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There’s Edu-Gold in Them Thar States?

For the past three years, we have heard a great deal about the financial cliffs our states were falling off, particularly with regard to education funding.  When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in early 2009, the promise was additional dollars to the states for K-12 education, all in the name of ensuring that programs and service levels were not slashed as a result of the economic downturn.

Today, states and school districts are forced to confront the next “new normal,” a normal where the stimulus dollars are gone, state economies are still fragile and hurting, and schools are being asked to do more with far less.  District after district notes we’ve long passed the point of cutting school budgets to the bone.  We’re now at the marrow.

An interesting new report from Education Research Strategies offers an interesting take on the “cupboard is bare” reality facing so many school districts.  In Restructuring Resources for High-Performing Schools: A Primer for State Policymakers, ERS authors Karen Hawley Miles, Karen Baroody, and Elliot Regenstein note that changes in education policies could free up billions of dollars in needed funds to address the specific ails of our districts.

Among their recommendations:
* Increase student-teacher ratios — By boosting such ratios by an average of one student per teacher, districts could free up $6 billion nationwide.
* Reduce specific special education funding — By having states currently spending above the national average lower sped spending to the national average, $3 billion nationally could “freed up” to improve results for all students.
* Eliminate spending buckets — By combining smaller funding streams and thus reducing the costs of compliance and reporting for each individual program

Now there is thinking outside the box and then there is thinking OUTSIDE the box.  No one is ever going to accuse ERS of just rearranging the deck chairs.  Tackling special education, for instance, by saying we need to reduce the dollars spent on the specific population to “spread the wealth” across all students is not what one typically hears.  But there is no denying these are real ideas for shaking up the system and freeing up dollars to focus on the new priorities and mandates that are coming from the feds.

Are there states rushing to adopt these reccs or pilot one or two of the specific ideas offered by ERS?  Probably not.  Is there merit to the economies of scale argument that bucket consolidation could reduce administrative, evaluation, compliance, and reporting costs?  Absolutely.

Like it or hate it, the ERS report is an interesting, provocative read.  There is something refreshing about some new ideas, no matter how far from the box they may be.

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