State Budget Surpluses?

For years now, we have been hearing how state and local budgets were struggling.  States were banking their stimulus dollars (particularly their K-12 education funds) in anticipation of a far rainier day.  Education budgets frozen.  Teachers jobs eliminated.  Purchases of textbooks or technology frozen.  All because of growing budget deficits and the looming absence of stimulus funds to prop up the states.

Eduflack even opined on it back in the summer of 2009, when then-new NCSL data showed massive budget gaps in those states originally teed up to be potential Race to the Top winners.
The “sky is falling” mentality has only grown more acute over the last year, as states and localities have been wringing their hands over two issues.  The first is the long-term cost of budget items, essentially the “pensionability” of actions such as giving teachers raises.  The second, and far more serious, concern is the overhaul coming to state Medicaid requirements, and the astronomical related costs coming to a state near you in 2014.
So we’ve become accustomed to the “end of days” rhetoric that has dogged state politics, and by extension state education policy, the past two or so years.  Then something comes along that causes us to re-center our thinking on the whole matter.
Under the headline, “Many states celebrate surpluses as Congress struggles with debt,” the Washington Times notes that “a dozen states ended fiscal 2011 with surpluses.”  Those states include Indiana (which just gave non-pensionable bonuses to state employees), Idaho, Maine, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, and South Carolina.
But as NCSL revealed in 2009, many of these states were already the “low-hanging fruit” when it came to states with reversible budget problems.  Even Ohio, which once faced an $8 billion deficit faced a gap less than 5 percent of the total fund.  In fact, when we look again at the states singled out by the Washington Times, and then look at what Eduflack wrote in July of 2009:
On the flip side, there are some interesting states that appear to be in the best financial shape, where their budget gaps are less than 5 percent of the general fund, meaning (in theory) that public education will face a scalpel, and not an axe.  So there may be opportunities in states like Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio to quickly put real reforms in place and document the impact it is having on student learning.

Without a crystal ball, we predicted that states like Arkansas, Indiana, and Ohio would have the opportunity to address those projected budget gaps in a way that would not cause grave physical harm to public education in those states.  In Indiana, for example, Gov. Mitch Daniels seems to have done that, enacting real school reforms (though the impact of changes to public employees in general obviously has real impact on the teachers leading our classrooms).  In Ohio, we still need to wait to see the long-term impact, as Gov. John Kasich has addressed the overall budget, but did so as Ohio schools were already suffering from cuts and freezes enacted by his predecessor.  Like it or not, that scalpel has led to real education reform policies, including those focused on teacher quality and LIFO. 
So it begs some important questions.  In these dozen states that have done the impossible, and turned budget gaps into surpluses, how does education spending today, at the end of FY2011, measure up to K-12 education spending in FY2008?  What changes, if any, have been made to ensure that school improvement efforts are adequately funded, and that reduced school spending isn’t simply going to fund that which isn’t working?  And perhaps most importantly, how are these surpluses being designated, particularly as we think about the miles to go on real school improvement in these states?

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.

Does Quality Count in Our Schools?

Yesterday, Education Week released its annual edu-stats extravaganza, Quality Counts.  The 2011 edition of Quality Counts, Uncertain Forecast: Education Adjusts to a New Economic Reality, hits on all of the usual topics, with a special emphasis on the economy and its impact on education.

Once again, Maryland is tops in the nation when it comes to education policy and performance, earning a B-plus (87.6 overall).  It is followed at the top of the list by New York (B, 84.7), Massachusetts (B, 82.6), Virginia (B-minus, 81.8), and Florida (B-minus, 81.5).
Nebraska rounds out the bottom of the list, earning a D-plus (68.6).  The Huskers were just edged out by DC (D-plus, 69.1), South Dakota (D-plus, 69.2), Mississippi (C-minus, 70.0), and Montana (C-minus, 70.4).
In the individual categories, Massachusetts was tops for “Chance for Success,” earning a A, while Nevada was last with a D and the U.S. average was a C-plus.  In “K-12 Achievement,” Massachusetts was again number one with a B, while New Mexico, Louisiana, DC, West Virginia, and Mississippi all earned Fs (with a national average of just D-plus).
For “Transitions and Alignment” (meaning early childhood ed, college readiness, and the economy and workforce), Arkansas, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia all earned As.  Nebraska scored an F, with a U.S. average of C-plus.  And in “School Finance,” Wyoming was tops with a A-minus as Idaho scored a D-minus, with a C as the national average.
Perhaps one of the most interesting tools EdWeek offers is the State Report Cards, which can be found here.
Video highlights of the day’s program can also be found here, taken from yesterday’s live stream.
And what are the big takeaways?
* Despite the rhetoric, we have only seen minimal impact of the economic stimulus on the schools.  As EdWeek has often reported, much of the stimulus money is still being held back by the states, as they prepare for worsening days.  
* But it was surprising to learn how strong an impact education has had on the stimulus’ success.  For every million dollars spent in education stimulus, the nation created or saved 4.2 jobs.  That is almost twice the job  impact of stimulus spending in general.
* Once you carve away all of the stimulus-speak, the academic results remain quite disappointing.  On average, our states are earning a C, and that is likely a gentleman’s C at best.  Not a single state earns an overall A.  Only four states earn an A or A-minus for “Chance for Success.”  No states earn an A for “K-12 Achievement.”  And just one earns better than a B-plus for “School Finance.”
As we ask whether Quality Counts, it is clear that too many of our states are still struggling with basic math.  One doesn’t have to be a teacher to realize that this is not a report card any kid would want to bring home.  The only saving grace for even the top states is that we are grading on a very generous curve.  States that did well should be proud of their progress, but no one should be content with where their individual numbers stand.
Ultimately, Quality Counts provides a roadmap for where we have to head to achieve success.  If we are to read the roadmarkers correctly in this year’s edition, we can see that states are paying greater attention to issues like standards and accountability today, and we can only hope that that focus results in improved achievement and better QC grades in the years to come.

Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  

Analyzing the Ed Stimulus’ Impact

So it is more than a year and a half since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law and the faucet of federal education stimulus dollars was turned on, sending a stream (either a raging river or a trickle, depending on your perspective) to states and school districts across the nation.  While much has been done (particularly from the good folks over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog) on whether we are actually spending the ed stimulus dollars or not, a larger question may very well be if such spending is having any impact.

For the past year, we’ve heard how Race to the Top has completely changed the game, with states across the union overhauling their policies on data systems, teacher firewalls, charter schools, turnaround schools, and many topics in between.  A new reform era has been ushered in, according to many, leaving status quoers with nothing to show for decades worth of work.
But a new study released today by Bellwether Education Partners and Education First Consulting finds that the stimulus’ impact on education reform may not be as definitive as both cheerleaders and critics may believe.  InConflicting Missions and Unclear Results: Lessons from the Education Stimulus Funds, Bellwether’s Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham and Ed First’s Anand Vaishnav and William Porter lend an analytical eye to whether the $100 billion in ed stimulus cash is having the sea change impact we expected.
Their findings?:
* Stimulus dollars are being used primarily to make up for cuts in state and local budgets, with most of those cuts coming in the HR arena
* Districts are confused by mixed messages from the US Department of Education as to whether stimulus bucks are intended to preserve jobs or advance reform
* ARRA spending is being driven by existing processes and expected inertias in many school districts (instead of by the reform priorities in the stimulus rhetoric)
* In districts that used ARRA dollars in a strategic way, it went more to local leadership, local capacity issues, and local factors, instead of to federal reform priorities
* The edu-problems ARRA intended to solve aren’t going away
For those at the district or building level, such findings should be no surprise.  Stimulus money was primarily for stopping the bleeding, not for inventing new 21st century educational sutures.  So once the money passes from the feds to the states to the localities, those much needs dollars are used for tactical needs, not strategic visions.
What can we learn from these findings?  Bellwether and Education First offer a few insights.  First, federal funds won’t generate reform unless they are attached to clear reform requirements (does Eduflack hear NCLB?  Anybody?).  Competitive grants (like RttT and i3) have the greatest chance of driving reforms.  Formula-based programs, not so much.  Reform plans need to be strategic.  Policymakers need to support strategies that build capacity of all types (data, analytic, research, instructional).    
Most interestingly, Conflicting Missions touts the importance of advocacy in the reform process.  During the NCLB era, we lost this point, believing that the federal stick was enough to force long-term change.  It didn’t work.  In the early days of ARRA, we re-found the importance of advocacy, with the EdSec and other ED officials working hard to reach out to key groups and stakeholders so they understood the problems, what ED was doing to fix those problems, and the expected outcomes we would all reap following the fix.
Heading into ESEA reauthorization, we have lost some of that focus on advocacy.  But history tells us that effective public engagement is the best way to drive real and lasting reforms and improvements.  Erect a big tent and give all stakeholders a voice.  Make the process open and public.  Make clear the problem and the available solutions.  Give stakeholders a choice on such solutions, making clear that ED’s vision is the best for the current situation.  Underpromise and overdeliver on the agreed solutions.  Rinse and repeat.
Yes, Conflicting Missions focuses on ARRA.  But it also offers some real lessons for moving ESEA forward in 2011.  The big question, will anyone listen.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack has provided counsel to Bellwether Education Partners.)

  
 

Investigate-ED

Over the weekend, Darrell Issa (CA), the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made clear that investigations are a-coming to our nation’s capital in 2011.  The new GOP majority in the US House of Representatives plans to investigate the Obama Administration on a host of policy and political issues, all in the name of transparency and accountability.

What does all this mean for education?  Possibly quite a bit.  We still have many people about town licking their wounds from the investigations into the NCLB-era Reading First program.  So what could Issa and the “Investigations Committee” have up their sleeve for education in the coming Congress?

Stimulus Funding — According to the US Department of Education, $89 billion has been provided through the Recovery Act for education, saving an estimated 300,000 education jobs.  How has that money actually been spent?  Why is so much of the available education stimulus funding still untapped?  Are states spending the dollars, or holding them back for a rainy day?  How real are those job estimates?  The Stimulus may be a bigger topic for for Issa and company, but how billions of dollars has been spent by the K-12 establishment is likely to be a storyline.

Race to the Top — By now, we all know about the $4 billion spent on RttT.  So let’s look into the Round 1 scoring and the discrepencies across review panels.  What about the huge differences in Round 2 scores before and after oral defense?  How hard were states’ arms twisted to change laws and adopt policies in order to qualify for money they never got?  And then, more importantly, how is the money being spent?  What vendors are now raking in the big RttT bucks?   It may be greatly unfair, but many a pundit and so-called policy maven will expect to see tangible results in Tennessee and Delaware next year, only a year after winning the grant.  If we don’t see marked improvement …

Investing in Innovation — The i3 program brings many of the same questions coming to Race.  Why were so many school districts unsuccessful in winning, while advocacy groups and “friends of the program” won big?  What about discrepencies across the different review panels?   

Edujobs — Just because so many folks seem to dislike the program, it would make a great investigation, particularly since many school districts are holding the money back for next school year or the following.  Did it actually save a job for the 2010-11 school year?  And at what cost?

General Favoritism — This was the great hook of the RF debacle.  The Bush Administration allegedly steering contracts, funding, attention, and well wishes to their closest friends and family in the reading community.  What goes around, comes around, I fear.  Imagine those hearings to see what orgs are sitting at the table to write the education stimulus and ESEA reauth?  Who helped develop criteria for RttT, i3, and other programs?  What orgs are now reaping the benefits of their “help” on moving education improvement forward?  And who is in the pipe to benefit from proposed funding consolidation and competitive grants, as proposed in the president’s budget?

Are such investigations fair?  Hardly.  But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen.  Education is one of those interesting policy topics, where everyone believes they know best.  We all went to school, after all, and thus our ideas are the most important.  Over the past 18 months, we’ve spent a great deal of education dollars.  There have been real winners and real losers.  And if the House GOP is serious about reducing federal spending and federal power, going after federal education can be a powerful rhetorical device. 

So what’ll it be, Mr. Issa?  Is federal education on the hit list, somewhere between healthcare reform and cap and trade? 

A Choice Between Edujobs and Edureform?

Last week, Eduflack wrote about recent efforts by Congress to provide some needed funding for teachers’ jobs by cutting funding for many of the education reforms, like Race to the Top, just enacted or increased last year.  Today, I’ve got some additional thoughts on the matter over at edReformer.  In this post, I ask whether we really should be sacrificing school improvement for a year of teachers’ salaries, and if we do, who ultimately pays the price?