Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From K-12 On Up...

The Boy and The Girl attend a pretty good public school district. It’s in a working/middle class suburb, and it punches slightly above its socioeconomic weight in test scores. But it’s hardly rich, and it’s not immune to the recession.

Last week the superintendent mentioned at a public meeting (that The Wife attended) that with federal stimulus funds expiring, the district faces a deficit of unprecedented size. She outlined a series of user fees and layoffs that, taken together, might just barely get the job done if things don’t get any worse.

TW came home from that meeting and showed me the documents the superintendent had distributed. I had hoped that with my extensive experience working with crappy budgets in public education, I’d have something useful to contribute. In thinking through the moves we typically make at the college to deal with budget cuts, though, I realized that the K-12 system is fundamentally different. Some elements of the usual higher ed playbook don’t apply.

- Adjuncts. Higher ed routinely balances budgets by using adjuncts. This model doesn’t apply to K-12 in the systems I’ve seen. Yes, they sometimes split an art teacher between two schools, but that’s hardly the same thing.

- Tuition increases. K-12 can get away with user fees for a few things -- sports, clubs, maybe even buses -- but public education does not charge tuition. (Yes, there are exceptions for out-of-district students, but the numbers of those here are negligible.) This means that K-12 districts can’t try to grow their way out of budget troubles. New students bring new costs, but don’t bring corresponding new revenues.

- Cutting sports teams. Politically, that’s much easier at a cc than at a public high school.

- Transportation. We charge for parking; they pay for buses.

- Contract training. We make money on certain workforce development contracts with local companies, in which they pay us for classes for their employees. The profits go into the traditional instructional budget. K-12 doesn’t have that option.

Generally, the K-12 system doesn’t have as much leverage on the “revenue” side, so it has to work more on the “cost” side.

Some cuts are easier to tolerate than others. One of the best uses we made of stimulus funding was to purchase more energy-efficient equipment across campus; the resulting lower utility bills function as budget cuts, but they don’t hurt. Now the stimulus funding is going away, but we can sustain the energy savings going forward. Unfortunately, the K-12 district used the stimulus funding mostly for operating expenses, so with the funding drying up, they’re marooned.

(I’ll admit being surprised at the percentage of their budget that goes to Special Education. We have an Office for Students with Disabilities, which is large and expanding, but the percentage doesn’t come close to what Special Ed costs. I don’t know exactly what there is to be done about that, but the difference was striking.)

Some local districts have outsourced their AP classes to local community colleges, opting for “dual enrollment” courses instead. The students pay the cc tuition and the high school awards dual credit without having to pay a teacher. That can help on the margins, but it takes a while to establish and doesn’t add up to very much. I’m also not sure how the selective colleges that AP students often target would value dual enrollment classes; any readers with direct knowledge of that are invited to comment.

The district is looking at secretaries, assistant coaches, teacher’s aides, and a couple of freshman teams. It’s also looking at fees for sports, clubs, and parking at the high school. There’s a short-term logic to that. Most of those are the variety of cuts whose damage shows up over time, rather than all at once. As we’ve found on my own campus, when you thin out your administration, some things just don’t get done. Over time, those things add up.

Of course, at some level this all involves denial of the basic truth of a catastrophic upward redistribution of income that leads inexorably to straitened resources for public goods. But saying that doesn’t help solve the problem for July. It just helps me cope when I remember that for all the infighting and awful choices, the real issue is a plutocracy that just keeps moving the goalposts, year after year after year.