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More Conversations about Tough Times

This past Tuesday, ERS Executive Director Karen Hawley Miles participated on a panel for Ed Week’s release of Quality Counts that focused on budget challenges and strategies in districts. Along with John Scanlan, Deputy Superintendent of Administration for Rochester City School District, Matthew Stanski, Chief Financial Officer for Prince George’s County Public Schools, and moderation from Ed Week editor, Sean Cavanagh, the panel explored how today’s economic reality is hitting districts on the ground. Some highlights from the discussion:                                                                                                               

1. We can’t overestimate the budget gaps districts are facing.

The public is used to seeing districts facing budget shortfalls. It’s been a pattern for many years. But today’s budget gaps are worse than ever before. Districts are anticipating anywhere between an 8-14% cut coming this year. There are four key reasons: First, state revenue is declining and states have spent out their reserves. Second, federal stimulus funding has come to an end. Third, districts face the same auto-pilot increases in teacher compensation we’ve seen for many years while benefits costs keep climbing. Fourth, districts often have very little flexibility in the most costly areas (special education, class size and compensation) because of mandates. In Prince George’s County, Stanski says this will be the third year in a row that he is facing a $100M cut. In Rochester, Scanlan said they faced $61M cut last year and this year he believes it will be between $95-100M out of a $700M budget.

2. Student Based Budgeting is one strategy to protect quality of instruction.

Both Rochester and Prince George’s County are implementing student based budgeting as a way to give principals more flexibility during these tough times. Scanlan explained that they believe that focusing decision-making at the school level and giving more autonomy to principals will result in the best outcomes for the schools. “It will be painful decision-making,” said Scanlan, “but the alternative is worse.”(For more information on student based budgeting, see the recent issue of Voices in Urban Education from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform—the details matter!) 

3. The federal government helps drive transformation by continuing to invest in common standards for student performance, teaching effectiveness, information systems, and freeing resources that are dedicated to compliance.

Suggestions included creating policies that are defined by outcomes, “not by telling us how to get there.” Scanlon also suggested that state governments should institute incentives for districts to save money. Under today’s rules, if districts save the state money they don’t benefit from the savings.

4. Tough times should open up our thinking on the use of time, especially at the high school level.

Miles pointed out that flexibility around time in high schools is one area that has been slowest to change. Most high schools still have strict schedules, isolated classrooms, and four year expectations to graduate. Breaking down this paradigm to include more personalized learning models and a focus on performance mastery of subjects could save significant dollars and improve delivery of instruction.

5. The economy impacts charter schools.

Miles stressed that as times get tougher there will be a growing disparity between the schools that have limited flexibility due to mandates, and the charter schools that are free from such restrictions especially around hiring, staffing models and the use of time. The tough times mean that more flexibility will be needed for all schools.

6. Budget conversations need to focus on academic priorities and to strategically align resources to those priorities.

Stanski explained that for Prince George’s County that meant first, considering their portfolio of schools. Second, ensuring capacity development for principals and teachers and third, protecting equity. “It’s all about options and opportunities for our students. When we see high performing schools that are working, we invest to replicate them.”

There are many interesting articles in this year’s Quality Counts. Karen Hawley Miles served as an advisor to the issue that focuses on the new economic reality. We recommend you take a look.

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