Getting More Bang for the School Buck

America's schools are facing tight budgets, and the situation is likely to get worse. But educators are failing to answer the call. Too often, leaders have kicked the can down the road and then had to slash clumsily at the last minute, rather than using this as an opportunity for smart leadership.

It doesn't have to be this way.

There are a number of ways for educational leaders to slash spending: by tightening up operations, rethinking staffing and using technology smartly. They will not only save money in an era of tight budgets but will have the chance to turn schools and districts into leaner, more effective organizations.

Smart savings: The Council of the Great City Schools, the nation's primary coalition of large-city districts, has launched a Performance Measurement and Benchmarking Project that allows urban school systems to compare their operational and financial efficiency against their peers. In the first few years of this tool's use, these districts improved the efficiency of their custodians, the age of their bus fleets, the costs of their food supplies, their use of electricity and more. Districts have identified millions of dollars in low-hanging savings.

University of Washington scholar Marguerite Roza has shown how districts can use unit-cost analyses of programs and practices to identify savings. In one district, cheerleading cost the district $1,348 per cheerleader, whereas as the per-pupil cost of golf was less than one-sixth of that. The problem: Cheerleading was offered as a class, requiring a salaried teacher. The superintendent shifted cheerleading to after-school status, saving tens of thousands of dollars without having to eliminate any opportunities.

Teacher costs: Really boosting productivity, though, requires grappling with the cost of teaching. Teacher salaries and benefits amount to half or more of district spending.

Increasing overall student-teacher ratios by about two students per grade, from 15:1 to 17:1, could cut district spending on salary and benefits by nearly 10 percent

The most promising way to control costs without slashing services is to get more value out of each employee. While American schools have been in a multidecade push for class-size reduction--cutting student-to-teacher ratios from 23:1 to about 15:1--this 50 percent increase in staffing has delivered no evidence of academic benefits.

That's not too surprising because, while smaller classes are attractive in the abstract, the need to hire many more bodies tends to dilute teacher quality while making it increasingly expensive to raise teacher pay. Indeed, some high-performing nations, like South Korea and Singapore, have some middle school and high school classes with 40 or more students per classroom.

Increasing overall student-teacher ratios by about two students per grade, from 15:1 to 17:1, could cut district spending on salary and benefits by nearly 10 percent--or save close to $20 million in a midsized urban district. Given the lack of evidence that differences of this size make any difference in teaching or learning, this is an easy opportunity to reap significant savings.

Technology: Another key to fundamentally trimming costs is using technology to reduce staffing needs. Integrating online instruction into the school day--by having elementary students work online for one hour, middle school students for two hours, and high school students for three hours, would free up teacher time and allow a downsizing of school staffs.

Education analyst John Chubb has calculated that such a model could cut spending by perhaps 8 percent--or more than $700 per student in the typical district.

Earlier this year, Kansas City Superintendent John Covington, showed how addressing budget challenges can position districts for future success.

Inheriting a district plagued by a $50 million budget shortfall, half-filled schools and lousy performance, Covington convinced his school board to shutter nearly half the district's schools, sell its downtown central office and eliminate 700 out of 3,000 positions.

Covington's moves are freeing up crucial dollars, eliminating distractions and putting him in a position to focus on teaching, learning and school improvement. Aggressive leadership on the "business" of schooling isn't an end in itself, but it is essential if school leaders are going to have the resources they need to drive improvements in teaching and learning through the stormy seas ahead.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Diane Diederich

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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