The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fundamental changes in the K-12 market

I was going to start this post by referencing the purported Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” But according to Wikipedia, there’s no evidence of this actually being a Chinese expression. I suppose that I can live with another Chinese proverb referenced on the site: "It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a man in a chaotic period."

This is certainly a chaotic period in K-12 education. The question I have is whether it’s just the downside of a cycle (implying that things will return to normal at some point) or whether it’s a fundamental, essentially permanent, shift. Everything I’ve seen and heard in current discussions indicates that people are treating it as the former: cut costs, batten down the hatches, and let’s ride this thing out until it blows over. I’m not so sure.

The run-up in education funding over the past few decades – and particularly over the past few years – has been spectacular, and it seems to have been funded by people living beyond their means. It’s come from a tremendous rise in property taxes as people bid up the price of homes dramatically, and it’s come from an increase in sales taxes as people bought more than they could afford.

Now it’s all crashing down, and governments – the source of 99% of K-12 funding – are feeling it. Property taxes, which make up a good portion of local government revenues and around
30% of all K-12 funding, are plummeting as property values fall 30% to 50% to revert to historical levels and foreclosures take the legs out from under the market. It will take decades to get back to recent levels. Similarly, state revenues are shrinking dramatically due to record declines in sales and income taxes. And don’t forget that there are competing needs for available funds, including Medicare (which is growing quickly, and for which states pay 40%), employee pensions and healthcare, and much more.

Taken together, state and local government funds have historically provided more than 90% of K-12 revenue; while the federal stimulus plan will undoubtedly change this ratio, I don’t see how even the record levels of funding they’re about to unleash will bring things back to anything resembling normal. At best I think they’re cushioning the fall to give us time to adjust to dramatically lower levels of available funding.

But I haven’t heard anybody talking about “the new face of education.” I’ve heard a lot about cuts, which sound as if they’re temporary, but I haven’t heard anyone broach the subject of reengineering public education in the wake of significantly and permanently reduced funding.

I’m trying to reconcile what I’m seeing with the way that everybody else seems to be treating the situation. It’s entirely possible that I just don’t understand the self-correcting nature of the system, or that I’ve crossed over into tinfoil hat territory.

But it’s also possible that people are thinking that things will return to normal solely because they always have in the past, and that it’s easier to believe that than to look at the data, realize we’re in for a change, and go about the hard work of shaping new outcomes with new ideas.


  • I am curious -- what are your thoughts on how to reform public education? I hope you will share this in an upcoming post --

    Thanks --Elizabeth

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