Schools: Look for Ways to Get Better Results for Less Money

November 2008

This article by Marguerite Roza and Robin Lake first appeared in the Seattle PI, November 20, 2008


Let's talk about how we'll slash spending on education.

Both candidates for state school superintendent campaigned for new investments needed in the state's public education system.

And Washington's Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force is considering various reform proposals, all of which include plans for increased spending.

But with the state facing a $3 billion-plus deficit and K-12 schools consuming 40 percent of the budget, there is no way they will be spared.

So how should school districts respond to cuts in state funds?

Should districts lay off the most junior teachers regardless of how they are performing? Raise class sizes, or eliminate music, athletics and art? Or maybe slash librarians, counselors or aides?

Such blunt cuts are the usual district responses to fiscal strain. Perhaps there could be other options so that student performance does not suffer.

In some sectors, the problem of fiscal strain provides the impetus to redesign operations to increase productivity. Downturns become opportunities to look hard for ways to get the same (or better) results with less money.

So Washington's budget crisis presents a good time for school districts to find innovative ways to do more with less.

Unfortunately, our state hasn't created the context necessary for districts to redesign toward greater productivity.

Washington doesn't welcome innovation in education. We are one of only 10 states that won't allow districts to experiment with charter schools. Almost every major city in the country now has that option. Most are using it.

And where other states allow districts to try pay-experiments for merit, for teaching in high-poverty schools or for highly valued skills (e.g., math and science), Washington holds on to the statewide teacher salary schedule like a lifeline.

Our state's funding system stands as a formidable barrier to new approaches to schooling. Districts are funded on the basis of antiquated staffing allocations. If districts don't hire the projected minimum number of teachers, the district doesn't get that money.

Those kinds of restrictions prevent experimentation, such as reducing teachers in exchange for new technology, or offering some supplemental coursework in music, art, or electives via contracts with established independent providers.

The funding changes being considered by the Basic Education Task Force don't correct that problem. They would allocate resources based on detailed assumptions that compute staff and other resource needs per school.

Rather than foster innovation, that structure of state allocations implies that the state already has all the answers about what works best for students.

Last, the state doesn't track the very data that could help districts do more with less.

For instance, the state could align its student-tracking systems with its assessment system to uncover which teachers are the most effective and which aren't.

Rather than reduce costs by eliminating the newest teachers, districts could use that data to cut the least effective teachers. By moving low-performing students into classrooms with more effective teachers, student performance could actually increase even if those classes are larger.

Similarly, the state should be producing fiscal data to help districts understand whether they could save money by outsourcing services (grounds, custodial, payroll, etc.) or by investing funds in technologies that eliminate the need for some central office personnel.

How will our state's education system handle the declining revenues?

Will we overhaul? Or will students suffer the effects of the downturn?

It's clear that the barriers run deep. But a fiscal crisis can provide a one-time opportunity to tackle some of the most entrenched interests on behalf of what's best for students.

Let's start the conversation now and do the right thing for Washington's students.