Cuts push schools to make hard choices

Budget cuts are good for schools, argue Michael J. Petrilli, Chester E. Finn Jr., & Frederick M. Hess on National Review Online.

In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there’s scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today’s schools delivers an extra dollar in value — and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.

“Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” said Samuel Johnson.

A Detroit elementary schools is asking parents to donate toilet paper, light bulbs, paper towels and trash bags.  Detroit spends more than $11,000 per student.

Update: To save $1.1 billion, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting five days from the school year; currently the state funds a 180-day year.  I think raising class sizes — which means laying off teachers — would be better for students.

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  1. Robert Wright says:

    Yes, I agree.

    Too often we think money is the answer.

    It’s not. With schools, it adds fuel to the fire.

    With more money, you’ll get more of the same.

    Rather than more, we need different.

    Chester Finn should be the new Sec. of Education.

    Or Joanne Jacobs.

  2. My post in this week’s Carnival of Education is about budget cuts–and the cuts we *could* make, but won’t.

  3. In many cases, I’d guess schools have too much administrative overhead. Admin/Teacher ratios seem completely out of whack in public schools compared to when I was in school (graduated H.S. ’87.) But given that it’s the administrators that make the budgets, I’d guess we’ll see music, arts, extracurriculars and lab sciences cut first. At least at those schools that haven’t already cut those things to the bone.

  4. It seems to me that educational outcomes are like phase changes in matter. Every incremental change in inputs doesn’t produce the same observable result. I think this is why there are so many different viewpoints on the appropriate amount of spending.

  5. Hey guys & gals,

    It’s way more complicated than that. There are certain expenses that are beyond the control of the local school district:
    -state aid
    -pension contributions as determined by the state
    -increase in teachers’ wages due to union contracts (in theory possible to reduce at time of negotiations but in practice not possible)
    -increase in heath care expenses
    -increase in utility bills and fuel for bus fleet
    -mandatory programs coming down from state and feds without funding to achieve same

    Note that none of these items is reflected in the annual CPI calculations, which many use for comparison.

    So in our district, the budget to budget (i.e., no new programs and no new cuts) regularly comes in at between 6 and 12 percent. The actual budget increases passed by the Board and voted upon by the voters comes in at between 4 and 6 percent.

    That means real cuts every year. For at least 12 years now.

    We can’t be the only district to have gone through this.

  6. Oh, you’re not alone, Rex. We haven’t seen an increase in funding from the State in 20 years. But they keep handing down new mandates; kids now need more credits to graduate. Guess what? Somebody has to teach those new classes — We’ve had to add several new teaching positions. That’s not free.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    Oh, you’re not alone, Rex. We haven’t seen an increase in funding from the State in 20 years.

    In which state do you teach? Over the last 20 years in California, I think we’ve seen the state budget roughly triple (in nominal dollars). Education takes about 1/2 the budget. I find it amazing that schools could go 20 years without any increase in funding … are the teachers still being paid at 1988 rates?

    -Mark Roulo

  8. “Checker” and Petrelli should be the first to sign up their own children and grandchildren for those schools having their budgets cut.

  9. So Mike, what percentage of the Texas state budget goes to education now?

    As I recall, when last I looked it up it was at 44% and that doesn’t include the locally-generated funding. And it still wasn’t enough according to you.

    Maybe Mike Antonucci over at eiaonline has a nice table that shows the percentage of each state’s budget devoted to education?

    pm wrote:

    > It seems to me that educational outcomes are like phase changes in matter.

    Well that’s an exciting, new excuse for dumping lots of additional funding into public education with no observable result. But I think it’s a bit too technical for most people. I think you’re better off sticking with something more in keeping the modest expectations that proponents of the public education system are trying to set as an unattainable goal.

    May I suggest that you blame those waskily Wepublicans? That’s a nice, bumper sticker-sized slogan which makes it amenable to endless repetition.

  10. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Mike: my state (not California) pro-rates how it funds districts by tax base. Because my district is fairly wealthy, we’re “hold harmless” and have been level funded since the early 80’s. There was a failed lawsuit regarding the policy.

    I am not being paid 1988 rates, but our home owners pay some pretty outrageous property taxes.

  11. Allen,

    Actually the implication is that you should only spend the minimum amount of money to get to the outcomes you want, as spending incrementally more won’t make a difference. The difficulties are figuring out what inputs create which outputs and for the voters to determine which outcomes they want taxpayers to afford. Both of these are made more difficult because every incremental increase in inputs doesn’t make the same impact on outputs.

  12. If you’re going to use a phrase like “phase change” in the context of public education then you ought see to the availability of the equivalent of a thermometer, hadn’t you?

    As it is, public education, traditionally unaccountable for results except in the exceedingly loose sense of throwing out school board members as a measure of dissatisfaction with results, is highly resistant to measurements of performance of any sort. How anyone could measure, or even make a decent case for a counter-intuitive phenomenon like a phase-change under those conditions is beyond my modest imagination.

    I’ll propose right back at you.

    It’s my feeling that beyond some level of funding there’s a erosion of the competence of the organization. Too much money may actually be worse then too little since lots of money opens up vistas of mischief that would otherwise be beyond reach of a less well-resourced organization.

  13. Allen,

    It sure seems that you have the impression that public education is failing to educate children. How did you determine that? That’s your thermometer. The standardized tests are the best ones that I have available.

    Sure, analogies always have a way of breaking down. I’m willing to believe that extra money that can’t improve results can make things worse. But I’m not too much bothered by that as my suggestion was not to go there. I just haven’t ruled out the possibility that spending significantly more money can produce a different type of outcome.

  14. Allen,

    Would you like me to post, oh say for the 20th or 30th time, the results of a 2003 study commisioned by the state of Texas that stated Texas was underfunding its public schools by $4 billion a year (in 2003 dollars)?

    As always the answer is, you get what you pay for and in the case of Texas, the state is paying for 55% proficiency.

    Its simple Allen, if Checker et. al believe in it then let their children be subjected to it. But then again, I’m guessing the children of the CEO of a conservative think-tank go to costly private schools.

  15. Well pm, if you can find any correlation between funding levels and educational outcomes you’ll have come across a correlation that no one’s been able to demonstrate to date. Fact is, the literature is full of quite handsomely funded school districts that produce dismal results. There’s Washington D.C., Detroit and, my all time favorite, Kansas City which had essentially carte blanche due to a federal judge making funding decisions with a near-imperial disdain for the voter. All failures and there are plenty more.

    The message in that lack of correlation is that funding’s not nearly as central to education outcomes as proponents of public education would have you believe. But what drives public education isn’t the “education” but the “public”, the political, and like all political institutions success is measured in funding levels. Until education replaces funding as the measurement that drives public education the ills that afflict public education will continue to do so.

    The question, Mike, was what percentage of the Texas state budget currently goes to education?

    You ought to consider that there are answers to questions not asked in your evasions. But that might be pushing you beyond your capabilities.

  16. Allen,

    I think that choice can go a long way to solving the problems you mention.

  17. Have we ever tried to overfund education *at the classroom level* to see what would happen? I mean, not give money to the district so that it can evaporate into cappucino machines, but the urban classrooms themselves: plenty of paper, pencils, crayons, textbooks. If the kids take the book home and lose it, it doesn’t matter because the school will provide another. As many copies as the teacher needs to make. Technology available if the teacher wants it (laptops, a SmartBoard). Let’s go crazy: an adequate supply of white board markers, even. Right down to the pens that teacher needs to mark papers.

    I work in a fairly cushy suburban district, and even I only get $55 to spend on supplies for the entire year (anything else I need comes out of my own pocket).

  18. Mark Roulo says:

    Have we ever tried to overfund education *at the classroom level* to see what would happen?

    We have tried this at the school level. Google for “Kansas City Missouri Desegregation”. From the Cato piece that this search brings up:

    For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” The education establishment and its supporters have replied, “No one’s ever tried.” In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

    Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

    The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.

    The Kansas City experiment suggests that, indeed, educational problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them, that the structural problems of our current educational system are far more important than a lack of material resources, and that the focus on desegregation diverted attention from the real problem, low achievement.

    This does *NOT* prove that more spending *can’t* work. Maybe we just didn’t spend enough (or, more likely, the district is/was disfunctional and was incapable of spending the money well). But we do have a case where a ton of money was spent.

    -Mark Roulo

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    A followup to the Kansas City item.

    This took place in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, so the $11K then is probably about $17K now (more or less).

    I’ll also note that by court order, property tax rates got almost to 5% … I don’t think that this is sustainable.

    -Mark Roulo

  20. The question, Mike, was what percentage of the Texas state budget currently goes to education?

    As always Allen, the answer is, pay for the goals you want.

    If Texas is only willing to fund a 55% proficiency rate than that is the goal.

  21. > I think that choice can go a long way to solving the problems you mention.

    Choice doesn’t just go a long way towards solving those problems, it’s the crucial step without which no subsequent steps can be taken.

  22. The US university system offers some evidence that there is a correlation between results and spending more when spending more is combined with choice.

  23. I recall reading about that Mark, but note that none of those enormous expenditures are really classroom related. Did they spend any of that money on books? Excellent professional development? I teach in a room built in 1919 with a slate blackboard and no a/c (in a southerly state); yet, my test scores rise every year.

    FWIW, the tax rate in my district is 7.8% and has been well over 5% for a long, long time. We spend about $8K per student (toward the bottom of the rankings for comparable school districts) and post some of the highest test scores and graduation rates in the state. We receive about $300K from the feds, a number that has been steadily declining for several years, so, from a financial viewpoint, we have no incentive to play the NCLB game. We’re about 25% minority (negligible ELL).

  24. Regarding more high-spending and low-performing districts, you should visit and check chapter 4 that covers exactly that.

    Regarding Texas funding “only 55% of the costs needed to educate students”, I would take it with a lot (lot!) of salt. There was a big trial in NY, where NY City argued insufficient funding. All solid evidence that was produced to show why arguments for what is sufficient or insufficient hold little value did not stop the court to rule that NYC “needs” many billions more in funding. Such decisions — in courts or in commissions — are political decisions, not truly based on any evidence or logic. For more on this, read chapters 1, 2, 6 & 7 of the same book linked above.

    Oh, and don’t hold your breath for NYC achievement to skyrocket now that they got the money.


  1. […] Says Jacobs: To save $1.1 billion, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting five days from the school year; currently the state funds a 180-day year.  I think raising class sizes — which means laying off teachers — would be better for students. […]