Bleak Budgets: Are Current Education Policies Simply an Attempt to Control/Reduce School Budgets and Marginalize Unions?

During the three days of NBC’s Education Nation President Obama and candidate Romney gave lengthy interviews.

The President reiterated the administrations policies – teacher pay for performance, teacher accountability by student test scores, charter schools, the Common Core and moving from formula grants (Title 1) to competitive grants (Race to the Top). He called for an end to teacher bashing many times, expressed enthusiasm about working with unions and continuing the federal role in shaping education.

Read transcript here

Candidate Romney pretty much agreed with Obama’s policies, except, and a big except, he believed the federal role should be sharply diminished – read as less funding. And, oh yes, he trashed teacher unions numerous times. In an answer to a parent in the audience who averred that in a poll parents support teacher unions 3:1 Romney laughed off the polls.

Romney was vague on specifics.

Read transcript here

Diane Ravitch, as only Diane can, sharply criticized the positions of the President, point by point.

Why are politicians, from Washington to Governors and Mayors, both Republicans and Democrats, so united in supporting policies so antithetical to the core beliefs of teachers and parents?

The answer: money and numbers crunching.

At the New School Milano Lecture Series, Urban Policy in an Era of Fiscal Austerity, Gavin Newsom, the Lt Governor of California and former Mayor of San Francisco laments, “Government commitments, at all levels, are not sustainable.”

The cost of education only moves upward and the costs equate to higher and higher taxes for core voters, frequently seniors, creating a potential “gray versus brown” confrontation. A triage conundrum: Should limited dollars fund Medicare/Medicaid or schools and programs for the poor?

The “word” in Washington is austerity, which translates into fewer federal dollars to states and cities on the verge of bankruptcy.

With the federal debt at $16 trillion, the fate of the nation’s cities stands at a crossroads … a rising tide of poverty and inequality threatens to undermine their progress … a large group of second-tier cities, from Detroit and St. Louis to Stockton and San Bernardino, are besieged as never before. How will the mushrooming national debt and looming federal austerity regime affect these trends?

As the specter of seemingly never-ending budget cuts loom over states and cities the largest budget item is education.

For decades the decision makers were the educators, the electeds provided the dollars and the school boards and chancellors and superintendents determined the programmatic decisions.

Slowly, inexorably, the decision-making moved from the educators to the number cruncher economists . As politicians faced with ever expanding budgets, especially in education,  looked to stem costs exacerbated by decreasing tax revenues and political pressures from the right.

Governors and Mayors ask: How can we both control the cost of education and increase outcomes?

As a “insider” told me, “Educators have been running school systems with horrendous outcomes for decades, nothing has changed. Los Angeles is one huge dropout factory, mathematics, the ability to analyze numbers and predict results should drive policy, not outmoded ideas that have failed over and over again. We have the tools, for example: regression is a statistical procedure that takes raw historical data and  estimates how various causal factors influence a single variable of interest; allowing old-fashioned educators to use the same failed policies time after time is a definition of insanity.”

Examples of the “new world” of data-driven education policy,

School Funding Formulas:

Weighted Student Funding, in NYC called Fair Student Funding (see 58-page description here)  was created by Robert Gordon, an economist, lawyer who has applied the same principles to the changing the formula for the distribution of ESEA Title 1 funds (see explanation here). The NYC union has serious doubts and raises a number of well argued criticisms.

Pay for Performance and Seniority:

The NEA Foundation writes, “…there is a general consensus that the strongest gains in teacher effectiveness occur during the first few years, and gains continue to occur at a slower rate through year 10.” A teacher’s ability to impact student gains wanes with years of service: why should salary schedules be seniority based?

While the Chicago Board of Education backed off it’s demand for pay for performance a neighboring state has imbedded the concept.

Under Indiana’s new law (2011), the state will ask that test performance of students be factored into pay raises for the first time. That is a major shift away from the rigid pay tables in most school districts that awarded raises primarily based on a teacher’s years of experience and the academic degrees they earned.

“The level of concern from our teachers is through the roof,” said Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts. “It’s higher than I’ve ever seen it.”

[The new law is] largely based on economic and political theory: Merit pay will increase incentives to do good work. Good teachers will make more money. Poor teachers will be removed. Overall pay — along with student performance — could actually rise.

I argued that a pay for performance plan might make teaching a transitory profession, why should someone remain in teaching, especially in a high needs school,  if their salary was capped?

My “insider” adversary continued, “The system shouldn’t be driven by the needs of teachers – if transitory teachers come and go, with higher achievers staying and students profit – what’s wrong with the model?”

Charter Schools

The Rocketship charter school network in San Jose receives high marks for an innovative use of technology in a K-5 model. While the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is universally praised as a model, a well-regarded research organization, the Brookings Institute  takes a close look,

They determined that the HCZ flagship charter school, Promise Academy I, was “a middling charter school,” compared with other Manhattan and Bronx charters. They also stated: “There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs and community improvement have appreciable effects on student achievement.”

Of course charter schools are not unionized, cities have no liability for employee pensions and charter school providers are a counterweight to the lobbying efforts of unions.

I chided the smug insider, “Remember the computer acronym, GIGO, garbage in, garbage out, mayor’s appoint school district leaders who are grossly incompetent, institute policies without any evidence of success, to be perfectly honest they are morally and ethically irresponsible.”

Don’t think I convinced him but it made me feel better, and he didn’t understood my mumbled “yiddishkeit” profanity.


6 responses to “Bleak Budgets: Are Current Education Policies Simply an Attempt to Control/Reduce School Budgets and Marginalize Unions?

  1. Robert Gordon is not an economist; he is a lawyer like Joel klein who knows very little about either education or Economics.


  2. Leonie is right to note that Gordon is a lawyer. Many economists, e.g. Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, are not all united behind austerity as the solution to our economic problems. They point out that increasing demand (spending) will drive the economy forward. Layoffs of public employees move us in the opposite direction as would cuts to entitlement programs which would severely reduce spending by the recipients.

    The real issue is twofold. One is the myth that the public schools were failing. They were not. They were doing things the same way they had in the fifties and sixties, with the same results. The difference was a changing economy that could no longer absorb high school dropouts with high paying manufacturing jobs. Those jobs were being sent overseas by Romney and the other business consultants.

    The second issue is that there has been no real committment to defining outcomes. CThe common core is a step forward, but we need to have the curricula and tests aligned with it in place before we can fully implement it.

    We need to have a real discussion among educators (not lawyers and number crunchers) as to what we want students to know and be able to do when they leave high school.

    I, for one, would like to see them able to reason and to evaluate proposals from politicians so that they can advocate for a real safety net and economic policies that level the playing field. Mitt Romney is a slef-made man who sstarted the race more than half-way to the finish line because of the advantages he had from family wealth. I couldn’t borrow money from my family to go to school or get assistance from high placed friends to get started in business. Most Americans can’;t.

    It should be striking to everyone that the education reform movement coincides with greatest consolidation of wealth in the hands of the fewest people in this country’s history. The 1% have almost half the wealth, want more, and do not want an educational system that will empower the other 99% to seek some of it.


  3. In answer to your title – YES. There has been a “stealth” attack on public education for at least two decades, in the name of reform, with two goals. First, demoralize the schools so they can be “taken over” – read privatized. There’s big money involved. No Child Left Behind was a “cash cow” for publishers of texts and tests. But even more insidious is the notion that a less well educated public is more easily manipulated by those pulling the strings – the corporate “elites” writing the legislation that continues to concentrate money and power in fewer and fewer hands. Sounds like conspiracy theory, I know, but then look at what’s going on in Congress, in the media. First class public education is the foundation for our nation’s greatest attributes. It’s what any democracy requires to thrive. It’s undoing will be our undoing. Those in charge should take heed. After all, they have grandchildren too.


    • Their grandchildren go to a private school, and play in private parks with a nanny.
      There was a rule in NYC that police officers had to live in the city that they patroled, Do the same to mayors, superintendents, and principals and then schools will improve.


  4. Eric Nadelstern

    Fair Student Funding (FSF) in NYC was never an effort to reduce school funding. Rather, it was an attempt to address funding inequities among schools that had grown for decades on the basis of favoritism, precedent and tradition. At it’s height prior to FSF, the schools in the poorest neighborhoods were subsidizing schools im middle class neighborhoods by as much as $2000 per pupil.


  5. YJosh Gutterman

    It’s amazing how teachers are bashed ten times as much as of all the Unions combined! Aren’t teachers professional? Not according to NYS! Do people realize the impact teachers have on students lives ? This is a horror to know how many wonderful, caring teachers have changed the lives of youngsters?


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