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

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess

What's new on AEI

In year four of Dodd-Frank, over-regulation is getting old
image Halbig v. Burwell: A stunning rebuke of a lawless and reckless administration
image Beware all the retirement 'crisis' reports
image Cut people or change how they're paid
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.