Budget shortfalls, the end of federal stimulus money, declining revenues from state and local property taxes and increased pressures on the public purse for Medicaid expenses are all factors that suggest the current budget situation is the new normal.
Because K-12 education comprises about 37 percent of the state budget there is naturally much concern about teacher layoffs and how best to minimize the impact of budget cuts on the classroom.
Unfortunately, too often school officials and policymakers are blinded by the crisis of the moment and usually opt for the path of least resistance: across-the-board budget cuts. While such decisions may be equitable, over time broad reductions can cripple good programs. More importantly, however, across-the-board cuts only serve to delay what’s really needed: tough budget decisions.
So, how can policymakers and school officials best operate in the “new normal”? How can they make good budget decisions and minimize the impact of budget cuts on the classroom? First, I’d suggest a healthy dose of long-term thinking for state policymakers. Five key concepts can guide this discussion and help North Carolina schools navigate and prosper in this new era.
1. Reward Excellence. We are quick to trumpet the accomplishments of our schools. Unfortunately, the only real reward is publicity. We congratulate our best schools, give them a banner to hang on the side of the school and say “good job.” If our priorities are known by our incentives, then excellence is not high on that list. State funding to North Carolina schools is distributed by a complex set of funding formulas designed to ensure schools have the funding they need to provide a “sound basic education” and to ensure monies are distributed where needed. Schools receive money to serve at-risk populations, dropouts, special education students, school construction etc. If schools are failing; they receive additional resources and help from turnaround teams. Do we provide financial rewards for schools whose performance exceed expectations or are administered in an exemplary fashion? No doubt critics will point out that North Carolina has provided teacher and employee bonuses for good schools under the ABCs program. Criticism about the rigor of ABC testing and multiple stories about how employees have gamed the testing system discredit many of these efforts. The harsh reality is we’ve incentivized nearly everything but excellence. There are few structural or one-time incentives for schools to be excellent. Until the incentives and culture changes, all the talk about excellence will be just that, talk.
2. Empower those who can effect change. Considerable research points to the importance of principals in defining a positive school culture and improving student achievement. Principals have one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We ask them to administer schools, be chief problem solver, be an advocate for children and also along the way, cultivate a strong faculty. We ask them to shoulder all the responsibility and be accountable for their schools, yet we give them little or no authority to control the conditions for success. If principals are to be held accountable, we need to give them the power to hire and fire. Without the ultimate power over personnel, principals will lack the ability to truly impact teaching and learning and shape a culture conducive to student success.
3. Flexibility is good. To help Local Education Authorities (LEAs) better address local priorities, last year the General Assembly gave LEAs more flexibility regarding spending decisions. Unfortunately the flexibility wasn’t permanent. Nevertheless, it was a good decision, because it gave authority to those closest to the problem to fix the problem. It also recognizes that districts have different needs and populations. More flexibility for LEAs is a theme that is also echoed by the recommendations of the Joint Legislative Committee on Public School Funding Formulas. North Carolina distributes funding allotments based mostly on total enrollment. There are pre-determined allotments for textbooks, instructional materials, non-instructional support and technology. Providing LEAs with one block grant to allocate as they best see fit will save administration and will give LEAs more financial flexibility, a valuable asset in a time of tight school budgets.
4. Reward Good Teachers. Teaching is hard work and one of the most important keys to boosting student achievement. However our current system of teacher compensation in North Carolina lacks connection to any measure of teacher or student performance. Teachers are paid based on two things: years of experience and possession of advance degree or credential. Rather than rewarding good teachers, the current system contributes to the crisis by paying good and bad teachers the same salaries. The current system of pay keeps salaries low on the front end of a career — when teacher productivity is high — and rewards teachers with higher salaries later in their careers – when they are generally less productive. Professor Jacob Vigdor of Duke University has written persuasively on these problems and why North Carolina should scrap the current way North Carolina pays teachers. Bonuses paid out under the ABC testing program are awarded school wide to all employees, not just teachers. As good teachers and bad teachers receive the same bonus, it can’t be called a program that rewards individual performance. Merit pay systems such as those operating in Dallas and Denver can help to correct these problems and reward teachers – not according to experience – but for actual work and their results. When teachers are compensated fairly – as individuals – teacher morale will improve and the brightest minds will begin to consider teaching as a career field.
5. Embrace Customized Education. Much of our current education system is built upon a 19th century industrial model that says education is best delivered by placing a teacher in the front of every classroom for eight hours. If a student is good, does his or her work, somehow magically along the way education occurs. Such a model is no longer credible or desirable. The explosion of technology and our knowledge about different learning styles has helped bring about online and virtual education and open new worlds to students and school districts alike. Virtual schooling can provide students with classes ranging from remedial education or advance placement classes, all usually at a fraction of what it would cost most school districts to offer. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School has spent much of his career trying to coax public schools to replace outdated centralized models of education with ones that are student-centric and meet the needs of individualized students. Of course there will be pushback from entrenched interests, but the sooner we embrace the changes the better. North Carolina already has the second largest virtual school in the nation. States like Florida are doing exciting work in this area and even starting to combine online and traditional instruction with favorable results. Virtual, online and blending instruction offers many opportunities to not only improve individualized instruction but offer cost savings to tax payers. States and school districts that ignore this revolution do so at their own peril.