Sensible Talk is author Robert Niles' blog about... sensible things.
May 20, 2013
As some of you might know, both of our children went through appendectomies this school year. At the beginning of the fall semester, appendicitis struck our 15-year-old daughter, who ended up missing more than two weeks of school following her operation and a post-surgery infection. Less than five months later, at the beginning of the spring semester, our 12-year-old son fell sick. The local urgent care misdiagnosed him with rotovirus, so his appendix had been burst for more than four days before the local emergency room correctly diagnosed him and admitted him for surgery. Thanks to a brilliant surgeon, he came through, but not after having to spend an extra week in the hospital on antibiotics following the operation. As a result, he also missed more than two weeks of school.
Even though our children missed so much class time, they weren't excused from their work. They still were required to complete their missed homework assignments, quizzes, projects and tests. And their teachers still had to grade them.
Yet, because we live in California and attend California public schools, their schools weren't paid by the state for any of that work.
You see, California funds its public schools using a formula based on what's called "Average Daily Attendance." What that means, in short, is that if a kid doesn't attend school for a day, that child's school loses a bit of its funding from the state. No matter that absences actually create extra expenses for a school district and its employees, whether it's a teacher meeting after hours with a student and her or his parents to go over missed assignments, or staff members tracking down truants.
In the 1970s, when California courts ruled that funding schools based on property taxes was unfair to kids who lived in poorer communities, the state stepped in to take over the bulk of school funding. It came up with the Average Daily Attendance system, which on first glance seems fair -- schools get funding based on the number of kids they teach. [Here's a PDF that describes California's school funding system in exhaustive detail.]
But paying for education this way creates a couple of devastating consequences for the state's public schools. First, as I illustrated above, funding schools based on attendance rather than enrollment penalizes districts when kids miss school. It's not like a district can send a teacher home without pay for every 20-30 kids who call in sick on a given day. Of course, teachers get sick, too, but when teachers miss a day, they still get sick pay, and the school has to pay for their substitutes.
Economists have a term called "elasticity" to describe how easily an expense or price can adjust in response to another change. In the case of schools, public education funding is highly elastic -- moving up or down based on the number of kids who show up on any given day. However, a school district's costs are highly "inelastic" -- they're fixed based on the number of buildings the district has, and the number of teachers, counselors, and staff members it employs. Districts simply can't open and close schools, and hire and fire teachers on a daily basis in response to student attendance. Businesses hate being in that kind of situation -- it's the roadmap to bankruptcy. So it shouldn't surprise anyone why California schools always seem to be struggling with inadequate funding.
But there's a second devastating consequence to California's way of paying for schools. And it undermines the very reason for why the state took over school funding in the first place.
When students withdraw from a school district in favor of moving elsewhere or going to private schools, the district they leave loses money. But the district still needs to pay for a superintendent, school board, and all of its buildings. If enough students leave, the district can lay off teachers and even close schools, but that process costs money, too -- allocating staff time to decide whom to fire and what to close, and dealing with the inevitable community opposition. If staff reductions involve teachers taking early retirement, they don't come completely off the books, either, as the district's still on the hook for pension and health care expenses. Closed schools stay on the budget, too, as the district still must pay for maintaining those buildings. If a district decides raise money by selling some of its buildings, that decision leaves the district vulnerable to needing to come up with much, much more money at some point in the future to buy land and build new facilities if attendance ever were to rise again, which is why districts are very, very reluctant to sell excess property.
When students leave a district, the district simply can't cut expenses as quickly as it loses Average Daily Attendance income from the state. And when that happens, it leaves a funding deficit for the students who remain behind -- leading to increased class sizes and cutbacks in programs that might prompt more district families to decide to leave for private schools or other districts. Which further reduces school funding.
And as more and more middle class families leave a district, the percentage of students who are poor rises. Their families can't afford private schools or to move elsewhere. Since students from poor families need more school support to succeed -- their parents or guardians can't afford or aren't educated enough themselves to provide homework help, extra books to read, summer camps to attend, or even three good meals a day to eat, the district's costs keep going up as its Average Daily Attendance funding crashes. Title I funding from the federal government for poor students helps close the gap, but lagging test scores by poor students show that even that money can't make up the difference that a lack of support at home creates. Teachers are left to do what they can with their time and limited remaining resources, to try to help.
This is how California's school funding system absolutely devastates districts that are the victim of "white flight." It not only financially punishes districts where students flee to private schools, it encourages the flight of wealthy and middle-class families of all races by leaving those districts with proportionally less funding for wealthy and middle-class students who remain behind. California's current system of school funding effectively subsidizes economic segregation by creating a "death spiral" of ever-decreasing general funding to districts when wealthy and middle-class residents start choosing to send their children to private schools.
If California chose instead to fund districts based on population -- the number of children between the ages of 5-18 who live in that district -- schools wouldn't be financially punished when residents opt for private schools. Instead, district funding would remain much more stable from year to year. If a "white flight" situation emerged again, such as happened here in Pasadena, where 10,000 students fled the district in five years following court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, that district wouldn't lose income. In fact, with fewer students to service, the district could respond by adding programs and academic support for their remaining students -- features that might encourage some middle-class families to stick with the district, or even to come back.
Of course, one person's design flaw is another person's design feature. I'm not naive. I know that there are people in California who don't support public education and who are happy to continue under a system that dries up its funding and public support. But I'm not one of those people, and I hope you aren't, either. If we want to help California's public schools, we need to fight for a more just way of paying for them. We need to start a movement to end the system of funding schools based on Average Daily Attendance and change state law to pay for schools based on district childhood population, instead.
April 17, 2013
Some parents around the country are pulling their kids out of federally-mandated standardized tests this spring. They're hoping that by taking an individual stand against high-stakes testing, they can help change the system.
But opting out of testing is the wrong choice. By taking individual stands against testing, parents are reinforcing the corrosive belief that education is a consumer product. And they're making it easier for opponents to turn more citizens against their local schools.
So how do we get what we want? The same way unions have for a century and more -- we organize. Whether it's joining a national group such as the Network for Public Education or a local organization such as Invest in PUSD Kids, parents will change public education only by working together, and not by acting alone.
If you look closely at the package of "reforms" bring introduced by corporate-backed politicians around the country, you see a common belief -- that education is a consumer product and that schools should be run like businesses.
But great education doesn't yield immediate returns. Education isn't a commodity -- teachers who do wonders for one student might fail another, and vice versa. The simplistic math formulae that allow a management consultant to maximize short-term return on investment in the banking and technology industries can't model the complexity of human learning for millions of students from wildly disparate backgrounds.
By pulling your kids out of state testing, you're acting like a education consumer -- and that's playing straight into the corporate "reformers"' hands. Yes, we need to stand up against the corporate takeover of our public schools. But we won't do that acting individually, as consumers. That's playing on the billionaire's turf. We'll only do this by working together, and becoming a political force -- millions of voters whom the billionaires can't buy.
March 11, 2013
My post last week on the 'myth of the excellent teacher' elicited an intriguing comment from a reader that it should be easier to get rid of the worst of the worst teachers in a school system.
While I agree that abusive or bigoted teachers should find no place in our public education system, I think people who support public education need to think about how we frame our discussion of this issue. If we're willing to frame education reform as a question of "how to lay off bad teachers," then we've already lost. Why? That statement implicitly delivers suggestions that a) teachers are bad and b) schools spend too much and c) cuts are a given. By agreeing to address the "how to get rid of teachers" question, then we've conceded those important points about teacher quality and inevitability of education cuts.
Let's instead reframe the discussion as "how do we increase the number of good teachers available to help our students?" Or, how do we increase the chances that a student will be paired with a teacher who can forge an instructive relationship with that student? As I wrote last week, when we cut the number of teachers available to students in a particular grade at a particular school, we reduce the chances that each student will be matched with a teacher with whom he or she can have that type of productive relationship. Students are individuals, after all, not computer programs or gears in a machine that behave predictably in a given situation. Our students need and deserve human instructors who can adapt to their particular individuals needs, temperaments, and personalities. The more -- and more diverse -- teachers we have, the better the chances that our schools can provide teachers who match with every one of our students.
(Also note how I talk about "our" students. If we're to win back support for public education we must insist upon talking about it as a public good -- a system provided by, accountable to, and of great benefit to all. Public education isn't a consumer product, bought by parents for their individual student. Opponents of public education want to frame education as a consumer product, of concern only to parents and students, so that people without children in the system will be less likely to support the taxes that fund it.)
No, our communities don't have an infinite supply of money to spend on public education. But we do, collectively, have a heck of a lot of available money to spend. The stock market trades at an all-time high. Corporate profits are up, and richest Americans are richer than ever before. There's plenty of money out there to, at the very least, stop laying off teachers and even to start hiring more beyond that. But elected officials never will find the political will to raise taxes on the rich in support of public education if supporters of public schools can't reframe news media discussions about education.
Poverty levels in our schools are rising, thanks to declining purchasing power for working Americans over the past generation. More than half the public students in California today come from families that can't afford to pay for their students' daily lunch. Those students need extra attention, extra guidance and extra instruction from our public schools, to make up for all that they aren't getting at home. And yet, because these students' needs lead them to score lower on standardized tests, our cynically labelled "No Child Left Behind" framework gives their schools less money to meet those needs, enabling additional spending cuts for public education around the country. That leaves communities with less educated workforces, ultimately leading to more poverty and lower student performance. It's a vicious cycle, designed to weaken public education and drive away families who can afford an alternative.
(In California, the system is particularly vicious, as school funding is based upon student attendance days. So if a family chooses to send its child to private schools, that decision costs their local public school district money. Sure that decision reduces the district's cost by having one fewer child to educate, but districts maintain necessary overhead expenses that don't go away when students do -- boards, superintendents, buildings, buses, special education infrastructure, etc. That reduces the per-pupil funding remaining for the students who stay in public schools. Heck, if a public school student is sick for a day and stays home, that leads to school funding cuts. But it's not like a school can send a teacher home for an unpaid day for every 25 students who call in sick. For economists, this is called a highly elastic funding system to pay for highly inelastic expenses. You don't design systems this way unless you intend for them to fail eventually.)
If we want to be able to better match students with teachers, and to improve teachers' abilities to work with an increasingly diverse student body, we need more administrators, not fewer. We need principals, counselors, librarians, and coaches who have the time to get to know students and teachers, to discover strengths and weaknesses and to provide the matching, training and support that both students and teachers need to develop instructive relationships.
But districts can't provide that kind of support to their teachers if they must continue to lay off support personnel in an attempt to minimize the number of teachers they must dismiss to meet reduced budgets. Again, to use a sports analogy, we can't continue to play on this side of the field.
Still worried about getting rid of really bad teachers? OK, let's go there for a moment. There's not a district in America where you can't fire a teacher for cause. If a teacher is abusing a student, or discriminating against protected classes of students, a school board can fire that teacher once they build a case of evidence to support those accusations. But again, a district needs administrators to document those cases. Lay off your "extra" administrators, and there's no one left with the time to document a termination case. What about tenure, you might ask? What about it? For public school teachers, "tenure" simply means that a teacher no longer can be fired at the whim of school officials -- they have to have a reason, such as a documented case for cause, or overall layoffs. I suspect most American don't know that, and believe that tenure means lifetime employment for teachers, no matter what.
Again, that shows why we need to reframe the discussion about public education. If we're talking about the acceptable ways to lay off teachers, we've lost. We need to stop laying off teachers, and start hiring more. That is what we need to be talking about. That is what we need to be fighting for.
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