The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good intentions

I'm reading a great book called The Logic of Failure, as recommended (some time ago) by Catherine Johnson of Kitchen Table Math. This excerpt struck me as being particularly appropriate to education:

Thought is also always rooted in values and motivations. We ordinarily think not for the sake of thinking but to achieve certain goals based on our system of values. Here possibilities for confusion arise: the conflict between treasured values and measures that are regarded as necessary can produce some curious contortions of thought - "Bombs for peace!" The original value is twisted into its opposite. Motivations provide equally ambiguous guidelines. There are those who would say that what counts are the intentions behind our thinking, that thought plays only a serving role, helping us achieve our goals but failing to go to the root of the evils in our world. In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether "good intentions plus stupidity" or "evil intentions plus intelligence" have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More on property taxes

Remember that, on average, property taxes make up approximately 30% of K-12 funding. Then consider the following from analysists at JP Morgan Chase:

“Currently, we have national home prices bottoming in 2011,” they said. “However, prices for more expensive homes may not bottom out until 2012, and ultimately result in peak-to- trough declines in excess of 60 percent (compared to 40 percent nationally).”

California is probably worse than other states, but higher-priced homes in general are going to be a problem,” [John] Sim said in a telephone interview today.

I can understand people being skeptical of anything JP Morgan Chase has to say at the moment, but the demographics make sense: as empty-nesting Boomers look for smaller homes with less cost and less maintenance required, there's going to be an oversupply of large, and consequently more expensive, homes on the market. More supply and less demand are going to affect the values of these larger and more expensive properties disproportionately...

The perils of avoiding short-term pain

Education Week has been reviewing state applications for education stimulus funds, and what they found is disheartening:

According to an Education Week review of the 31 applications approved as of late last week for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—the largest piece of the education stimulus pie—nearly 90 percent of that money seems destined to backfill state cuts to education funding, with little left over.

More from the article:

The stabilization-fund applications that have already been approved confirm what school districts had feared: Much of this large infusion of money will be soaked up by states’ continued budget problems.

Overall, states on average are using about 87 percent of the stabilization funds to fill in K-12 and higher education cuts they already made in fiscal 2009, or cuts they would have had to make in 2010.

“We’re all disappointed,” Mr. Musso [Executive Director, Association of School Business Officials] said. “How are we supposed to make systemic change if the dollars are just buying the same thing we’ve been buying in the past?”

State and local government revenues have dropped markedly, and given the severity and causes of the current recession, it's clear that it will be a long time before they return to recent levels. (As an example, remember that much of of the revenue for local governments - and for schools - comes from property taxes, which still have a long way to fall, and will stay depressed for some time.) The $100 billion stimulus package for education was intended to give schools and districts a two-year reprieve so they could retool and be ready to operate in this very different funding landscape. And that doesn't seem to be happening.

Of course change is painful, and no one wants to let employees go; I understand that completely. But the reality is that by using all available funds to maintain the status quo, nothing is being done to prepare for a new funding reality that will inexorably hit in two years. The pain will be far worse then, since we weren't willing to feel a little pain now as we prepared.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New DHA white paper

I've just posted a new white paper - Unlocking the Full Spectrum of Community Support. This briefing highlights the trends that will determine the K-12 environment for the forseeable future (aka 'the new normal'), how community support can improve inputs and outcomes, and a few suggestions on getting started. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tom Vander Ark is right

Interviewed in Scholastic Administrator, Tom Vander Ark, former head of the Gates Foundation's education efforts, and currently a partner in Revolution Learning, had this to say:

Q: Do you think that the federal stimulus is going to promote innovation and change?
A: I was hoping that we would see this financial crisis used more creatively to have fundamental conversations, but it's not really happening, not that I see. The downside to the federal bailout is that it puts a big Band-Aid on a system that's really obsolete.

Q: What happens if our schools don't make those dramatic changes?
A: The alternative will be a slow decline. We'll play this game for another 10 years while the world continues to pass us by.

Hat Tip: This Week in Education

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Why aren't they talking about community support?

Looking back over the past year or so of my blog posts (infrequent as they may have been), I'm struck by the fact that so much of my writing has focused on finance and school funding, much more so than on partnerships or on education.

There are two reasons for this. The first is practical: much of what I'm writing on partnerships is now earmarked for publication in the K-12 Partnership Report, so not as much ends up here. (Though I do need to post more - there's a lot to be said and discussed.) The second is that economics is a fundamental driver of education policy and practice, and we have to understand changes in the economic environment - particularly those that directly affect school funding - if we want to understand the potential for advancing community/school engagement.

Note that I use the word "potential": despite what one might expect, there doesn't seem to be an automatic link between reduced funding and an interest in soliciting community support. While ARRA funding has partially blunted the likelihood of financial pain for the time being, the real issue seems to be that substantive public engagement is so far off the radar of many administrators that it just doesn't even come up as an option.

To that point: I participated in EdWeek's Powering through the Recession conference in Jersey City a few weeks ago, sitting on a panel at the end of the day to discuss finding new sources of support for schools. As I listened to other speakers and talked with audience members throughout the day, I was struck by the fact that no one was talking about how to respond to the recession.

No one discussed layoffs, operational efficiencies, or alternate sources of support: instead, they were all focused on how they could spend the stimulus money so that they could make a case for ongoing funding. (The two leading contenders, by the way, were teacher training and new data systems.) To be clear, I haven't heard anyone outside that event suggest even a possibility of continued funding; the USDOE has been pretty clear that it's a one-time event. But the people in that room were convinced that it would keep flowing, so long as they could show some kind of progress.

My impression was that the administrators in that room were so used to receiving all their support from the government that it framed their entire thought process. No one broke out of the box to consider other sources of support; the entire discussion was on where is the government money, what do I need to do to get it, and how can I keep it coming.

Thanks to the stimulus funds, administrators have two years to change their mindset before government funding truly does fall off a cliff. If the ARRA is truly a one-time source of funds, then its absence will expose schools and districts to a funding environment that will have eroded substantially even from the bleak landscape we see today. And at that point, they'll either look to their communities (though the smart ones will start now, to build the needed groundwork) or face some very hard decisions.