A New View of School Spending in the States

By Sean Cavanagh — February 03, 2011 2 min read
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This week I’ve written about states’ efforts to rethink how they’re spending money on schools—basically, making the argument that they need to get more out of them in an era of scant financial resources. In one state I profiled, Idaho, elected officials are calling for a major overhaul of education funding, while in others the changes target individual programs and services.

Why the push for change now? Obviously, some of the momentum is being driven by the bleak condition of state budgets. The political winds have also shifted decisively in the direction of cutting the size of government, with Republicans having seized power in many state capitals.

Indiana’s Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma echoed the argument I’ve heard from a lot of elected officials on school budgets in this economy.

“More spending on K-12 does not translate to improved education,” Bosma told me. “These are difficult conversations to have with local school policymakers. But just as the state is attempting to do more with less, we’re going to have to call on our local public schools to be innovative to find cost-cutting measures, to collaborate and cooperate with others, and not reinvent the wheel.”

Indiana Republicans, with support from Gov. Mitch Daniels, are moving forward with a broad education agenda, emphasizing expanded school choice, scaling back teacher tenure, and other efforts. The primary goal of those measures isn’t cost cutting but school improvement, the House Speaker explained. Bosma noted that Indiana is in relatively good shape financially, compared to other states facing major budget shortfalls, and lawmakers want to protect K-12 programs from unnecessary cuts. But the speaker also said he wants to set higher expectations for schools.

One of the questions we at Ed Week have looked at is whether states’ ongoing budget woes could lead them to scale back some of their so-called “reform” efforts, such as those aimed at changing how teachers are paid and evaluated, as well as job protections and collective-bargaining rights for educators. By the look of all the legislative activity underway in the states on those topics, it seems like the answer so far is no.

Another question about the “reform” agenda is whether these efforts will end up saving states or districts money. On this point I checked in with Mike Griffith of the Education Commission of the States. Griffith broke it down this way: States tend to provide districts with money based on an estimate of what it takes to educate a child, and in some cases, based on average teacher salaries. So if districts could lower those costs, he said, it could, at least in theory, reduce the costs on state budgets, too.

But the cost of some teacher “reform” efforts can be difficult to predict, he noted. For instance, a lot of merit-pay proposals aren’t saving districts money—and in fact, they require an infusion of outside funding. That’s because teachers in those systems are getting bonuses for performing well—but there’s no salary cut for teachers who don’t. The extra income tends to be an add-on, on top of a traditional salary schedule that lifts teachers’ salaries year after year.

Merit-pay programs tend to be popular among the public, Griffith noted, but he questioned whether they would be, if people understood how they’re structured now.

Most people, he observed, “don’t think you’re still getting the base pay with the bonus on top of it.”

During these tough economic times, do you see more states following Idaho’s lead and attempting to rework how they’re spending money on schools?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.