Blog: The Educated Reporter

When It Comes to School Reform, States Face Budget Realities

Is limited education spending holding back reform efforts? While not the title of yesterday’s Education Sector event (it was called Getting to 2014: The Choices and Challenges Ahead) at the National Press Club, the featured education experts and public officials made the case that any push toward a more efficient school system will require more effective investments. 

“We’re under the uncomfortable position right now to have a lot of initiatives underway,” said president of Achieve Michael Cohen, referring to the fact that states currently have to juggle No Child Left Behind rules/waivers while adopting the Common Core State Standards. Add to that the various Race to the Top incentives pushed by the Obama administration, and states are in the midst of a sea change, chasing federal dollars that are being shifted around to various pots.

Since the economic downturn, states have been in a bind to keep up with their education spending requirements. Federal programs like the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund refilled state coffers with $48 billion to spend on education, but budget cuts still took their toll. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities calculated in 2011 at least 23 states were enacting reduced funding measures for their pre-K-12 education budgets for 2012.

These budget restraints require states to spend intelligently, said Tom Luna, who is superintendent of education in Idaho and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. For example, Idaho students who live in the state’s rural areas abutting the Canadian border were in need of calculus teachers but were too spread out for any one teacher to reach them. Instead, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill to supply all public high school students and teachers with laptops. (The package of laws also ushers in a merit pay program for educators.)

Allan Odden, who’s co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, said lawmakers and public policy officials should learn to separate the wheat from the chaff and stay clear of education fads like small schools and elective-heavy curricula. Those in charge of public education should “resist those pressures” from parents, he said. 

As far as implementing Common Core goes (the assessment portion of the state-led initiative is set to roll out in 2014), the transition doesn’t have to be onerous and costly for teachers and districts, the panelists argued. Cohen says in lieu of forcing teachers to shift gears and adopt the new standards wholesale, they should be asked to focus on what’s most important first during the transition period. In reading, for instance, that would mean focusing on text-dependent questions for students—seen as the most crucial element in ELA instruction—first. Meanwhile, math teachers could stop teaching chapters in current textbooks that don’t line up with what the new standards are recommending, Cohen said.

And because in many districts teacher evaluations are undergoing an overhaul, new attitudes toward classroom site visits should be explored, says Odden. Rather than having observers multiple times in the classroom–something he says will cost billions of dollars across the states– teachers could instead be filmed, with the videos then sent offsite for inspection.

 ”There’s a renaissance going on across the country when it comes to education reform,” said Luna. “The tools are there.”