Contact: Stephen Frank
WATERTOWN, Mass., January 26— In this era of tight budgets, schools and districts are under increasing pressure to make every dollar count. Many educators believe small schools are one answer to poor performance and low graduation rates in large urban districts—small schools were a cornerstone of incoming Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s legacy in Chicago. But can districts afford them? A new report finds that three large urban districts spend more on small high schools than on large high schools—but they don’t necessarily have to.
Education Resource Strategies, an organization that studies resource use in urban school districts, announces the release of a new report, "District Spending in Small and Large High Schools: Lessons from Baltimore City, Boston, and Chicago", by Stephen Frank and Randi Feinberg. ERS looked at 160 high schools in these districts, slightly less than half of which were small schools (fewer than 499 students), and compared spending in these schools with those over 1000 students. ERS asked:
The report, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that these districts spent between 10 and 20 percent more per pupil in small high schools than they did in large high schools, primarily because:
“Big-city superintendents can use this report to examine their spending strategies on small high schools and assess how they can use resources more thoughtfully and effectively,” says co-author Stephen Frank. “In tough times, superintendents have to be able to show that small schools are cost-effective and can boost achievement without breaking the budget—an achievable goal when small school funding is strategic and deliberate.”
It is certainly not the case that higher spending is always undesirable—schools with lower per-pupil spending often suffer from insufficient resources and extra spending may be necessary to boost achievement. Higher spending on small schools may pay off with higher achievement and may even result in a lower cost per graduate if more students stay in school. But—this higher spending is not necessarily inevitable and is not necessarily correlated with these better outcomes. ERS’s research with many districts has indicated that how much money districts spend may not be as important as how they spend it.
To create small schools by design, not default, policymakers should consider:
Given the complex nature of analyzing budgets and reallocating resources, accurate data is critical. This study found that looking at budget data without a careful and thorough methodology, districts can grossly over- or underestimate how much they spend in each school. In our extensive work with urban districts, ERS has found that decision-makers often do not have access to the data they urgently need to use their resources as effectively as possible. In the three districts included in this report, we looked at many different sources of budget data—and found that not only different districts, but even different departments and divisions within the same district, report, collect, and analyze data very differently. To get around these and other shortcomings in the data, ERS coded every line item in these multiple budgets, conducted interviews at every level of the school system to validate these data, and developed a unique and thorough research framework to ensure complete and accurate comparisons. This methodology is a major contribution to the field in terms of why standards are needed in budget data collection, reporting, and analysis—and how, once collected, the data can be more accurately analyzed.
About Education Resource Strategies
Education Resource Strategies (ERS) is a non-profit organization that works extensively with urban public school systems to rethink the use of district and school-level resources, and build strategies for improved instruction and performance. Recent ERS partner districts include St. Paul Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, Atlanta Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, and Cincinnati Public Schools.
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