Let’s stop complaining about school budget bloat and start making common sense cuts

K-12 education is in the midst of a national crisis: no money.  School states across the country are struggling with the long-term viability of their public education budgets—Illinois, California, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alaska are among the most visible states in this long parade—due to declines in local tax revenue and state support, and many local school boards are now discovering how the average taxpayer feels: It sucks to be broke.

However, one has to wonder whether if, just as every other government agency must, this might be an opportune time for our public schools to do some truly deep soul-searching regarding their mission and methods.  

This is not the first time I have proposed this idea; this is, however, the first time that I have believed it might be possible to radically rethink how we manage the business of educating our children because our ability to tax and spend (or borrow) to support the status quo is rapidly reaching its functional limit—so we really have no choice but to put our public schools under a financial microscope.

Skyrocketing facility, personnel, and transportation expenses—now turbocharged by terrifying legacy pension costs—are dragging many school systems toward insolvency.  These are dollars we would be glad to spend if our nation’s schools were paragons of excellence, but right now our taxpayers are left with the worst of all possible outcomes: high cost and poor performance.  This clearly cannot continue.

So what can we do?  There is certainly a lot that needs to quickly change, but there are three areas where I believe we can easily begin when it comes to dumping superfluous and sometimes expensive (especially when compounded over time) educational artifacts of a world now long gone:

School libraries

I have my own fond and dusty memories of spending my study hall time at one of many long wooden tables while I finished my Social Studies homework surrounded by encyclopedias and plastic-covered copies of biographies and classic literature, but I cannot figure out why we are still purchasing, shelving, and circulating physical books when students are walking around with incredibly powerful computers/web browsers in their pockets and backpacks that allow them to read anything, anywhere, at any time.

It would be smart to eliminate the dollars spent on library infrastructure, supplies, and salaries; we should instead upgrade our school Wi-Fi networks and pocket the savings.

I apologize to all the schools of library science pumping out happy and hopeful graduates, but this is a profession that is soon going to be as antiquated as telephone operators—and an educational expense that must be eliminated.

Guidance Counselors

Everybody loves guidance counselors and believes them to be essential—but are they any longer necessary?  Back in the day, guidance counselors fulfilled three primary functions: helping students create their class schedules, apply to college, and decide what career to pursue.  Is there any of this that cannot now be done with a website or an app?

If I can book a round-the-world trip from my armchair, we can certainly sign up students for Algebra II online; college information and the entire application process are now available online, and an incredible array of career information and interest inventories are likewise available online.  The key word in the previous sentence: online.

The same information that your guidance counselor is accessing regarding jobs and colleges is now accessible to anyone with a smart phone or other similar device.  It is worth asking whether we need to keep paying a carrying charge to help our students obtain information that is both free and incredibly easily accessed.

To continue to pay someone to do something that has now wholly migrated to the web speaks to the total lack of interest the public education establishment has in making smart and targeted job cuts; after all, if that job is no longer necessary, might mine be next?  There is, of course, a legitimate concern about the need for adults to keep students on-task, particularly when it comes to meeting deadlines for class registration or college applications.  However, if we are essentially paying for reminders, why not speak the language of your target audience: Use text message alerts to student (and parent) phones to push our children along.

Contract workers could, of course be brought on board on a limited basis to help students during registration or other crunch times, but these full-time jobs with benefits and pensions seem hard to justify given the improvements in web-based information technology over the past decade or so.

Central Office Administration

One of my former colleagues once summed up the mission of our school district’s bureaucrats this way: “Much work remains to be done before they can announce their total failure to accomplish anything.”

Some believe that any suggestion to cut public school administrators is out of line—perhaps even a cheap shot—but a look at the numbers is instructive.  A comprehensive study published in 2013 looked at the growth in student population across states and the nation and sought to answer a key question: Are we adding non-teaching personnel at a rate far exceeding the numbers of students being served?

The answer for most states: a resounding (and unequivocal) yes.

Over the period studied, 1992-2009, the numbers of teachers in the United States grew at roughly twice the rate of the student population—likely due to the explosion of Special Education and remedial in-school services over this time period.  However, the number of non-teaching administrative positions exploded by nearly three times the rate of the student population.  Is this really the wisest course of action in difficult budget times?

The increase in the number of teachers is worthy of further study in order to ascertain whether resources are being properly utilized; the increase in non-teaching administrative overhead is an absolute scandal that requires immediate action.

That the public education system has been adding layer upon layer of administrators—many of whom are making more than state governors, U.S. Senators, or even the President—while the rest of the economy has been rapidly shedding bureaucracy should be a clear warning to beleaguered taxpayers that they are being ripped off.  The world will not grind to a halt if many of these individuals were sent out the door to seek gainful employment elsewhere and the dollars saved were reinvested in our classrooms to benefit our students.

Let’s start a conversation

These three suggestions are, of course, only the start of a much larger discussion. Much more can be done to both reduce expenses and refocus schools on their core mission: educating our children to a standard congruent with what the rest of the developed world now receives from their own investments in public education.  To reach this goal, every option for improving the cost effectiveness of our nation’s public schools must be on the table.  I realize that not everyone will agree with my suggestions—and many may have a few of their own.

Therefore, I urge readers to post comments with their own thoughts and ideas for cuts that would save money and free up funds to do what schools should be doing: educating our children.  I will continue to share my own ideas, and I am happy to also focus on suggestions made by readers in my future posts.

We need to talk—and continue talking.  If we fail to have this conversation today, we should not be surprised by continued cuts to essential educational programs, and we may condemn much of our public school system to financial ruin due to our fear and inaction.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

  6 comments for “Let’s stop complaining about school budget bloat and start making common sense cuts

  1. Steve
    July 5, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Wow Mr. Will – no professional experience or professional stake in K – 12 public education but you profess to know that we can do without libraries and counsellors and much of district bureaucracy as well as “legacy costs” like pensions that always were part of a pay package that left teachers and other school employees with lower take home pay than their contemporaries in other fields. Shall I say bravo?

    • July 6, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      Dear Steve:

      Feel free to read my short bio and other materials on my blog. Also, you might want to look at the comment from Mr. Coyne. I am interested in any response you might have regarding the points that he raised in response to my post.

      Andrew Wilk

  2. July 5, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Bravo for having written this, and starting a long-overdue conversation. I have two builds on your comments. First, here in Colorado, every school and district is required (annually or biannually) to complete a Unified Improvement Plan that identifies the root causes of their achievement shortfalls, describes the “major improvement initiatives” that will be undertaken to address them, and specifies the outcomes they are intended to produce. When you dig into these UIPs, rarely is a lack of money cited as a root cause of achievement shortfalls; far more common are what I call examples of the inability or unwillingness of adults to change their behaviors. And for that reason it comes as no surprise that a lot of UIP goals are never met.

    Second, after more than a decade of volunteer time investment in K-12 performance improvement efforts, both in Canada and the US, it has been my experience as a private sector CFO that K-12 district leaders usually have only a tenuous understanding of their true costs, what is driving them, and how they relate to student achievement results. When K-12 leaders attack this assertion and point to their audited financial statements, I challenge them to answer some questions. For example, how much (in direct costs and the value of invested time) does their district annually spend on teacher professional development? How do they measure its effectiveness? And what is the return on their investment? You can ask the same about the direct and time costs associated with curriculum development, evaluation, and selection, or about the development, evaluation, and selection of instructional materials, like textbooks (paper and online varieties). In all cases, you will get the same stammered, angry replies, that usually end with the dismissive claim that “K-12 is different.” Unfortunately for taxpayers, parents, students, and employers, it isn’t.

    To private sector ears, these replies tell you everything you need to know about these leaders’ lack of understanding about their costs, the activities that take place within their organizations, and how these interact to produce student achievement results. And absent that understanding, leaders have no rational basis for evaluating options like the ones Mr. Wilk proposes for improving performance by reconfiguring K-12 processes, evaluating outsourcing and automation options, and rethinking the core business model (e.g., seat-time versus competency based education). Instead too many K-12 leaders reflexively fall back on ideology and political expediency to justify their dogged defense of the status quo and demands for more taxpayer funding.

    Until this fundamental lack of insight into the operations of our very expensive school systems is resolved, there will be precious little taxpayer support for further investment in K-12, nor will there be substantial gains in the student achievement results that, per Eric Hanushek and his colleagues’ research, are now central to our future economic growth (as well as our ability and willingness to fund every growing teacher pension plan deficits, instead of cutting future benefits).

    In sum, there is a lot more at stake here than many people realize.

    • July 6, 2016 at 1:51 pm

      Dear Mr. Coyne:

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. You hit the nail right on the head: absent realistic measures of cost-effectiveness and the accountability that follows, we have a hard time drilling down on how to move school reform/improvement forward. This is just the beginning of a long-overdue conversation.

      Andrew Wilk

  3. Audra
    July 12, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Great points and comments. I would also add that extracurricular sports programs and their coaches need to go. It’s rediculous to spend education funds on these NOT-education costs. In the book, “The Smartest Kids In the World” the author points out that the highest achieving schools in the world do not have sports programs and they are puzzled by the U.S.emphasis on them. If kids want to play sports, they can go to community rec centers or private leagues, which is where kids have to go anyway if they want to participate in non-supported sports like ice skating, gymnastics, dance, etc.

    • July 12, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Audra,

      I hope to address school athletics in a separate post. It is such a complex and (for many) emotionally fraught topic that I decided it was wise to not attempt to shoehorn it into this post.

      Feel free to visit my blog, andrewmwilk.com, for other commentaries on education dating back to 2007.

      Thank you for your comment!

      Andrew Wilk

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