Schools Risk Drowning in Red Ink

Schools Risk Drowning in Red Ink
(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
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Schools across America are struggling to regain their footing after the educational earthquake caused by COVID 19. Before they’ve fully recovered, they’ll face an unprecedented tsunami of red ink.

Schools are funded by a combination of local, state, and federal dollars. In an effort to decrease financial inequities across school districts of disparate means, state policymakers in the last decade substantially increased the share of school funding that comes from state income and sales taxes. With unemployment claims at 22 million and rising, retail sales currently illegal, and a major recession on the horizon, school districts are, to borrow a phrase from President Obama, going to take a shellacking.

Schools will have to get creative and aggressive in order to balance their books, and will need strong leadership and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. For inspiration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos could look to perhaps the best speech given by her Obama-era predecessor, Arne Duncan.

In November of 2010, Duncan delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute titled, “The New Normal: Doing More With Less.” In it, he warned that the cushion of the stimulus act would soon be running out, and that states and districts were about to face a “funding cliff.”

Duncan urged school leaders to resist the temptation to lay off teachers and eliminate arts programs. Rather, he insisted that they look to reduce administrative costs, noting that he had decreased central office expenditures in Chicago Public Schools by 12 percent, which kept 350 teachers in the classroom.

He noted that school districts paid about $8 billion each year in bonuses for teachers with masters’ degrees, despite little evidence that they provide any benefit to students. And, in admittedly less concrete terms, Duncan called for “a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”

Unfortunately, despite his own advice against “reform by addition,” Duncan’s tenure was defined by his “Race to the Top” initiative, which foisted the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluation on the states, adding a layer of new policies at great opportunity-cost to creative approaches to financial belt-tightening.

Fortunately, Secretary DeVos, who has no such technocratic impulse, is well positioned to make good on the spirit of Duncan’s speech. To do so, she should follow the same approach she took on school safety in the wake of the Parkland shooting: lead a taskforce, assemble and consult experts, and develop key recommendations for state and local leaders based on a clear-eyed, evidence-driven assessment of return on investment.

One easy recommendation: Teachers should be prioritized over school administrators, for a change. From 1992 to 2009, teaching staff increased by 32 percent, whereas administrative staff increased by 46 percent. During the great recession, teachers got the short end of the stick, with 3.7 percent losing their jobs compared to 2.2 percent of administrative staff.

Aside from favoring teachers over administrators, there is plenty of other school spending that is either unproductive or even counter-productive. School districts have devoted untold millions of dollars to implementing “restorative justice” discipline policies, despite study after study after study showing academic harm. They are now devoting untold millions more to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” professional development, despite little evidence of benefit.

There is, for that matter, little evidence that professional development of any sort provides much benefit. In 2015, TNTP studied three major school districts finding average professional development expenditures of $18,000 per teacher and little compelling evidence of efficacy. If states slashed professional development requirements, they could save tens of thousands of teachers’ jobs.

There should be no sacred cows. Despite the hype, the unfortunate fact is that the best study of a school district-based “high-quality” pre-k program showed negative results for academics and behavior. In New York City, Bill de Blasio is already pulling back on his Pre-K for three-year-olds proposal. School districts already offering Pre-K should consider cutting it all together.

As Secretary Duncan said, “there are productive and unproductive ways to meet this challenge of doing more with less.” Rather than try to advance a new national policy agenda, DeVos could devote the last half of the final year of the Administration’s first term to helping schools weather the upcoming storm.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the brief Issues 2020: Public School Spending Is at an All-Time High. Follow him on Twitter here.

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