As we stretch the school dollar, let’s not rip out the seams of our public system

I just came across Bruce Baker’s scathing critique of the new “15 ways to stretch the school dollar” policy brief, penned by Mike Petrilli and Marguerite Roza for the Fordham Institute.

Baker’s analysis turns the brief on its side (if not on its head), using pages of hard evidence to poke holes in the claim that the proposed reforms would actually reduce state spending on schools or help districts make better budget-trimming choices by eliminating “onerous” policies. Both the brief and Baker’s response are must-reads for anyone trying to peel the onion of school funding mandates.

The policy issues raised by Petrilli and Roza need to be addressed. But it’s important to do so carefully and thoughtfully, and despite Baker’s aggressive style, he does lay out research-based counter arguments that deserve a full response, also framed by credible research.

As I looked through the list of 15 policy recommendations to “stretch” school dollars, I had some questions of my own. For instance, Petrilli and Roza propose that states and school systems:

  • End ‘last hired, first fired’ practices. I would ask what happens when administrators, who know little about teaching and learning, undervalue the pool of experienced teachers who have grown up in a community and know students and families well.
  • Remove class-size mandates. I would ask what happens when teachers cannot differentiate instruction and don’t have time to carefully assess progress on the Common Core Standards because they have too many students to teach.
  • Eliminate mandatory salary schedules. I would ask what happens when an impoverished school district does not have finances in place to ensure that teacher pay does not fall below the level necessary to attract talent.
  • Redesign teacher compensation. I would ask what happens (this would be a good thing) to the savings when many teachers perform well within the incentives-driven redesign, and the district needs more money for salaries, not less.
  • Redesign sick leave and stop spending on substitutes. I would ask what would happen if ALL administrators were expected to do some teaching (an issue that P&R do not address), both to reduce the need for subs and to keep all school professionals current about what it takes to teach today’s students.
  • Limit the length of time that students can be identified as English Language Learners. I would ask what happens when students are automatically or arbitrarily removed from a program, even when their teachers make the professional judgment that they still need those services.

School reformers often call for education policy solutions that are far too detached from the realities of the classroom and what it takes to educate students in the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine that some of these proposals could survive a thorough vetting by expert teachers and principals who understand what it takes to be successful in every kind of school these days. I’d encourage policymakers to carry out such a vetting before leaping into new policy pants.

There are certainly other actions school districts can take to cut costs. As I mention above, one might be to create the expectation that all administrators teach and work with students some of the time. If they’re not qualified to do that, perhaps they should be the first to be let go. As a decision maker responsible for educating students to high levels, I would definitely pursue this idea well before I let go all of my experienced and proven teachers (because they cost too much) — or before I eliminated substitute teachers, who make it possible for teachers to spend time sharpening their teaching practice on behalf of the students they serve.

Let’s be very careful how we stretch the school dollar. We don’t want to rip out the seams of America’s public school system, which I and many others still believe is vital in holding our democracy together.

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