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.

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
Most public school districts pay for special education services provided to students who go to private schools (testing/assessment for example to diagnosis). In addition, if a student has a disability that is so severe that the public school can not cope and said student needs a special educational environment, it is the public school district that pays for that service. My wife is a special ed teacher at a charter school. Her charter school basically gets extra money from the local district for any student with learning/intellectual differences/disabilities. The district tries to limit the number of students labeled as such because the expense can be drain when resources are tight.

The reality is that we are also as a nation seeing the effect of being able to keep more children born pre-maturely alive. These kids tend to have more developmental issues. We also have more awareness of developmental disorders and families are less prone to hide children.

Throw on top of that heavy metal exposure, pure nutrition, etc. you are going to have high special education costs. The latter expenses you tend to find in poorer districts (who of course can't really afford to properly deal with such students).
It shouldn't really surprise us, the amount spent on special education I mean. It varies state-by-state, but something like 5% of school-age children nationwide have learning disabilities (IQ average or above but with problems learning), and they account for something like half the cost of special education nationwide. This is an unfortunate consequence of something otherwise rather positive -- noticing and helping these kids -- and it's not going to get any cheaper. That part's not going to get any better without more money in the pipeline.
Amen to everything PonderingFool said. What's particularly frustrating to me is that my district has a very high special ed rate related to lead exposure (county with the highest lead rates nationally, IIRC) and high rates related to poor childhood nutrition. The local and state officials who are responsible for lead remediation and childhood nutrition assistance have cut those programs and public health generally, then turn around and bitch about the schools' failures and high rates of special ed and "warehousing" of students in special ed and why do they have to give us so much money for special ed?

Well, it's expensive and it's going to get more expensive, but there ARE causes of learning and behavioral disabilities that society CAN attack, and lead and nutrition are two big ones! And you're the jerks responsible for attacking them! GAH.

It's a small slice, but it just feels so emblematic. Local leaders in particular (and state leaders to a lesser extent) like to blame the schools for everything that's wrong, while refusing to recognize that our students' problems are broad social problems that need broad social solutions, far beyond what the schools are equipped to provide. And it's certainly not like we have spare funding.

There's not a lot to cut, and so much of our spending is mandatory. We also, in my state, have six single-spaced pages of unfunded mandates from the state legislature. That money comes out of our "unrestricted" monies, which in practice means the "ed fund" that pays to hire teachers and buy classroom supplies. We are also, of course, capped in how much we can tax each year, regardless of how much state mandates raise our costs, and we only have a single taxing mechanism.

Meanwhile, the city decided to start taxing local consumption of utilities to the tune of $30,000/year for the school district alone while bragging they weren't raising property taxes while the school district was ... except their utility tax hits the average homeowner harder than the school district tax hike AND the tax they place on the school district (and other local taxing bodies) is passed on to homeowners indirectly. BUT, BY GOD, THEY HELD THE LINE ON TAXES!
Soemthing else to consider: Special education costs are mandated by federal law; they are not something that can be cut.

On the whole, this tends to be a net benefit to society. Now that we recognize the right of every child to an education, many of these special needs students actually graduate from high school and can become more productive members of society.

The downside is that the school districts also spend a lot of money on kids who will never be productive members of society. It's very disheartening to walk into my own kid's building, see a profoundly autistic child who the school is essentially babysitting, and realizing that we have spent probably $60,000 per year on services to this one child, who will never function at a level that allows her to have meaningful work.

This piece of the budget pie is something that is not well understood by the public at large. Routinely, our local papers feature letters to the editor asking why we have "intervention specialists," and why teachers can't just do their job alone.

I wish we could bring those people into my kid's building, so they could see the students who are getting the help they need.

Also frustrating: kids who are identified as "gifted" are NOT entitled to special services under state law.

Please understand that I am not arguing that schools should ignore special needs these students. I just wish our voters would agree to fund the schools at the appropriate level. And that our legislators would agree that gifted kids also need special services to succeed in school.
When I was a student, I and a number of friends ran out of math courses and did dual-enrollment at our local college. None of the colleges we eventually attended had any issues with granting transfer credit for those classes. Another student did the same with Spanish classes. My impression was that, as long as you're doing relatively standard courses and you leave the upper-division classes for your actual college, you'll have no problems getting the credits counted.
>Some local districts have outsourced their AP classes to local community colleges, opting for “dual enrollment” courses instead.

Regarding this piece of the problem, I went to high school in 2000-2004, and we had in-district AP courses for my first two years of high school, and dual enrollment the last two. Very few people from my high school went to SLACs, but the handful of us who did did not get our dual-enrollment courses recognized. Those who went to the dual-enrollment cc or state school did. I don't know if that puts the problem on the SLACs or the school district, but it meant that I was significantly behind my peers in undergrad who did have IB and AP courses.
As to the duel enrollment issues, from my experience, they treat it the exact same way they would treat normal transfer credit from the cc.
So, unless you are trying to go to an ivy league school, you shouldn't have a problem.
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.

Is that your opinion or an evidence-based argument? Sure, experiments suggest that inequality decreases voluntary public goods contribution but that's not what we're talking about here.

DoE statistics show that in real terms, the government spends 50% more per pupil than what it did when I finished high school in '87. The brute fact is that we spend MORE resources on K-12 education as a public good, not less. There is NO good statistical evidence that increased funding increases results--in fact, the best state K-12 systems tend to spend LESS than the national average. Until educators face those facts, all your whining about being starved for resources is just that--selfish whining.

The problem isn't plutocrats. In part it's government--just like other commenters said, the mandates keep piling up and compliance costs keep piling up. At the same time, all those Ed.D's keep coming with new faddy theories so teachers need new stuff and new training, and IT costs rise all out of proportion to any actual evidence they improve education.

If you want to talk about moving the goalposts, make sure you talk about how the education industry keeps moving the goalposts to demand more and more money while delivering less and less (anyone want to provide evidence that today's students are getting a better education than I did for 2/3 the cost?).

And I agree with Exurban Mom about gifted students. One reason my wife and I started homeschooling is that we got tired of seeing special ed kids with multiple staff in attendance while our kids sat around because they'd finished their work and the staff was too busy to find them something more challenging.

DD, it is interesting to hear you explain the differences that you see between k-12 and higher ed.

Even in good times I thought it was crazy that both the state and the federal governments would mandate something for education; but NOT supply the funding.

I'm in a good size school district so that hiring one special ed teacher does good for several students. But, I have family who live in much, MUCH smaller school districts where the choice is to hire one special ed teacher for just one student or pay a huge fee to send that one student to a neighboring district. Even when it is cheaper to send the kid to another school there is the down side that it is not easy for the kid, especially for some special ed kids, to go so far away for school. Three hours on a bus each day is way too much.

Unfortunately, here in my state (as with so many others) the burden for paying for k-12 schools falls on the shoulders of homeowners. With the economy in the shape its in folks just don't have the money to continue paying for things. When towns don't just talk of cutting police and other emergency services; but actually do cut the police force then the problem is serious! (Camden, NJ laid off 50 percent of its police, yikes!)

I wish that I had an answer, but I don't.
All of my dual-enrollment credits transferred but I went to a small Christian college.

I was identified as "gifted" in kindergarten and I am convinced the last thing I needed was special status or attention. I did end up doing two years of dual-enrollment--took all of my classes at the local cc--because I said I was bored and it was a compromise that everyone could live with.

But here's the truth: being told I was gifted did me absolutely no favors. On the contrary, it made me pretty insufferable and it made it very difficult for me to understand that being smart doesn't mean you get to be dismissive of other people or that you don't have to study.

I'm pretty convinced I'd be a lot better off if I hadn't tested into the so-called gifted program. The only time gifted ed did me any good was the year we had it one period each day as a kind of homeroom for nerds and then it was primarily helpful because it gave me a core social group (see: homeroom for nerds).

Educationally, I needed to learn
to do my work with more care and to understand the concepts being taught more deeply without dismissing the whole thing as beneath me.

My personal opinion is that dual-enrollment is far more productive than AP classes. With AP classes, you have high school teachers trying to teach college level material, and some of the teachers simply aren't cut out for it. (Having said this, I also will say that some high school teachers are better than those in the colleges, so it's really hit and miss.) If the teaching quality isn't so great and the teacher opts for a crappy textbook, they students are putting themselves through a lot of work for a mediocre grade on the exam that may or may not give them college credit.

With a dual-enrollment course, you have a course that most colleges (minus the really exclusive ones) will recognize and grant transfer credit...regardless of the teaching quality.

The down side of dual-enrollment, however, is if you make the student pay the tuition and it is prohibitively high (versus the $75 AP exam fee) and/or they can't receive student aid, you've essentially forced kids from poor families back into a normal classroom and denied them the opportunity to take advanced classes.
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.


Also, dual enrollment is an idea whose time has come - would that we were all like Washington State and allowed high school student to take college classes instead of high school for the last two years. It would save the state all kinds of $$. It allows kids who are able to move ahead and in California, produces a huge cost savings when those students graduate early (and start working and paying taxes).
One last thing - the decrease in the level of lead in the environment is one of the unsung public health victories of the last half of the 20th century. Taking lead out of gasoline precipitously dropped the background level of lead exposure for people throughout the country but we still have folks living in poorly maintained homes that suffer from lead poisoning. It's not sexy - but if we had invested stimulus money in lead and asbestos removal projects instead of solar, we would have achieved greater public good - at least in the short term.
My top 5 SLAC accepted my community college credits for psychology and statistics, but not for typing. It also accepted my local university credits for calculus 2 and 3. It accepted some AP credits, but not other AP credits. A friend who went to Caltech got none of his AP or Associate's credits accepted, but MIT would have accepted some of them.
When it comes to students with serious disabilities, why isn't there some sort of "ability to benefit from education" requirement?

My HS had a girl who was completely brain-dead -- she not only couldn't communicate, she couldn't respond to stimuli other than perhaps a reflexive jerk in response to a sharp poke.
She had two full-time attendants, one to wheel her around on a gurney and look after her vital signs and one to take notes for her (WHY???!!!) She also got her own "gym teacher" who basically just stretched her legs and arms for an hour while the rest of us were trying to duck serious injuries as our psychopathic gym teacher made us play dodgeball with basketballs.
Absurdly, she was placed in all of the honors and AP classes, apparently because the honors students were "nicer" to her (not that she would've known the difference...)
The craziest part? Even though she never took a test, wrote a paper, or even heard a word a teacher said, she was given a diploma after 4 years! Plus someone gave a special graduation speech about how "brave" she was and how "she taught us so much." It was totally bizarre, but her mom was on the school board.

At the same time that she had two full-time and one part-time staff, the whole school was in a "paper shortage" where each teacher was limited to making 100 xeroxes for the semester (which came to less than 1 per student). They stopped putting toilet paper and paper towels in the bathrooms and there were no napkins with lunch (the janitor must have loved that one...) Teachers had to either spend their own money or write their test questions on the board and have us write our answers on notebook paper.

I suspect that the salary of ONE of her attendants could have supplied the whole school with paper products for two years.

I'm not against providing special services to disabled students who can benefit from them, but why should one brain-dead student's "right to an education" take so many resources that every non-disabled student in the school suffers?
She didn't benefit from her "education." I suspect that the only people who really benefited were her parents, who didn't have to quit work or spend their own money on nurses and babysitters.
Eileen and Eric @ 6:35AM:

The advantage of dual enrollment classes over AP classes is that you get a year's worth of college credit for a year's worth of college work; you only get half of that for a year's worth of HS AP work. In addition, the odds that the course will count toward a STEM major (such as engineering) go up significantly. For example, nearby Wannabe Flagship will take your AP credit but you will still have to take the "real" physics class to get into engineering school.

Private schools (or even public schools in another state) vary. For example, the physics class taught at my CC will transfer to Well Known Top University as well as Wannabe Flagship for engineering majors, but was not accepted at Famous University for a physics major (they would have taken it for an engineering major) because they have a special course for physics majors. They wouldn't have taken the class if the student transferred from Wannabe Flagship instead of here.

And the case of Well Known Top University is a special case, because they know us. The course might not transfer to a comparable university in a different region. But so what? If you learned the material, you are ahead of the game when you take the harder class they require.
If I met a genie in a bottle and s/he granted me three wishes, the FIRST would be to end dual enrollment. Seriously.

In some states, this is approached reasonably, and students leave HS and trek to the local cc or uni and take actual college classes. But too often, it's a way to farm out HS teaching so that HS don't have to offer advanced classes.

Without exception, I believe that IB and AP are far better preparation for college than dual enrollment. (FWIW, my day job puts in me in constant contact with "high ability students.")

The worst case scenario is that a student takes 3-4 dual enrollment courses and starts college on academic probation because yes, Virginia, those credit do become part of your permanent transcript. A 15-yr old does not necessarily have the maturity or study skills to take a college level class. We also find--consistently--that student who took dual enrollment courses offered in their HS do not learn as much as students who take the same course in college.

We've also followed the credits, and have not found that these students graduate any sooner. That is, starting HS with an associate's degree that you earned in HS does not mean that you will graduate from college in 2 years. Thankfully.

But, what DD really asked is whether these credits transfer and I think the other comments were correct: public schools generally take them b/c we are required by law to do so. Most of the time, we'd rather not. Private schools may then do what they wish, and they are wise to reject the credits.

Why can't we let HS be HS and college be college? Whatever happened to the idea of a college preparatory curriculum?

Two brief comments. I think I saw only one mention of taxes here. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen less than 1% tax increases that would have provided school districts with millions of dollars voted down.

Second, government spending, whether federal or local, on education is uneven. If there's 50% more spending on education, my guess is that it didn't get spread out evenly.
Having worked in admissions at three Ivy+ institutions I can say that dual enrollment has very little impact on admissions. The classes are generally looked on as something a student applying to a top tier university should be taking advantage of.

Regarding receiving credit for these classes, it depends on the departments. Most often though, because these are measures a top applicant should be taking they are not given the same weight as courses taken as an "actual" college student. If any credit is given, it is usually for lower level courses...often courses that on face value be equivalent to "course 102" will only be given credit for "course 101."
>>I can't tell you the number of times I've seen less than 1% tax increases that would have provided school districts with millions of dollars voted down.<<

My district did just approve a referendum - but to be fair, a 1% tax increase doesn't mean your taxes go up by 1%; it means that you have to pay and additional 1% of the value of your home every years - for most people, that means that you're giving up $1,000-$2,000 per year, every year.

As I said, my district did pass such a referendum, barely. But for median people living in median homes in my area, this means that a family with an income of $40,000 has to vote to pay $1,300 more in taxes for the schools. This may well be a good thing, but it's also a *hard* thing, and I don't think you should act like a 1% tax increase is barely noticeable.
You had me at "catastrophic upward redistribution of income that leads inexorably to straitened resources for public goods." I suspect the causal arrow also runs the other way.
I don't think you should act like a 1% tax increase is barely noticeable

Here in Toronto, one of the things boosting the popularity of our current mayor during his election was his pledge to eliminate an 'odious' $60/vehicle fee per year, as well as an equally unloved 5¢/plastic bag fee*.

These fees are, effectively, unnoticeable. Meanwhile the same people who complain about these also complain about the President we don't have — leading me to believe that this current populist surge is being manipulated somewhere.

*Which isn't collected by the city, isn't enforced by the city, and although it started here is now charged all over the country.
Our K-12 funding is provincial, so local boards have lost a lot of autonomy. We can't increase local taxes to pay for special programs or interests -- money has to be massaged within the parameters that the province allows. (Meanwhile, welfare is funded on the local tax-base but provincially mandated: there's a tougher spot!)

I have two kids in the K-12 system. One's in special needs with some integration; the other's in the IB. Both of them, I recognize, consume an outsized share of educational resources because we aggressively pursued one's autism diagnosis and accommodation (it's very real, but it is manageable so much that this child performs at a top level in academic-stream courses) and we pushed the other child to take advantage of the opportunity available.

Informed parents and unfunded mandates can be a particularly invidious combination, I suspect!
the fact is, public schools can't assume the fiscal responsibility of all of the 'special ed' that is required/demanded now.

my biggest problem with this is that the schools spend much more money on the "lower" 10% than the "upper" 10%.

in our district, if a child exhibits enough of a behavior problem, the school must provide them with a one-on-one assistant that is with them throughout the entire day. boom. $50k down the drain for one student.

our district has what is called a "secondary school", which is a school just for kids who have been expelled, who consistently have behavior problems, and for pregnant girls. my problem with is that the public is paying for a specialized school for those who have problems. there is no special school in my district for the top 1% of students; a place that lets them advance at a faster rate (than the normal kids who hold them back).

there's ADD, ADHD, ODD (a joke IMO), Down Syndrome, Autism, malnutrition.... all are problems that must be accomodated at every school, most of the time by 1 or 2 guidance counselors and special needs teachers. the special ed teacher at my wife's school always has bite marks on her arms from when she has to subdue a spec-ed student who is in a fit of rage (to keep him from harming others).

my wife's school has a guidance counselor, a special needs teacher (who handles kids who can attend regular class 'part time'), and a special ed teacher (down syndrome, autism...) who also has an assistant (this is for a school population of around 300 or so kids). there is no teacher who is dedicated entirely to the top 5-10%.

it's only getting worse. now, the gov't gives welfare to families that make below a certain amount and who have a child with a 'disability' (on a per child basis, meaning 5 kids with disabilities is 5 times the welfare). disabilities are determined via the standardized testing done by the school in 1st or 2nd grade. ergo, at my wife's school, parents who are aware of said welfare often complain when their child passes the test, and petition the district to allow their child to retake the test because the "know that their kid is behind". of course, the kids are coached to fail the second time by the parent, and voila, parent gets extra welfare, kid gets told their not smart, gets put into remedial programs, and falls behind even though they were fine. happens every year.
K-12 is full of permanent substitute teachers.
The whole point of "dual enrollment" is to take our current model of HS -- warehousing for our feared and hated children -- to its logical extreme. Since the only purpose of HS is to kill time until college, why wait four years instead of two? It's the same statement as the AP classes.
I agree with those who believe that much of the money spent on special ed students is wasted. The story of the brain-dead girl with two full time assistants is jaw-dropping. There should be an expense cap imposed. No child should be able to demand more than, say, a 100% surcharge to the average expense per child. Beyond that level, society should have no responsibility for education.

Also, I'd like to see studies that prove that the special ed efforts have led to productive taxpayers, not people leading a life on welfare anyway.

We are underinvesting in kids with the most promise, overinvesting in those with the least. All the in the of someone's idea of "equality." If you try this with your stock portfolio, you'll soon be bankrupt.
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