Stretching the School Dollar

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Stretching the School Dollar

My profound belief in education has led me to become a student of the intricacies of state budgets and school finance in the United States. Here's my review of a provocative book, which argues that schools can and must improve dramatically without additional resources – even, despite budget cuts.

I wish there were ten more books like Stretching the School Dollar.

It’s a very readable examination of what’s wrong with how we spend money on public education in the United States today, and how to fix it. Each chapter is written by a different expert. Most chapters are case studies that vividly illustrate important problems and actual solutions. I’ve been reading widely about state budgets and school finance. This book is one of several (another is Marguerite Roza’s Where Do School Funds Go?) that I’ve found interesting and useful.

It’s also very timely, because school dollars over the next several years will not be growing much, if at all. State budgets are under tremendous pressure. Federal stimulus dollars are drying up. And because education takes a big share of state spending (along with rising healthcare costs, which add to the pressure), schools are facing cutbacks almost everywhere, with no sign of relief in the near future.

This is extremely unfortunate, because education is probably the most important state program, the most significant and consequential in terms of long-term impact on people’s lives, on our society, and on our economy and competitiveness. U.S. education is far from perfect; by many measures of educational achievement, we lag behind other advanced nations. We need to improve dramatically. But a lot more money is just not available. In fact, we need to do more with less.

Which is why it’s so important now that we figure out how to spend education dollars more effectively. Stretching the School Dollar is very helpful in illuminating the challenges and the opportunities. (The book grew out of a January 2010 conference in Washington, DC. You can read earlier drafts of the chapters at the American Enterprise Institute conference website, along with transcripts of panel discussions.)

One of the authors, Nathan Levenson, is the former superintendent of schools in Arlington, Massachusetts. He led Arlington to award-winning growth in academic achievement despite declining budgets. He explains how he did it, by challenging old ways of doing things and what he calls a "poverty mentality." He reallocated resources from clearly ineffective programs to focus district efforts on a few key priorities, including a common curriculum, professional development for teachers, and "an unrelenting focus on reading." These changes produced major gains in student achievement, but also angered laid-off crossing guards, redundant administrators sent back into the classroom, and others whose programs were cut or eliminated. In the end, Levenson faced fierce criticism, abuse and even threats against him and his family. Bruised and battered, he resigned after three years. But he has sensible suggestions on how other reform-minded superintendents might avoid his fate.

Marguerite Roza, who consults on education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has a great chapter that points out a simple change that would really help us better understand our options in spending education dollars. We’d have much greater clarity, she says, if we simply looked at the numbers on a per-student basis. For example, one school district considered remodeling a stadium to improve its running track at a cost of $4.3 million. That price tag sounded reasonable until they figured out that, over the track’s 50-year lifespan, with a track team of 40 students per year, the project would cost $2,000 per student per year. The district was spending only $9,000 per student for everything. They decided to keep their old stadium.

Surprisingly, schools often don’t break down the numbers this way before deciding how to spend their money. When they do, sometimes the numbers are just stunning. It would be great if the numbers and the tradeoffs could be simplified and made more available to the public, so that everyone has a chance to consider them. As it is, people tend to just want infinite resources for education and many other programs, but they don’t want to pay more in taxes. Everyone needs to get involved in thinking more realistically about the alternatives.

The authors of Stretching the School Dollar all work in education and believe in education. They don’t like seeing cuts in education any more than anyone else. But the authors are tackling tough questions and putting forward interesting ideas for how we can educate more students more effectively with the resources we have. Because education is so important, and the dollars available for it are getting more precious all the time, I hope many people will read the book and think about how to put some of these ideas into action.


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