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Education Productivity and Dealing with Deficits

Education resource issues have overtaken to the front pages of mainstream media. We’re seeing stories on productivity, state deficits and teacher negotiations, and education technology every day. These are issues that ERS has been addressing for years. What’s being said and what are the implications for those who are supporting America’s school systems in trying to find the opportunity in tough times? Here are my thoughts on a couple issues:

On State Deficits:  It’s not exactly news, but coverage continues about states facing growing deficits and the degree of those deficits in some states is mind-numbing. Just after I returned from the widely covered Institute of Productivity event in Texas, the state announced huge deficits which could require big cities to cut 15% to 20% in a single year. 

Implications: For the past couple years, ERS has seen state deficits as an opportunity to seize the moment and do things differently.  While we still see this as essential, we need to think about what the “floor” of spending should be.  We also need to be very clear about the differences between “seizing the moment” in Rochester or Syracuse where spending is more than two times that of Charlotte and Duval County adjusted for cost of living differences. Though there is always opportunity to make better use of resources, there comes a point, especially in the very short term, where avoiding cuts in critical areas such as investing in student information systems and time for teachers to collaborate becomes nearly impossible.  And when this happens, we need to also have the courage to fight for spending what it takes.  In addition, we need to do all we can to encourage states and districts to approach their budget challenges with the future in mind.  I keep seeing references to districts and states ramping back on Pre-K—one of the most short-sighted things we could possibly do as a nation. See recent New York Times post citing Ben Bernanke’s thoughts on early childhood education.

On Education Productivity: A taboo subject just 18 months ago, the idea that the education sector should become more productive is now the new rage or “the new normal” as Secretary Duncan says. The Center for American Progress recently released the results of a year-long study on productivity. And in the March 7th Time feature story, “Budget Fight: What Public Employees Really Cost,” Amanda Ripley writes that 19 million Americans work in federal or civilian jobs and that half of these work in education which “rivals healthcare as the most wasteful sector in America.” She argues that most studies show public sector salaries as lower, but says that data on benefits and pensions are so badly flawed and that practices vary so widely across states and within states, that generalizations regarding full compensation packages can be badly flawed.

Implications: ERS has much of the data to inform what Ripley says we don’t know.  As spending on teacher compensation represents the largest single budget item, it’s right that so much of the productivity discussion focuses on it. In most states, salary and benefit structures are locally negotiated and while one can make generalizations, small differences in salary levels, structure and the distribution of the work force make BIG differences when it comes to figuring out what to do about it.  There is a huge opportunity for local research and policy groups to help here by getting the local facts and the full story of how much teachers earn, for what hours and linked to what work rules.  A key part of the story is understanding how much the teachers who contribute the most can make and whether they can earn compensation comparable to other highly regarded professions. We have created tools that describe exactly the analysis that school leaders and those who support them can do to describe investments in teachers (see The Teaching Job:  Restructuring for Effectiveness). One key difference:  While we do see significant waste in districts across the country, we believe that much of the waste often comes from a combination of policies and regulations that by themselves were created for good. So, it’s misguided to blithely blame school leaders for inefficient spending. School leaders will need help to address the combination of tradition, regulation and contract provisions that constrain restructuring and limit reorganization of the largest buckets of spending.


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