Gov. Newsom Wants to Expand a Dubious Universal Preschool Plan

shocked-kid-apCalifornia’s new Governor Gavin Newsom envisions a future where the state will be involved in your children’s lives from conception to adulthood. Newsom told EdSource in September, “Our role begins when babies are still in the womb and it doesn’t end until we’ve done all we can to prepare them for a quality job and successful career.

Newsom refers to his nanny-state-on-steroids plan as the “California Promise.” If his massive scheme is realized, the only certain promise is that even higher taxes are in store for a state that has already been accurately dubbed as Taxifornia. Particularly pernicious is his idea for universal preschool for 4-year-olds. And that ball is already rolling, as Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty introduced three bills in December that would expand preschool to allow more 3- and 4-year-olds to attend.

There are many problems here. First off, the failing k-12 system in the formerly Golden State is not exactly an enticement to send your kids off for yet another year of subpar education. Our latest NAEP (nation’s report card) scores are pathetic. On the 2017 test, we were near the bottom nationally, with 69 percent of 4th grade students not proficient in both math and reading.

And just what kind of track record does preschool have? A pretty bad one, in fact. Study after study has shown it is an extraordinary waste of money. The last great push for universal pre-k in California – renamed transitional kindergarten (TK) – went down to defeat in 2014. At the time, I wrote that pre-k accomplishes little more than adding unionized teaching and educational support jobs to the state’s payroll – a state that is already over a trillion dollars in debt. Oh, sure, the sales pitch sounds great. As State Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg said, “Expanding transitional kindergarten can be accomplished with just a fraction of increased Proposition 98 funds while saving billions of dollars in the long run by reducing the extra costs of special education, grade retention and juvenile crime.”

In fact, the U.S. has a near 50-year history of funding early-childhood programs in the form of Head Start. The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year program in 2012, and the results offered little cause for jubilation. According to the report’s executive summary: “…there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” The 2012 report reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”

Other studies purporting to show preschool’s benefits also have failed to prove that spending billions on pre-k would be money well spent. Two oft-cited studies, the famous Abecedarian and Perry Preschool projects, for example, are now nearly 50 years old and involved no more than 60 children. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote in 2013, both studies “were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects. Evaluations of social programs are built around lots of judgment calls—from deciding how the research is designed to figuring out how to analyze the data. People with a vested interest in the results shouldn’t be put in the position of making those judgments.”

Also in 2013, the Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst wrote, the group that went through the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program, a full day program for 4‐year‐olds from low-income families “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though [three-quarters] of the children in the control group had no experience as 4-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Whitehurst concludes: “Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy.”

Just last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolled out a $175 million plan to offer pre-k to all 4-year-olds by 2021-22. Commenting on the proposal, education scholars Lance Izumi and Kerry McDonald write that its proponents “often cite the results of an earlier effort, the Chicago Child-Parent Center program for low-income children, to bolster their case for universal preschool.” But it turns out that the Chicago Child-Parent Center program “relied on extensive parent training, a feature notably absent from universal preschool proposals such as Assemblyman McCarty’s in California.”

Izumi and McDonald add, “As psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson of Children’s Hospital in New Orleans noted, if policymakers mistakenly believe that preschool results in better life outcomes, “they may mistakenly invest in these programs when the money might be better invested in parenting-skill programs or other interventions to increase parental involvement.”

Clearly voluntary parental skills programs show much more promise than Newsom’s unproven universal pre-k plan. California’s new state budget will be released soon. Have the smelling salts nearby.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Jerry Brown’s Three Biggest Failures

jerry-brownGov. Jerry Brown is getting the acclaim he deserves in his final days as governor for helping turn around a state that seemed adrift and for being a visionary on climate change. He’s clearly left California for the better. But his biggest failings — his blind spots and, in one major case, his inability to get others in his party to see the bigger picture — threaten crucial aspects of California’s future.

The first example is public education, where reformers emphasizing data-driven best practices and accountability from students, teachers, administrators and parents alike have produced significant improvements in union states like Massachusetts and New Jersey and non-union states like Florida and Texas. But instead of learning from these states, Brown mocked the “siren song” of metrics-based education reform in 2011. Two years later, he introduced his own reform — the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which wiped out many state-imposed mandates on districts and directed more funding to districts with higher percentages of English-language learners, foster children and poor families. Each district was required to develop a specialized Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) to guide efforts to improve students’ outcomes. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Diego Union-Tribune

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom Wants to Spend $2 billion on Early Childhood Education

School-education-learning-1750587-hSeeking to frame his new administration as one with a firm focus on closing the gap between children from affluent and poor families, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom will propose spending some $1.8 billion on an array of programs designed to boost California’s enrollment in early education and child-care programs.

Newsom’s plan, which he hinted at in a Fresno event last month, will be a key element in the state budget proposal he will submit to the Legislature shortly after taking office Monday, a source close to the governor-elect’s transition team said Tuesday.

The spending would boost programs designed to ensure children enter kindergarten prepared to learn, closing what some researchers have called the “readiness gap” that exists based on a family’s income. It would also phase in an expansion of prekindergarten and offer money to help school districts that don’t have facilities for full-day kindergarten. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times

California Can’t Afford ‘Pre-K for All’ Plan

560px-School-education-learning-1750587-hWith their grip on state politics stronger than ever, Sacramento Democrats are champing at the bit to chase after their base’s dream of so-called “universal pre-K.”

The unwisdom of the scheme, however, is already taking its toll on its plausibility. While the sheer weight of facts will nudge officials toward a more prudent course, it’s important for Californians to recognize in advance that the plan isn’t right for the state.

To begin with, there’s the cost. Already, taxpayers are spending over $1 billion to fund preschool for 175,000 kids. Legislation introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, to expand preschool coverage to 100,000 additional children could cost up to $1.5 billion, according to EdSource.

The more the programs expand, Californians can rest assured, the more their expenses will expand along with them. Seven years ago, general fund appropriations clocked in close to $80 billion. This year, they’re almost $140 billion. Meanwhile, McCarty alone is at the ready with several more big-spending education bills — one to increase pay for public preschool teachers, and another to put $500 million in new school bonds before voters. …

Click here to read the full article from the Southern California News Group 

The Education Blob Continues To Fail America’s Students

Charter schoolIt was former United Nation’s Ambassador and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who famously said “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.” That quote came to mind in the wake of American College Testing (ACT) releasing their latest batch of test scores revealing American high school seniors readiness for college.

It was not a pretty sight.

ACT reported that only 60 percent of high schoolers met collegiate success benchmarks in English, 46 percent in reading, 40 percent in math and 38 percent in science. Every category – yes every category – showed a decline from the previous year. Our schools are going backward and taking our students with them.

Moynihan’s quote comes to mind because the American education establishment – I like to call it the Blob – tries to obscure continuously falling and failing test scores with a dust storm of opinions from “experts.” ACT doesn’t deal in opinions of any size, shape or form. They deal in facts, and in this case the adjectives “cold” and “hard” are exceptionally appropriate.

The cold hard facts are that only 36 percent of our seniors met “college ready” benchmarks in all four categories tested. That means almost two-thirds of our students are on the path to failure once they get to college.

The cold hard facts are that the establishment is dysfunctional for millions of America’s students, and is giving the worst education to those most in need, as Hispanic and African American students continue to lag behind their peers in every category tested. This is academic malpractice.

Moynihan was a fairly doctrinaire New York liberal for his times, but a thoughtful one never constrained by ideological straitjackets. He was an early and vocal supporter of school choice. The concept – which now applies to a number of opportunities states have created to expand options for students outside of their ZIP code – was a favorite of Moynihan’s. Moynihan passionately believed in giving parents the power to guide their kids’ education. He would be appalled that the ACT scores show that Hispanic and African-American students continue to lag behind their peers in every category tested.

All of America should be equally appalled. For 25 years now the Center for Education Reform (CER) has sounded the alarm about falling test scores and failing students. We believe, and statistics show, that we must transform education – not just tinker with systems and not just give parents more options to choose outside of their zoned schools. That is necessary but not sufficient. No,we must truly redesign the process and what we expect from educators, students and yes, the Blob. Education must become personalized to every child, every student. The vision for a 21st century education system, well articulated by iNACOL’s Susan Patrick, challenges us to use our tools & modern day technologies to help students achieve competency, not just finish a grade, before moving on. “Moving toward a competency-based education model requires fundamental shifts in the systems, structures and assumptions that the traditional model of education is rooted in. We need bold leadership to transform K-12 education systems and policy. We need to build collaborative and distributed leadership at all levels of the education system to lead this transformation,” says Patrick.

And that’s just the beginning. In the coming days CER will release its annual Parent Power Index (PPI), ranking the states on how much power they afford parents to drive their family’s education, and for the first time, taking a look at what states do to foster personalized learning, making schools student, not system centered. Such innovations in teaching and learning, along side the critical lever of expanded education opportunity so that no child is confined to a failing school because of their zip code, are critical to our nation’s future if we are to arrest the lagging education indicators that inhibit a productive future for tens of millions of Americans. As our nation moves toward yet another election, these issues should guide everyone’s decisions. Without informed and bold lawmakers at every level, we simply won’t change the status quo.

I think Daniel Moynihan would agree. These are not opinions. They are facts.

Jeanne Allen is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

Teachers’ Unions Appalled at Idea of Paying Teachers Like Rock Stars

TeacherIf you’re looking for a stellar example of teachers’ unions ongoing commitment to mediocrity or worse, then you need only look at their reaction to California GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox’s idea of paying top-notch teachers much higher salaries – perhaps even rivalling those earned by ballplayers and rock stars. The unions, of course, pan the idea. One union official told the Sacramento Bee that “education should not be a competitive endeavor.”

Cox seemed to suggest in a statement to the newspaper that he engaged in some hyperbole: “Of course our teachers will never approach the pay of a Beyonce or a Lebron, but quite frankly, our classroom teachers influence, inspire and change the arc of more lives than even these music and athletic superstars.” But his idea of instituting a form of merit pay makes a lot of sense. Despite the naysaying, every successful enterprise is, to some degree, competitive.

Merit pay is a simple concept. It allows school administrators to pay good, effective teachers more than mediocre or poor-performing teachers. It allows signing bonuses and performance-based rewards. The obvious corollary is that it also allows them to pay bad or incompetent teachers lower salaries. In a truly competitive educational model that goes beyond this simple idea, school officials could even – get this – demote, discipline or fire teachers who aren’t making the grade. That’s how it works in almost any private business, and even private schools.

In the current public-school system, however, pay is based on seniority. A school teacher who has been just occupying a chair for decades, must be paid better than a young go-getter. A teacher who is willing to ply his or her skills in a tough, low-performing urban school must be paid the same as a teacher on autopilot in a wealthy suburban district, where the challenges are less severe and the stakes not as high. In times of layoffs, that energetic tough student working a hard gig must be laid off first, thanks to something known as LIFO, or “Last In, First Out.”

In the current, union-controlled monopoly system school administrators are not free to recruit the best and brightest talent from other industries because, well, they can’t pay enough to lure them out of more lucrative fields. And anyone who wants to be a regular, full-time teacher in California’s public schools must go through the long, expensive and mind-numbing process of getting an education degree. (Did I mention that those who receive such degrees tend to come from the bottom rungs of the academic ladder, according to numerous studies?)

To make matters worse, it’s nearly impossible to fire public-school teachers provided they show up for the job. School districts have “rubber rooms,” where teachers deemed unfit for the classroom twiddle their thumbs and collect full pay and benefits while their cases are adjudicated for months and even years given all the union protections against firing. It can cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to go through the firing process, so most don’t bother.

That leads to an annual, cynical process called the “dance of the lemons.” As Peter Schweizer explained for the Hoover Institution, “Often, as a way to save time and money, an administrator will cut a deal with the union in which he agrees to give a bad teacher a satisfactory rating in return for union help in transferring the teacher to another district. The problem teacher gets quietly passed along to someone else. Administrators call it ‘the dance of the lemons’ or ‘passing the trash.’” These cases usually involve teachers accused of some terrible action, but it’s functionally impossible to get rid of or pass along teachers who are merely incompetent. I recall when John Stossel showed a long flow chart of how to fire a teacher in New York City. The audience was stunned. Then Stossel, held up more pages of the chart. It’s crazy and the results are insane.

In 2012, nine California public-school students filed a lawsuit against California and the CTA arguing that the state’s system of teacher protections violates the state constitution’s promise of an “effective” education. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled on behalf of the students. He invalidated teacher tenure and other work rules because they assured that a percentage of “grossly ineffective” teachers would be left in the classroom, wreaking havoc on the future of many thousands of students, especially those in poor school districts.

In his decision, Treu noted that “an expert called by (California school administrators), testified that 1 – 3 percent of teachers in California are grossly ineffective. Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.” That’s a lot of bad teachers, and a depressing number of students who suffer in their classrooms. But Treu’s decision was overturned on appeal, and the appeal was upheld by the California Supreme Court. But the facts are the facts, even if the court was unwilling to back a decision to shake up the state’s public-education system.

This is what happens when the educational system is not a “competitive endeavor,” but rather a union-controlled, government monopoly. It means that good teachers cannot be rewarded. Great teachers cannot easily be recruited. Grossly ineffective teachers cannot easily be removed. And mediocre ones have few incentives to improve. Imagine how this system would work in your particular profession or business. How well would it do if the worst are protected, the best are neglected and the so-so ones are rewarded?

In the news story, candidate Cox didn’t get into the details of the hiring/firing process, but his merit-pay idea should be widely applauded. Yet on its website, the California Teachers’ Association says that “merit pay is flawed in concept. Where it has been tried, it has proved to be a detriment rather than a stimulus to better education. CTA is open to consideration of alternative pay plans as determined by the local associations through the collective bargaining process.”

As a final note, the debate over merit pay reinforces the wisdom of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision, which declared that teachers and other public employees are not required to pay union dues even to support collective-bargaining purposes. Justice Samuel Alito, wrote for the majority that such bargaining often involved “fundamental questions of education policy,” so it’s antithetical to the First Amendment to compel people to support ideas to which they don’t agree.

“Should teacher pay be based on seniority, the better to retain experienced teachers?” Justice Alito asked. “Or should schools adopt merit-pay systems to encourage teachers to get the best results out of their students?” Public-school teachers no longer are forced to subsidize the opposition to merit pay and to reforms to the current tenure and seniority based system, but there’s still a long process ahead to move toward the idea that Cox touted.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected].

This article was originally published by the CA Policy Center

San Francisco School Board President Scraps Pledge of Allegiance

American Flag 1The new president of the San Francisco school board purposefully skipped the traditional recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of his first meeting, choosing instead to read a quote from poet Maya Angelou.

Stevon Cook had pondered the idea of replacing the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance after his election to lead the school board. Cook replaced the customary pledge with a quote from Angelou: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”

“There are a lot of ways to express gratitude and appreciation for the country and its citizens,” Cook said, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is how I plan to do that.”

District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said that while schools are required to perform a daily patriotic exercise, public school district meetings are not.

“Although there is a requirement that schools conduct a pledge or similar activity, there is no such requirement for school boards,” Blythe said.

Nevertheless, in San Francisco, the Pledge of Allegiance has been the first order of business at school board meetings for decades, reports the Chronicle. As a member of the board, Cook stood for the pledge, but declined to recite the words.

“We should stand for (the pledge) because those ideals are important to me,” he said. “To speak them is another thing.”

Cook added he finds the current national political climate disappointing, and the Trump administration “has been attacking our liberties.”

School board member Rachel Norton said replacing the Pledge of Allegiance with the Maya Angelou quote “feels respectful and it feels thoughtful.”

“Maya Angelou is an alumnus of (San Francisco’s) Washington High School, so who better to start a new tradition?” she explained.

Cook said he will replace the pledge at each meeting with quotes from various inspirational Americans, including writer Toni Morrison, gay rights icon Harvey Milk and novelist James Baldwin.

“I’m not doing it as a way to seek attention,” he said. “I really think that these people are a great testament to our values and who we should aspire to be as Americans.”

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

New Report on California Education System Offers Downbeat Findings in Four Areas

Charter schoolIn 2007, researchers associated with Stanford University released “Getting Down to Facts” – a massive compilation of studies of the California K-12 public school system. The hundreds of pages of voluminous research allowed both the state education establishment and its critics to pick and choose what conclusions to emphasize.

Democrats and teachers unions cited the omnibus report’s call for much greater school spending. Reformers noted it said extra funding should be contingent on adoption of evidence-driven reforms.

Now “Getting Down to Facts II,” again led by Stanford-associated researchers, has been released – to much the same reaction. Education leaders cite its call for a huge 32 percent increase in school spending. Reformers note that once again, experts say California hasn’t done nearly enough to use education “best practices” to improve the performance of poor Latino and African-American students and schools in general.

But those who delve past general statements that praise the “boldness” of the California Dashboard school evaluation program and the success of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in getting more funds to needy poor schools will find a series of downbeat assessments.

Lack of ‘coherence’ found in implementing key reform

Four major examples:

– A series of research briefs about school governance broadly questions key LCFF elements, citing a lack of “coherence” in how the state expects individual districts to come up with their own unique “Local Control Accountability Plans” to improve their schools. This echoes criticism in a 2017 study that found local districts lacked the resources, expertise and enthusiasm to comply with this requirement. The briefs also said the state does not have adequate “mechanisms for accountability” in evaluating how local districts have used LCFF funds meant to help disadvantaged students.

– One study faulted the state for committing to help struggling schools in minority neighborhoods by increasing funding, but not addressing the frequency with which these schools were staffed with “early career” teachers – i.e., those who were just entering the job market or who had failed to win tenure in other districts. This also parallels one of the most common long-term criticisms of California public education: that too few of the most skilled, experienced teachers ended up in the districts that needed them most.

– One brief expressed borderline astonishment that California did not use data on student and teacher performance that would allow principals, superintendents, school boards and state education officials to develop a statistical model of what school practices worked best. These “weaknesses could be readily solved,” authors noted. In a seeming reference to political battles over data-driven reform, the report’s executive summary notes that “the limitations of California’s data system are not the result of technological difficulties.”

– An analysis of school finances cited the punishing effect of the 2014 bailout of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System on school budgets, which on a phased-in basis requires that districts increase by 123 percent how much they contribute to CalSTRS per teacher in a six-year span from the 2014-15 to 2020-21 school years. But while this was familiar turf, other parts of the fiscal analysis were not. The analysis warned of the ballooning costs of special education programs and the certainty that eventually districts will have to somehow find a way to pay for billions of dollars in neglected infrastructure and maintenance.

As CalWatchdog reported in 2015, school districts were already so stressed by money headaches that they were using the proceeds from 30-year bonds for needs normally covered by district operating budgets, such as computers and teaching materials. And that came in only the first year of rising pension bills because of the Legislature’s 2014 move to shore up CalSTRS.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Gov. Jerry Brown blocks later school start time mandate

shocked-kid-apGov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill Thursday requiring that California middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., saying the decision of when to start classes should be up to schools not the state.

Supporters of the bill cited research that says delaying school start times could result in better grades, attendance and graduation rates.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics said insufficient sleep for teens was “an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety” of adolescents.

State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who carried SB328, cited that study and one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that both suggested schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to help students get the optimal amount of sleep of at least eight hours a night. …

Click here to read the full article from Fox News

Five Recommendations to Solve LAUSD’s Looming Fiscal Crisis

These recommendations are excerpted from the policy study “A 2018 Evaluation of LAUSD’s Fiscal Outlook.” 

LAUSD school busFrom the Independent Financial Review Panel’s report of Los Angeles Unified School District emerges a dire picture that should alarm parents, educators and community stakeholders alike. It found that maintaining the status quo would grow the budget deficit to about $600 million by 2019–2020, concluding that failure to act would have real ramifications for the district’s 550,000 students including financial insolvency and even state takeover. For years district officials have avoided substantive reforms, but the warnings of distant fiscal calamity have now become a reality that leaders must address head-on. While the path ahead involves many difficult decisions and political headwinds, the process of right-sizing LAUSD presents an opportunity to lay the foundation for a 21st-century education system that’s productive, agile, and responsive to the needs of students and communities. In other words, right-sizing isn’t about budget cuts and layoffs, but rather optimizing all facets of operations with the goal of providing high-quality options to all students at a cost that aligns with revenues. To do this, LAUSD leaders should focus on five key reforms.

#1 OVERHAUL LONG-TERM DEBT OBLIGATIONS

LAUSD has little control over rising pension contributions because reducing these obligations requires state-level reforms. However, general staffing surges that are not supported by enrollment can increase pension costs, since the district must make pension contributions for each new hire.

Further, LAUSD does have discretion over OPEB costs as well as health and welfare benefits for active employees. The district has several significant cost-saving options available to it, ranging from ending retiree health care benefits altogether to engaging in a variety of cost-sharing and cost-reducing strategies.

At its August 2017 board retreat on reducing health care costs, LAUSD staff presented five cost-saving options, as shown in Table 20.

Ultimately the board upheld the status quo for health care benefits for another three years at an annual cost approaching $1 billion.

#2 GO AFTER LOW-HANGING FRUIT

It should come as no surprise that LAUSD can become more efficient, but what’s less obvious is how relatively minor changes in operations can result in substantial savings that can put a dent in the district’s budget deficit. In fact, the Independent Financial Review Panel’s report found over $143 million in potential savings outside of staffing and long-term obligations, including:

Improve student attendance ($45 million): Because the state of California provides revenue based on Average Daily Attendance, LAUSD loses money with every student absence from school. Increasing the district’s attendance to just the statewide average—a relatively low bar to achieve—would generate an additional $45 million per year. Of course, this would not only help boost LAUSD’s bottom-line but also improve academic outcomes such as graduation rates and college and career readiness. In 2009–2010, Long Beach Unified shifted 10 of its social workers and counselors to working with campuses on truancy issues to increase student attendance. The chronic absence rate in Long Beach Unified dropped from 19.8 percent in 2011 to 10 percent by 2014. By 2015, the school district’s overall attendance rate was 96.17 percent up from 96.01 percent in 2014 and above the state average.

Improve staff attendance ($15 million): Currently, only 75 percent of LAUSD staff members have strong attendance as defined by the district. Bolstering this number to 90 percent would save about $15 million on substitute teachers while also providing students with more stable classroom environments. To save even more money, LAUSD could require select administrators to substitute teach five days per year, a policy that saved Scottsdale, Arizona about 7 percent of their substitute budget and also allowed district staff to stay connected to the classroom.

#3 INITIATE STAFF REDUCTIONS AND STRATEGIC SCHOOL CLOSURES

The reality is that LAUSD’s financial quagmire requires district leaders to make substantive cutbacks in both staffing and schools. Even though its declining enrollment has necessitated a reduction of about 10,000 staff, LAUSD has actually increased staffing levels in recent years while seeing costs associated with salaries and benefits also rise. This problem will only magnify if projected enrollment declines continue to hold true.

To start, LAUSD must recognize that the lion’s share of new hires have been administrative staff, even during declining enrollment. Therefore, district officials should first evaluate every central office staff position as part of its school finance overhaul.

Next, teacher layoffs are unavoidable but LAUSD can approach them in a manner that will help increase student outcomes even as overall staffing levels decrease. Importantly, district and union officials should work together to review and renegotiate factors that hamstring flexibility and do nothing to further student achievement, such as automatic pay increases, rigid staffing requirements, and termination provisions that favor costly teachers with seniority. For example, Boston Public Schools replaced a seniority-driven system by renegotiating its collective bargaining contract to give more autonomy over staffing to school leaders, and Hartford Public Schools’ contract now provides principals with more flexibility over things such as scheduling. Increasing district and school-level flexibility will not only minimize staff reductions and protect against future layoffs, but also help ensure that the district retains its highest-performing talent in the process. LAUSD should also follow the Independent Financial Review Panel’s guidance by offering early retirement incentives to senior staff and help reduce the percentage of teachers who have reached the maximum salary level, which is currently 10 percent higher than the state-wide average.

Lastly, underutilized schools are costly for districts to maintain as fixed costs such as facilities, school administration, and custodial services increase per-pupil expenses as enrollment declines. This means that schools that are at or near capacity—which are often higher-performing—essentially subsidize schools with declining enrollment and have less funding to expand programs, services and enrollment as a result. Undoubtedly, closing schools is a difficult yet necessary process for LAUSD to undertake, but district officials should prioritize closing underperforming schools and proactively engage communities throughout the process in order to maximize transparency and build understanding. Kansas City Public Schools closed 26 schools and laid off about 1,000 staff members in 2010, which ultimately helped the district close its budget deficit, improve academically, and reverse enrollment declines, as students transferred to higher performing schools. According to Superintendent R. Stephen Green, “When you close a number of facilities, it creates a bit of disruption, but it was a much-needed process to go through, given the financial stability that was needed for the district.”

Los Angeles also has declining enrollment without ensuring that all school sites are self-sustaining. While many other large urban districts with significant enrollment declines have worked to close and realign some schools to save money, LAUSD continues to keep under-enrolled schools open, even as it has opened many new schools over the last decade. In some areas of the district where school sites are very close to one another, the older schools have lost enrollment to newer schools. The district has not released a transparent recent report about the current capacity from one school to another or identified which schools may be under-enrolled and subsidized by the district.

The key question is to examine whether a school has enough enrollment to sustain the cost of running the school. In 2008, the district estimated that its schools would have a 16 percent vacancy rate by 2012. It predicted it would have the capacity to seat 670,000 students, but only 560,000 were expected to enroll. A Los Angeles Times analysis in 2008 noted that “the district plans to build campuses that will take hundreds of students from those schools, further reducing their enrollment. By the time the building program is completed in 2012, there will be tens of thousands of empty seats at dozens of once-crowded schools.”

If we assume that LAUSD still has the capacity for 670,000 seats, then the current enrollment level of 500,000 students means that it is past time for the district to do a transparent audit of school capacity and how it might save money by closing the most under-enrolled schools. Independent charter schools have used some of this excess capacity for their students, but a transparent examination would ensure that the district can accurately assess all its financial options. In addition, evidence shows that closing the lowest performing and most under-enrolled schools can improve the quality of education for the most disadvantaged students.

A growing body of research indicates that school closure increases educational opportunity so long as students have access to better schools. Closure students who attended better schools tended to make greater academic gains than did their peers from low-performing schools in the same sector that remained open.

A new report on LAUSD’s real estate assets by the LAUSD Advisory Task Force calls for the district to “analyze the current occupancy of core District assets to determine whether consolidation of and/or relocation of certain tenants to more optimal locations could create savings, maximize revenue, and/or reduce functional obsolescence.” With a more thoughtful approach to managing individual school sites and vacant property, the district could actually raise money with long-term leases to charter operators or with other commercial or community uses of their underutilized real estate assets. In addition, school consolidation could help ensure every school has more qualified staff, rather than distributing LAUSD’s scarce resources over too many school sites.

When LAUSD keeps open schools that are under-capacity, district-wide personnel may continue to grow while individual school communities feel staff shortages at the school level. This is because each school, independent of enrollment, requires a certain fixed number of staff positions, some of which may be vacant as enrollment shrinks. As the Los Angeles School Report noted in a May 2016 feature, former Superintendent Michelle King cited feedback from a principals’ survey she received that “showed principals expressing frustration with a lack of clerical staff, a lack of time to complete tasks and limited opportunities for instructional training. ‘Principals say there are not enough hours in the day to get everything they need done and improve teaching and learning due to a lack of sufficient personnel,’ King said.” In this way, the district can have too many employees that are unsustainable given the current level of enrollment and district revenue, while individual schools can also be under-staffed and stretched thin.

But when schools consolidate, fewer fixed staff positions are needed and are more likely to be filled. The district is staffing too many schools at an inadequate level and could increase staff and school support at individual schools by consolidating and closing some schools. LAUSD needs to make a transparent accounting of site-based enrollment, spending, and revenue based on the students who are enrolled at each site, examine how each school uses resources, and determine how that impacts the district as a whole. Until that is accomplished, the district will continue to have too many staff members that are not effectively deployed to best serve the needs of students.

#4 MITIGATE ENROLLMENT DECLINES BY FOCUSING ON QUALITY OPTIONS

Over a six-year period, LAUSD’s enrollment fell by nearly 100,000 students, about half of which is due to families choosing charter schools, with many others opting to enroll in traditional public schools outside of the district. With forecasted student attrition of 2.8 percent per year and lackluster outcomes in many of LAUSD’s schools, fundamental changes within classrooms are clearly in order. The Independent Financial Review Panel found that “there may be lessons to be learned from the migration of students to charter schools” and “it is very important that the District carefully analyze charter programs and focus on which students are leaving and why” so that LAUSD can ultimately improve its programmatic offerings for families. More bluntly, the days of district monopoly and residential assignment are coming to an end, and if LAUSD is going to attract and retain students then officials must be more responsive to parent needs. Fortunately, numerous districts across the U.S. have already undertaken substantive reforms to adapt to this new operating environment, and LAUSD has much to learn from them. One prominent example is Denver Public Schools (DPS).

DPS has adopted “portfolio management,” a model in which a district’s primary role is to approve operators, provide support, and evaluate school outcomes. Portfolio management is based on the belief that school-level autonomy drives performance by allowing school leaders and teachers to more effectively meet student needs. While traditional districts tend to prescribe a one-size-fits-all model by mandating inputs (e.g. staffing ratios, curriculum, etc.) portfolio management recognizes that each school has unique challenges and is thus more concerned with holding educators accountable for outcomes rather than how they operate. Ultimately, this helps to promote a diverse supply of schools that, when combined with a strong intra-district choice policy, can give parents more meaningful options that in turn help improve overall satisfaction and retention. As part of its strategic roadmap, The Denver Plan 2020, DPS is striving to have 80 percent of its students attending a high-performing school by 2020.

New data by the advocacy group Parent Revolution show that 234 LA Unified schools scored in the bottom two levels — orange or red — for both English and math on the California accountability dashboard. In the 2016–2017 school year, 155,779 students were enrolled in those 234 schools. LAUSD has 34 schools that are red in both English and math. Last year those schools enrolled 26,400 students. At a minimum, 30 percent of LAUSD students could use a higher-performing school.

#5 MODERNIZE THE DISTRICT’S SCHOOL FINANCE SYSTEM

Currently, LAUSD employs an antiquated school finance system. Instead of providing principals with actual dollars based on students, it allocates staffing positions that are determined using rigid ratios and district-wide average salaries. As Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab explains, “The district sends out teachers, principals, administrative assistants, lunchroom staff, librarians, and the like, and pays the bills out of the district coffers. Schools do not have their own bank accounts, nor do they receive reports that show the true costs of the resources that land in their buildings.” As well, according to Harvard researcher and former LAUSD budget director Jon Fullerton, the district’s budgeting systems “do not connect automatically with accounting systems, and both may be isolated from the human-resources systems that track who is hired, when, and for how much.” As a result, funding is delivered to schools in a manner that is non-transparent, inequitable, and less responsive to enrollment changes. This makes it difficult to provide leaders with valuable data that could help the district become more productive with its education dollars.

STUDENT-BASED BUDGETING

To modernize its school finance system, LAUSD should allocate dollars on a per-pupil basis by adopting student-based budgeting, a funding portability framework that sends dollars to schools rather than staffing positions. This not only promotes equity and portability across schools within the district, but it also empowers principals to have more decision-making authority over how dollars are ultimately spent. Allocating funding to schools in per-pupil terms would promote greater efficiency by allowing dollars to grow and contract in direct proportion to student needs. In this way, student-based budgeting would allow principals to make their schools more responsive to parents’ needs, increasing the likelihood of higher enrollment and potentially generating new revenue at the school level.

Moreover, when money goes directly to schools on a per-pupil basis, it becomes clear which schools are unable to financially sustain themselves and which schools may be candidates for consolidation to avoid insolvency. As part of this shift, LAUSD can also empower principals to purchase certain services from either the district or external vendors to optimize pricing and quality, which are often constrained by district contracts. This allows school leaders to make better use of their budgeted dollars while also helping to address central office bloat. Given LAUSD’s financial position and need to reduce personnel, student-based budgeting would allow school-level staffing based on the funding resources generated by the students in the school.

Student-based budgeting is based on five key principles:

  1. Funding systems should be as simple and transparent as possible.
  2. Per-pupil funding should be based on the needs of each student.
  3. Per-pupil funding should follow the student to the public school of their choice.
  4. Principals should receive actual dollars—not staffing positions or other allotments—to spend flexibly based on school needs.
  5. Funding allocation principles should apply to all sources of education revenue.

It requires a shift in mindset from top-down compliance to supporting autonomous school leaders, and some roles will fundamentally change or become obsolete in this new environment as a result. As one educator who participated in an Education Resource Strategies summit on school-level budgeting explained:

There has been a philosophical change: the principal is the CEO of the school. The central office is there to support them. We inverted the pyramid so that the principal is on top, telling the central office what they need, rather than on the bottom. That’s required a cultural change and huge structural changes in the district.

LAUSD has already laid the foundation for this reform by piloting autonomous schools through its Belmont Pilot Schools Network, which started in the 2007–2008 school year. In the 2017–2018 academic year LAUSD allocates $46 million to 83 schools that receive their resources based on a per-pupil formula that is allocated directly to schools. In these schools, principals have more autonomy to purchase school-based staffing and differentiated district support. LAUSD should take the next step by adopting a district-wide program as numerous districts such as Boston Public Schools, Houston Independent School District, and New York City Department of Education have already done.

THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE DISTRICT

Under a student-based budgeting system, the district itself still monitors school performance and makes big-picture decisions about which schools may need to be closed or consolidated based on enrollment and academic performance. The district’s new role would be to hold individual schools accountable for district-wide student goals, such as improving graduation rates or increasing proficiency in 3rd-grade reading. The district would not mandate how a principal and school community use their resources to meet district-wide instructional
goals, but would instead set the benchmarks and goals for the district.

In order to measure progress and monitor performance, LAUSD should revamp its knowledge infrastructure to better integrate key information systems. This means going beyond merging budgeting, accounting and human resource data by ensuring that student enrollment and achievement data are also readily available for cross-referencing analysis. This would ensure that individual school leaders and district leaders have the tools necessary to make sound financial decisions that are driven by academic strategy and outcomes.

For example, district leaders should know not only exactly how much is spent on each school but also how dollars are allocated across classrooms and courses. Disaggregating data to per-pupil terms at the classroom-level would help school leaders and district administrators assess the alignment of funding with strategic instructional intent and student outcomes, and more effectively consider trade-offs in how money is spent. This is especially important since research has shown that districts allocate funding in a manner that doesn’t align with stated priorities such as focusing on low-achieving students, a fact that leaders are often unaware of given antiquated accounting and budgeting practices. For example, a district may say its goal is to improve 3rd-grade reading and then spend all of its resources on high school AP classes. Without attaching school- and classroom-level expenditures to instructional priorities, school leaders, and districts have little information about how they are targeting resources to instructional priorities.

Such transparency would help LAUSD’s current measurement of progress, as the district doesn’t track or publicly report its allocations at the school level based on student characteristics. As a result, education stakeholders and policymakers cannot easily determine if the new LCFF revenue, which the California Legislature intended to help high-needs students, is boosting spending in the schools these students attend. As Marguerite Roza noted in a recent report evaluating California’s LCFF revenue, “this lack of financial transparency makes it difficult to assess the degree to which LCFF is delivering—or not delivering—on the state’s pledge to drive resources to the highest-need students.” A more transparent student-based system would allow district leaders to track these dollars and make more informed decisions about how best to use the district’s scarce resources to improve student outcomes.

Student-based budgeting has helped other districts determine which schools should be closed or consolidated and which schools should be expanded or replicated. For example, after adopting student-based budgeting, the Denver school board approved the closing of eight schools that were under-enrolled and low-performing. The board projected that the realignment of students from these schools to higher performing schools would achieve projected yearly operating savings of $3.5 million. Those resources were used to improve the education of students who were affected by the school closures, delivering additional resources to under-performing schools, and creating funding opportunities for new schools and new programs. In addition to the standard per-pupil revenue that followed students to their new schools, the district reinvested $2 million, or 60 percent of the savings from school closures, into the schools of reassignment. In this way, a student-based budgeting funding system is an important modern financial tool that can help right-size LAUSD’s financial ship.

Full Study: A 2018 Evaluation of LAUSD’s Fiscal Outlook: Revisiting the Findings of the 2015 Independent Financial Review Panel

This article was originally published by the Reason Foundation