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Fordham Reports Adds Popular Views to Debate on K-12 Budget Realities

I need a sidekick. No, I really, really do. Someone maybe a little naive and idealistic (even more than yours truly) who can feed me lines like these:

Sidekick: What are we going to do today, Eddie?
Me: Why, same thing we do every day: Blog about education, of course!
Sidekick: Oh, yeah. Of course. But what exactly are we going to blog about?
Me: Same thing we blog about every day: How schools need to spend money more effectively in tight budget times….

Ok, so I exaggerate a bit. Just a little bit! I mean, in the past couple weeks alone, we’ve covered the issue of reforms focused on productive spending here, here, here and here.

It’s a common theme for a very practical reason. As Checker Finn and Amber Winkler explain in the preface of the new Fordham Institute report How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education:

Depressed housing values have meant lower property taxes for schools; voters have balked at passing local levies; federal “stimulus” dollars have dried up; health care costs for education staff (and everyone else) are ballooning; lock-step salary schedules and contractually obligated pay increases for teachers (and other school employees) mean little slack in the budget; precariously funded pension systems have caused states to shift some of the load to localities, school districts, and even future retirees themselves. Once limited to a handful of budget-conscious superintendents and state officials, discussions about how to curtail costs are taking place in virtually every district and school across America.

Nothing particularly new, but a good reminder compiled into one compact paragraph. The Fordham paper’s interesting angle on the whole topic is that they took the conversation away from school superintendents and education wonks and asked Jane and Joe Q Public what they think. They commissioned a scientific survey of 1,009 American adults, asking them about their perceptions of the financial state of their local schools and what approaches they would favor. Some interesting findings:

  • When asked what the best approach for their district to take to meet fiscal challenges, 48 percent opted for “Cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business,” while only 11 percent chose “Rely on tax increases”
  • Popular ideas for K-12 cost-cutting measures included “Reducing the number of district level administrators to a bare minimum” (69 percent), “Freezing salaries for one year for all district employees” (58 percent), and “Changing guaranteed pensions to individual retirement plans” (53 percent for all employees, 17 percent for new employees only)
  • Five times as many respondents would rather “Cut all teacher salaries by 5 percent” (74 percent) than “Lay off 5 percent of teachers” (14 percent), while a similar margin (74 to 18 percent) said teacher effectiveness instead of seniority should be used to make layoff decisions

What’s even better? If you feel left out, you can take a partial survey on questions like these yourself. Though it’s not quite as scientific, Fordham is still soliciting opinions.

All in all, the report offers some more valuable information to the discussion about K-12 budgets, spending and reforms that are sure to be with us at least for the next few years. What’s popular may not always be the best thing to do, but those trying to enhance productivity and promote student-centered change cannot entirely ignore public opinion.

It’s encouraging that sizable shares of Americans recognize the need for change, though awareness can always be raised. For my part, I gladly will continue to help educating readers about the research and other evidence available. We can’t give up on this important conversation, even if it feels like I’m blogging about it every day.

And even if I don’t (yet) have a sidekick to add a little flair.