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Budget & Finance Opinion

A Reform Both Parties Can Endorse

By Paul D. Houston — February 21, 2001 4 min read
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If money equals quality education, then administrators must be held accountable for what they spend on purchases.

As promised, education reform is a big part of President Bush’s agenda for the country. Whether education will be the bridge to bipartisan accord in all legislative matters in the new administration remains to be seen, but there are changes that all of us in the education community can institute now, without the help of Washington.The bipartisan goal of education reform is to improve education. But all reform plans cost money. While spending money to change teaching methods and testing procedures may well improve education, what the political parties must champion is the reform of procedures within the education system and in how districts spend the precious funds they currently receive.

There are logistical and philosophical problems with changing education practices. Teachers’ and parents’ groups, for example, may not want the federal government to impose testing that does not connect to the curriculum being taught locally. As the saying goes, “Testing without providing a total support system is like trying to fatten cattle by weighing them.” Likewise, the much-called-for implementation of technology in classrooms is a very expensive proposition, and one supported by no proven correlation between computers and improved education.

Both major presidential candidates, morevover, demanded in the 2000 campaign that there be greater accountability for teachers: If your students can’t read, you will be held accountable and will suffer the consequences. Does this mean the teachers will be fired? Will the school lose its funding? What will happen to the student? Should politicians be held accountable for failing to provide the resources to meet expectations?

A practical and more immediate approach that bypasses these questions is to improve education efficiencies. Just like any business, a school district (under the auspices of its CEO, the superintendent) needs to study and implement best practices. One area ripe for improvement is purchasing.

School purchasing nationwide is estimated to represent expenditures of $115 billion a year. This money buys everything from paper and pencils to fire extinguishers and digital cameras. Yet, the process by which purchasers solicit bids, choose vendors, and complete transactions is paper-heavy and labor-intensive. Schools spend more than $3 billion in systems costs for purchase orders alone. According to estimates from the National Association of Purchasing Management, the administrative costs of handling a single paper-based purchase order run between $120 and $150. Meanwhile, 80 percent of all purchases are for items that cost less than $500.

There is a better and more economical way to do it. “E-procurement” systems for education purchasing are a quick and effective way to save costs, with little to no expense to schools—and with no legislative changes required.

“E-procurement” systems for education purchasing are a quick and effective way to save costs.

Technology, in the form of World Wide Web-based buyer/vendor services, can remove as much as 80 percent of the cost from the process, thus saving schools billions of dollars annually. Our organization, the American Association of School Administrators, is urging its members to make use of this available resource. The AASA represents more than 14,000 superintendents and their districts, with $77 billion in purchasing power. Our sister organization, the Association of Education Services Agencies, manages more than $20 billion in education procurement. Though both organizations work with one particular online system, we want the districts we represent to explore available options and use whichever system is best for them.

What is important is that this technology opens up the field of vendors to lower costs. Purchasing collectively with other districts that need the same goods further ensures low costs. Schools stand to save a lot of money that can be better spent on the needs of students.


Having been a professional education administrator for more than 25 years, I understand the direct correlation between money and quality of education. I’ve been the superintendent of one of the nation’s wealthiest school districts. In these kinds of places, student achievement is generally high. I also led a district that had scarce resources. Sadly, achievement and testing results are lower in such districts.

If money equals quality education, then administrators must be held accountable for what they spend on purchases. Campaign promises aside, the truth is that in recent years, most school districts have seen student enrollment grow, along with expectations for accountability, without a proportionate increase in funding. This situation has grown during our nation’s longest economic boom. Education administrators shouldn’t wait for politicians as they are faced with the challenge to provide more with less.

Improving education efficiencies, through such means as the use of electronic-procurement systems, will go a long way toward fulfilling the promise to improve education in our country. And that’s the kind of accountability we can all count on.


Paul D. Houston is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Reform Both Parties Can Endorse

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