What Goes Up Must Come Down

I’ve been receiving angry emails from teachers who heard my sound-bytes on NBC Nightly News and Today earlier this week. I said that “our schools don’t just need to go on a diet, they need to adapt a whole new way of life. The money is gone and it’s not coming back anytime soon.”

In my mind, that’s just stating the facts. With a deep recession and a burst housing bubble (and thus deflated property values, and property tax revenue), the outlook for 2011-12 is even worse than for 2010. Districts are facing real spending cuts for the first time in decades. And once we get past the current challenges, our schools will be facing stiff competition for public funds from the retirement expenses of the baby boomers. The era of big spending in education is over.

Still, as Neal McCluskey astutely points out, all we’re asking schools to do is to turn the dial back a bit on the huge budget increases of recent decades. (Real-per pupil spending doubled from 1989 to 2005.) Unless Uncle Sam plays Santa Claus, of course, as Rick Hess puts it.

A diet tends to be short-lived. To get real results over the long-run, people have to change their lifestyle. So it is with our schools. Freezing wages or laying off junior teachers or delaying repairs or monkeying around with accounting isn’t going to cut it. This is a time for a fundamental rethink. How many teachers do we need? What kinds? How can we best structure their compensation? How can we use technology to deliver education more efficiently? Should we be spending so much on special education? And on and on and on.

The money is gone, and it’s not coming back any time soon. The faster we face the facts, the better.

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