become schizophrenia or something related. His sister came in at the same time and, while she never achieved great popularity, she had no trouble meeting standards to stay.
    *An unflappable nun who talked him down without incident.

    Like

  31. “No. That’s not the answer here. Charter schools are public schools; if there are more students than spots, they have to do a lottery, take all comers, and find ways to serve their needs.”
    As far as I can tell, that’s not true about our “option” schools (lottery attendance public schools, but not charter). I don’t know all the ins and outs, but if a school can’t serve the needs of the child, they don’t have to create the program for the child (a particular example would be our older schools, which are not wheelchair accessible). They’re moving towards a model where the child would be served in their neighborhood school (rather than in a program that might not be in the neighborhood), but there are concerns about this model, too, because it doesn’t mean you replicate the program — they just come up with a definition of what it means to serve the child’s needs.

    Like

  32. “I don’t know all the ins and outs, but if a school can’t serve the needs of the child, they don’t have to create the program for the child (a particular example would be our older schools, which are not wheelchair accessible).”
    I think that may actually be true of public schools in general. Our very good public elementary school in DC was most definitely not wheelchair accessible and there’s a piece about inaccessibility of public schools in “My Baby Rides the Short Bus.” I don’t have the time to look it up, but as I recall, there were huge issues with the accessibility of the neighborhood school (in the Portland area?).

    Like

  33. I used to think that university costs were insane because of administrative bloat, until I realized that every university committee (the one that maintains the course catalog, the one that advises the library, the bookstore, the cafeterias, institutional review board, etc.) requires specific software for their purposes, that this stuff is not something you buy off the shelf, but usually something that gets specificaly designed for your uni by a team of outside consultants who come in and charge a fortunte, and that the stuff is obsolete after about three years. And the reason you can’t just say no? Probably because of liability issues — universities have to keep really good records regarding how the student was disciplined, how many times he visited the health clinic, how many times he was advised re his drinking problem, where the food in the cafeteria was bought from, how often the fire extinguishers are maintained, whether or not the paint in the dorms is lead-free, etc. etc. etc. since all of this stuff is a potential lawsuit. It’s actually technology that busts the budget and EVERY university is required to have oodles of it, specially designed, even if they have less than 1000 students.

    Like

  34. whether or not the paint in the dorms is lead-free
    Somebody should update university jokes.
    “At Michigan, we keep track of which paint contain lead.”
    “At OSU, we don’t eat paint chips.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s