Stretching the School Dollar

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

I know, I know. I’m always kvetching that schools need to do more with less. That superintendents aren’t making the tough cuts. And, when they do, that they aren’t cutting smart. When folks press me for specific details or suggestions, they want something more than broad discussions of staffing levels or analogies from other sectors. They want concrete ideas.

Because I strive to please, the result is the just-released Harvard Education Press book Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best. Stretching the School Dollar represents the best efforts of coeditor Eric Osberg and myself to craft a book packed with practical ideas for cutting school spending, in both the short- and long-term.

The volume walks readers through the budget landscape, suggests practical ways to tame costs, offers bolder ideas for rethinking cost structures, and provides strategies and hard-learned lessons for negotiating the thorny politics. Since my mom always told me that self-praise is no recommendation, here’s what a couple pros have to say. Rhode Island schools chief Deborah Gist is kind enough to term the book “ideal for school district and state leaders…desperate to know how our school systems can do more with less.” Jose Torres, the talented supe of School District U-46 in Illinois, generously deems the book “required reading” at a time “when taxpayers are asking superintendents to produce quantum leaps in student performance while dramatically reducing” spending.

All-star contributors, including Mike Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools, finance impresario Marguerite Roza, and big brains from the Boston Consulting Group, provide recommendations to help district and state leaders wring inefficiency from administration and operations, analyze outlays in per-unit terms, and overhaul management and instructional delivery. This kind of advice usually costs several grand a day–but readers can now pick it up on for a tiny fraction of that.

Of course, as I have noted before, those kinds of measures will not suffice to help cash-strapped districts put their fiscal challenges behind them. In the coming era of continued belt-tightening, more far-reaching changes are required. Visionary entrepreneurs John Chubb and Steven Wilson provide guidance on this score, sketching ways for districts to leverage technology or restructure staffing and compensation to boost productivity and efficiency.

Other stellar contributions–addressing everything from lessons learned in Jerry Weast’s Montgomery County to nickel-saving notions around the country to the political risks of penny pinching–are penned by Gates innovation chief Stacey Childress, MBA-slash-former supe Nathan Levenson, former Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholz, school finance guru Jim Guthrie, and Harvard’s Marty West.

I’ll give the final word to my friend Dan Domenech, former Fairfax County supe and executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “Stretching the School Dollar…offers research-based thinking and real options to school leaders facing tough budgetary choices in today’s economy. The book’s detailed examples–how to analyze financial data, make the best use of teachers’ skills, and harness the new technologies, for example–provide a road map to economic reform that enhances, rather than obstructs, student learning.” Thanks chief. I couldn’t have said it better, and I’d have sounded like a yutz if I’d tried.

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