The state’s budget is shrinking. So how do you slash spending for public education and simultaneously establish world-class schools?
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Fiscal efficiency in education is an obvious priority for every state, but when 34.4 cents of every dollar in your budget goes to funding public education, that priority takes center stage.
Last February, at the request of then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner, the Leadership for Educational Achievement in Delaware committee presented an extensive study titled “Cost Efficiency in Delaware Education.” In its report, the committee identified between $86 million and $158 million it said could be redirected from the state’s $1.6 billion education budget to more efficiently improve teaching and learning through public education. It wasn’t a silver-bullet solution to the problem of better education for less money, but it was a start.
LEAD made 16 “efficiency recommendations” to the state in seven different categories—including transportation, salary and benefits, and construction—identifying savings that would be captured at the state, district and school levels. But folks like LEAD committee chair Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals say reexamining the state’s education budget was the relatively easy part. The difficulty comes with implementing change.
“Frankly, Delaware supports public education pretty well,” says Schoenhals, who heads Vision 2015, the 28-person educational reform coalition from which LEAD sprung. “Right out of the box you can see that our spending is on a good level, but that we’re not getting our money’s worth in terms of student performance.”
The good news, it seems, is that this problem is somewhat obvious to everyone concerned. The bad news is that even with such detailed reports as the one filed last year by LEAD, no singular, simple solution has emerged. Opinions on the matter are as varied and diverse as the state’s 21 public school districts.
Some point to a need for more nuanced teacher accountability. Others say early childhood education is the key—such as statewide full-day kindergarten. And more still decry the state’s outdated and cumbersome funding distribution formula, which they claim is the source of most monetary problems. If there is a unifying theme here, it’s that each of these matters will be examined closely as the state prepares to finalize its financial plan for 2010.
But why is public education funding such a perpetually prickly animal to tame? The answer may have to do with some of the abstraction inherent in the system. Unlike the building of roads or the collection of trash, measuring the success of public education is fraught with philosophical differences of opinion and takes a lot of time to measure. (Consider that today’s first graders won’t enter the workforce until at least 2020.)
“It’s no wonder public education funding is so complicated,” says Michael Jackson, of the Office of Management and Budget. “The entire business of public education is complicated.”
Page 3: Cutting Class?, continues...