Paging Willie Sutton

The other day I was with a group of superintendents from large, mostly suburban, school districts.   Among other issues that came up was health care and benefits costs as well as how money from the forthcoming stimulus will be spent.   The superintendents were concerned that, even with the amounts under consideration, the stimulus money would end up being too diffuse to leverage real reform by the time it hit school districts.  They likewise discussed how it’s not marginal dollars but big cost drivers like health care and benefits that are constraining school district budgets.

Those concerns are obviously related.   While the fights around the margins get the headlines, it’s the big cost-drivers that are really squeezing budgets.  And many of those, health care, retirement, and salary escalate almost automatically.    And, it’s big dollops of money that tend to drive reform not small amounts spread out all over the place.  In the end I think the stimulus will end up having enough flexibility and enough money that reform-oriented leaders at the state and district level can do clever things with it.  But there is a bigger issue here that extends far beyond the current economic crisis.

In a recent Forbes column Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli worry that the economic situation, now and going forward, means school reform is dead.   I don’t know about that, the politics are starting to change, but it does seem likely to be harder since traditionally reformers do “buy reform” by linking new funding with changes.   So, while today’s constraints are unlikely to lead to improvements in and of themselves, coupled with attention to the longer-term public finance picture for schools and an acknowledgment that we’re in a jam on both quality and finance this could be the beginning of an important conversation about the P-word and serving kids better within resource constraints. 

Ultimately, though, that conversation will only be as useful as stakeholders are willing to engage with the basic fact that you’ve gotta go where the money is.  That means looking at what drives costs in education and what can be done about it, reforming archaic school finance schemes – especially at the state level, and thinking differently about resources overall.   For an overview of just one debate, it’s hard to do better than Stephen Sawchuk’s Ed Week look at teacher pay and the debate over shifts there.

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