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Federal Opinion

‘Through Fat, Flesh, and Bone’? Duncan Needs Some New Briefing Books

By Rick Hess — August 20, 2010 4 min read
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Yesterday, I discussed our earnest Secretary of Education’s unfortunate proclivity for quick fixes that promise to worsen the budgetary hole districts are in. But that’s not all. In the same briefing where he made it clear that he’s not a big believer in planning ahead, Duncan also made the fantastical claim, to USA Today‘s Greg Toppo, that, “The vast majority of districts around the country have literally been cutting for five, six, seven years in a row. And, many of them, you know, are through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone.” Duncan added, “We want people to be responsible to be efficient, but... the American public [does]n’t understand how tough these cuts have been for a number of years in a row.”

First off, Duncan is just flat-out wrong. I don’t know if he’s misinformed or just pandering, but it’s a ludicrous statement. Duncan’s own National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, reports that, nationally, current K-12 per-pupil expenditures increased from 2003-04 (seven years ago) to 2006-07 (four years ago—and the most recent year for which NCES reports spending) by 17%—from $8,310 to $9,683. That $1,373 bump means that districts have absolutely not “been cutting for five, six, [or] seven years.” Indeed NCES data make clear that nominal school spending nationally hasn’t once declined in the half-century concluding in 2006-07. And even in the past two years, job losses in K-12 have been much more modest than in the private sector. It’s befuddling that Duncan is making excuses for officials bemoaning their twice-a-century belt tightening, rather than encouraging them to take a hard look at benefits, staffing, operations, and management.

As for Duncan’s claim that we’re now slicing into marrow, the Secretary might want to consider this surprising missive from one acclaimed superintendent: “I just wanted you to know that I completely agree—the latest bailout is a huge waste of dollars. This is my fifth year in this District and I have ‘right sized’ the organization—establishing reasonable class sizes, closed schools, retired programs that clearly were not producing any positive gains,...set a new bar for starting salaries of staff, [and]...embrac[ed] a proficiency based system...all without seeking additional funding.”

Duncan, who took pains last week to celebrate the $1.2 billion that Edujobs is funneling to California, might also want to consider the recent Pepperdine study of 52 California districts, which reported that spending rose 21.9% from 2003-04 to 2008-09, outpacing state income growth and inflation. On a per-pupil basis, spending actually jumped 25.8% over that period. Tellingly, despite California’s money woes, spending was flat in 2008-09. Meanwhile, classroom spending as a share of total outlays fell from 59% to 57.8%. Where did the money go? Well, pay rose 28% for certificated supervisors and administrators and jumped 44% for classified supervisors and administrators. Rather than pushing districts to correct for recent profligacy, though, Duncan is encouraging them to prop up payrolls, salaries, and benefits.

Truth is, schools have been trimming staff much less aggressively than other employers. The Rockefeller Institute reports that private sector employment in general has been hit far harder during this recession than the public sector. While local education employment has taken its hardest hit since 1980, that’s not saying much. In three prior recessions, public education actually added jobs while everyone else was cutting. This time round, education employment has declined just 1.3% even as private sector employment has dropped 6.8%. So much for cutting to the bone. In fact, those with a more arduous notion of efficiency than the Secretary’s might want to peruse my forthcoming book Stretching the School Dollar (due out next month from Harvard Education Press), which offers a raft of analyses—from the likes of Mike Casserly, Marguerite Roza, June Kronholz, and Stacey Childress—which explore how districts can get more bang for the buck.

Finally, just the other day, a savvy analyst pointed out to me that ED’s Edujobs guidance stipulates: “An LEA may use Ed Jobs funds, for example, to restore reductions in salaries and benefits and to implement salary increases for the 2010-11 school year. In addition, an LEA may use the funds for any additional salary and benefits costs associated with the elimination of furlough days that had been scheduled.” (See Question D-6 in the “Initial Guidance for States on the Education Jobs Fund Program.”)

In other words, after everything, ED has hung out a big sign announcing that any superintendent who stands fast on salary or benefit cuts is an evil, teacher-hating dog who could have used bailout bucks to forestall such steps. It also means that any union chief who doesn’t dig in his heels is going to look like a sucker and a softie. Preparing schools and districts to thrive in a much grimmer fiscal environment is going to demand sacrifice and tough choices.

When it came to General Motors, government and circumstance conspired to make such measures possible. Here, we see Congress and ED conspiring to make them impracticable.

Nice going, guys.

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