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Education Opinion

Optimizing & Rethinking

By Rick Hess — February 04, 2013 4 min read
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With sequestration looming, state leaders besieged by claimants eager to restore funds cut during the recession, and large new state outlays for Medicaid about to kick in under the Affordable Care Act, it’s safe to say there won’t be a lot of new dollars for K-12 any time soon. That makes it more vital than ever that schools and districts do everything they can to squeeze the most juice out of the resources they’ve got.

I note in the about-to-be-released Cage-Busting Leadership, there are two strategies when it comes to using resources more effectively and “stretching the school dollar": optimizing and rethinking. Optimizing is about doing familiar things better, while rethinking is about devising better, cheaper, smarter, faster ways to use talent, tools, and resources.

Optimizing the Familiar: One way to get more bang for the buck is to improve the operational efficiency of today’s schools and systems. This includes straightforward steps like using buses more efficiently or constructing class schedules in more cost-effective ways. For instance, in Clark County, Nevada, with more than 350 schools, bus drivers were starting and ending every day by walking into an office to punch their time card, costing the district about five minutes per driver per day. The district installed a device that would clock drivers in when they started the bus. It cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to install these devices in the entire fleet, but the savings paid for the installation in fewer than two years--and then started to save the district hundreds of thousands annually.

Automation and streamlining can eliminate waste. Lynn Bragga, budget director at Richmond Public Schools in Virginia, says the district used to spend $52 million a year for supplies. An audit found some schools paying $1 a box for paper clips that cost less than thirty cents a box under a centralized contract. In Chicago, where the system had too many managers, duplicative functions, and haphazard job titles and salaries, restructuring the central office helped the district save $25 million a year. One veteran business manager said part of the problem is the lack of importance district leaders accord to operations: “Leaders need to stop using the non-education side of the house as a place to dump nonproductive school administrators.”

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, has noted that the median district uses 87 percent of its bus fleet on a given day, while low performers use just 69 percent. In a district with one hundred buses, moving from the bottom to the middle in bus utilization would allow a district to sell sixteen vehicles. At the expected rate of depreciation, that would yield savings of about $320,000 a year. With regard to custodial services, a district with 10 million square feet of buildings and a below average assigned custodial workload of 14,792 square feet per custodian could save $5 million annually by increasing the workload to the median of 25,536 square feet. Given that a district with about fifty schools serving thirty-six thousand students could easily have 5.5 million square feet of floor space, such districts could be eyeballing savings of nearly $3 million a year.

Rethinking: Cage-busters work hard to optimize schools and systems. But they’re not content merely doing the same things better. They also seek smarter ways to use teams, data, and technology to deliver teaching and learning in better, cheaper, and faster ways.

Steven Wilson, founder of Ascend Learning charter schools, notes that at SABIS International Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts, students are placed in grades by skill level, not age, allowing teachers to succeed with classes of thirty or more students. SABIS founder Ralph Bistany says, “We need to define the word ‘class.’ Every course has a prerequisite--concepts that the course is going to use but not explain. That list of concepts determines who belongs in the class and who doesn’t.” SABIS dramatically outperforms the local district, even though its class sizes are eight students larger and it spends nearly $1,000 less per pupil. Indeed, at SABIS, low-income and African American tenth-graders outperform the average student statewide on the state assessment.

John Chubb, CEO of Education Sector, has written about the potential savings of redesigning schools to take advantage of new instructional technology. Chubb writes, “Elementary students might work online one hour per day, middle school students two hours per day, and high school students three hours per day... If online instruction is supervised in double-sized student groups in grades K-8 and triple-sized groups in high school, the teacher savings... from online courses could average nearly 8 percent annually--or $800 per student in a $10,000 per-year per-student school budget.”

Anyways, just something to chew on. If this is at all interesting, you can learn more about Cage-Busting Leadership or order a copy here.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.