Stretch Yourself, Bruce Baker

On Friday, Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker issued a 4,600 word rebuttal to a 4,000 word policy brief released by Marguerite Roza and me the day before. (It was about how states can “stretch the school dollar.”) He deserves two cheers for timeliness and verbosity. But for all his spilled ink, he fails to offer a single alternative to the budget cuts we recommend. And as he later admitted via Twitter, that’s because he doesn’t believe states should cut education spending to close their massive budget gaps–they should raise taxes instead.

That’s a legitimate argument, and one California Governor Jerry Brown is making, but Professor Baker might want to acquaint himself with the vast majority of states where that option is not on the table. As a “school finance expert,” Bruce, you might want to stretch yourself and suggest some ways these states can cut smart, because they are definitely going to cut. If not the ways Marguerite and I propose, then what?

Cuts of 15-20 percent are being contemplated by some states, and while Baker is right that the actual impact at the local level will be less harsh (because districts don’t get all of their money from states), many could still be looking at double-digit reductions. Marguerite and I propose cuts that will protect the interests of kids. Whose interests does Bruce want to protect?

To put it bluntly, we want to make it possible for districts to:

1. Make layoff decisions based on teacher effectiveness, not just seniority, which would actually boost student achievement and save money to boot.
2. Allow class sizes to rise, at least in certain subjects and grades.
3. Rein-in out-of-control benefits, like the Cadillac health care plans and overly generous sick leave.
4. De-escalate salaries–to trim or eliminate cost-of-living increases but also hold off on “step increases” (giving teachers extra pay for making it through another year in the classroom).
5. Manage their special education dollars more effectively.
6. Use online learning in smart and innovative ways.

To make those actions possible, states need to change their laws: ending “last hired, first fired” policies; tweaking tenure rules; creating evaluation systems that could differentiate among effective and ineffective teachers; scrapping class size mandates, at least beyond the early grades; eliminating mandates around sick leave; allowing contract provisions to be re-opened during this time of fiscal stress; changing the incentives around special education; and getting rid of “seat time” rules.

With his silence, Baker is condoning the same-old-same-old, namely for districts to:

1. Lay off lots of young teachers, regardless of effectiveness.
2. Narrow the curriculum by cutting art, music, hands-on science, and other “special” programs.
3. Reduce learning time via shortened school years, “furlough Fridays” and the like.
4. Passing the buck to families and kids by cutting bus service, charging for extra-curricular activities, etc.

Nice agenda, Bruce.

Let me respond to a few of specific points:

The reason we included “evaluation systems” and ending “last hired first fired” on our list of needed changes is so districts don’t have to make quality-blind layoff decisions. That’s good for kids and saves money, as this recent paper illustrates.

I can accept that there’s solid research showing the benefits of small class sizes in the very early grades for needy kids. So if states want to protect small classes for K-3, OK. But there’s little reason to mandate tiny classes in the later grades. Also, if you want to throw cost-benefit analyses around, consider this one from Eric Hanushek which shows the enormous economic benefits of laying off the worst teachers. Tell me again why you’re against that?

We don’t call for consolidating districts, though we do think state policy should encourage cost-sharing whenever possible. Does every tiny school district need a superintendent? A treasurer? Of course not. States should refuse to pay for them.

In terms of children with learning disabilities and English language learners, our suggestion is to encourage districts to intervene early (and effectively) in order to get as many of these kids back into “regular” education as soon as possible. That makes good educational sense and could save a LOT of money in the long run. If Baker has better ideas about how to incentivize that, we’re all ears.

Finally, Bruce, we produced a policy brief, not a dissertation. If you want footnotes and sources galore, read the book.

Baker and other “school finance experts” had a good run when money was-a-plenty. Now that the charge is to “do more with less,” do they have any ideas to contribute? We’re waiting.

-Mike Petrilli

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