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High Hand

What would Kenny Rogers do if he were in charge of a school district budget? He’d know when to fold ‘em, certainly when to walk away. But what if he had to cut his budget — again — by 5 percent? He could do the usual: print out last year’s budget and broadly cut everything.

Or he could play a card game called Budget Hold’em.

Recently released by Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a nonprofit that works with large, urban school districts to rethink how best to use resources, Budget Hold’em can be played online for free or with a special deck of paper cards. The game allows users to make cuts and add resources in an effort to create an ideal “hand” — that is, a balanced budget that doesn’t gut student learning. The idea behind the game is for users to think hard about choices and trade-offs — two concepts, says ERS founder Karen Hawley Miles, Ed.M.’91, Ed.D.’97, that are generally new in education.

After users pick their overall budget target — saving 2 percent, for example — they flip over cards from two columns: investments and savings. Each flip calculates about how much the move would increase or decrease a budget. For instance, flipping a card that introduced a principal residency program to build leadership capacity would increase a budget by about 0.1 percent. Leasing unused space to community groups could save about 0.2 percent. Each card also provides an explanation. As users try out different hands, cards can be unplayed. Some cards also offer ways to invest without adding or saving money, such as encouraging the strongest principals to move to the lowest-performing schools.

One of the best outcomes from playing the game, says Hawley Miles, is when a school district begins to think differently from how they had in the past, which is what happened in Memphis, Tenn., one of the first districts to test the game.

“They feel like they came up with a budget that’s very different than they would have otherwise,” Hawley Miles says. In addition, by the time the process was over — and the budget balanced — everyone felt ownership in the decisions that were made.

The game also allows users to try scenarios without feeling stuck with a decision, says ERS communications manager Allison Daskal Hausman, Ed.M.’93. “Approaching the budget in our alternative way lets people suspend reality and feel freer” about their options, she says.

The game was worked on by several other Ed School graduates, including cocreator Betty Hsu, Ed.M.’08, online manager Kristan Singleton, Ed.M.’06, and scriptwriter Anna Sommers, Ed.M.’91.

Read the online version of the story.

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