The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, October 12, 2009

Getting better soon?

Schools and districts have responded to the recent economic downturn by cutting costs and, increasingly, reducing staffing levels; they have not, however, taken steps to diversify away from a nearly total dependence on government support (99% of school funding comes from local, state, and federal government sources). This strategy assumes a temporary downturn followed by a corresponding uptick; however, the latest stats show that there's no turnaround coming in the short term.

Consider the Reuters article US States suffer unbelievable revenue shortages:

Tax revenues used to pay teachers and fuel police cars continue to trail even the most pessimistic expectations, despite the cash from the economic stimulus plan pouring into state coffers.

"It's crazy. It's really just unbelievable," said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, and called the states' revenue situations "close to unprecedented."

Most states had been pessimistic in forecasting their tax revenues for the 2010 fiscal year, Pattison said. So far, collections have fallen below even those low targets.

And, according to a new paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled New fiscal year brings no relief from unprecedented state budget problems:

  • At least 48 states have addressed or still face shortfalls in their budgets for fiscal year 2010 totaling $168 billion or 24 percent of state budget.
  • An unusual number of these states are still struggling to balance their 2010 budgets two months after the start of the fiscal year. Three states — Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — have not yet adopted budgets for 2010. In addition, new shortfalls have opened up in at least 15 of the states that have adopted budgets — California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming — plus the District of Columbia . These additional gaps — some of which have already been addressed[1] — totaled $28 billion.
  • The states’ fiscal problems will continue into the next fiscal year and likely beyond. At least 36 states have looked ahead and anticipate deficits for fiscal year 2011. These shortfalls total $74 billion — 15 percent of budgets — for the 30 states that have estimated the size of these gaps by comparing expected spending with estimated revenues, and are likely to grow as more states prepare projections and revenues continue to deteriorate.
  • Combined budget gaps for the next two fiscal years — those already mostly closed for 2010 and those projected for 2011 — are estimated to total at least $350 billion.

These numbers are better than they otherwise would have been, thanks to the stimulus funds. As Scott Pattison noted in the Reuters article, "The states are very, very concerned about that cliff -- they're concerned about when this recovery money stops."

But the reality is that the stimulus money will stop after next year. Even if there is a second stimulus package passed, it will almost certainly not include a large package of funds dedicated to education spending. And assuming that major stimulus funds for education will dry up in the near future, that the state budget conditions noted above are accurate, and that long-term trends work against funding for K-12 education...should districts limit their thinking solely to cost-cutting? Or is it time to look for alternate sources of support?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bad now, or worse to come?

I’ve started seeing data on the levels of educator layoffs happening, and I’m trying to get some perspective on what this will mean to the future of K-12 education. Obviously, at an individual level, such cuts are traumatic – nobody wants to lose their job, and nobody wants to lose their favorite teacher or support person. But at a macro level – projecting the impact of such cuts on student achievement – what can we expect?

According to BusinessWeek’s reporting on the latest BLS employment report, we’ve lost 0.9% of our education jobs – 121,000 positions – between September 2008 and September 2009. A big caveat: this number includes all types of education jobs, including private education, higher education, and technical schools, so it’s impossible to suss out the K-12 losses specifically.

But assume our losses are consistent with the larger category – that K-12 education has lost around 1% of its workforce in the past year. According to BusinessWeek, there have only been three other years since the 50s that education has seen employment drops, and none approaching a 1% drop. Sounds pretty bad on the surface.

But then there’s this, from the US Department of Education:

Pupil/Teacher Ratio
  • A projected 3.7 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) elementary and secondary school teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in fall 2008. This number has risen 15 percent since 1998. The 2008 projected number of FTE teachers includes 3.2 million public school teachers and 0.5 million private school teachers.
  • The number of public school teachers has risen faster than the number of public school students over the past 10 years, resulting in declines in the pupil/teacher ratio. In the fall of 2008, there were a projected 15.3 public school pupils per teacher, compared with 16.4 public school pupils per teacher 10 years earlier.

To sum up, we’ve had a 1% drop in employment over the past year – but that’s after a tremendous run-up of 15% growth over the 10 years prior, a growth rate that so exceeded the growth of the student population that we actually saw the teacher/student ratio drop significantly.

So it looks like things aren’t nearly as bad as advertised, right? I think that’s true for the moment, but that things are turning for the worse for two reasons.

  • Enrollment in public K-12 education is projected to hit record numbers through 2017, seeing 8% growth from 2009 (50 million students) through 2017 (54 million students).
  • It looks like we’re just at the beginning of job cuts in education. Revenue trends, and therefore employment trends, for state and local governments tend to lag behind the private sector, and there are countless reports out about continued freefalls in state revenues. Couple that with the loss of support from the stimulus package after next year, and state/local finance are going to look terrible – with public employment reflecting those numbers.
So while things may not be as bad as they could be at the moment, they will most certainly become far worse – and this at a time when the public expects to see annual boosts in achievement.

It’s pretty easy to see bigger problems coming down the pike, right? But from what I have seen and heard over the past few months, there are many in K-12 leadership roles who either don’t see these problems, or just assume that someone will take care of them (likely through a re-up of the stimulus plan).

I’ve talked about this several times already (here as one example) and have heard similar things from others anecdotally (often off the record). I just came across a blog post by a publisher of classroom resourced named Lee Wilson, who reported the following from a panel of superintendents at EdNet 2009:

The panelists were discussing what will change in the next 5-10 years in education. They were looking globally at the overall system (teacher evaluation, bell schedule, technology, instructional materials, funding flows, etc.). In this context the Superintendent of one of the largest districts in the country (LACOE), in a state (CA) that is experiencing a state of extreme financial distress, stated that she didn't think anything significant would change until we had a "major crisis."

If what we are experiencing right now isn't a major crisis I shudder to think what the hell would fit the definition? National bankruptcy? Nuclear Holocaust?

The Superintendents do expect to see change, but it will be small bore. They believe meaningful reforms will happen on a pioneer basis in a few schools and districts. But the larger issue of systemic education reform will require an even greater crisis than we currently have.

The system is so large and has so much inertia that even those with the will and positions to drive change don't hold out much hope for progress.

Think about that.

It’s pretty clear what we can expect in the next several years in terms of school funding (and, correspondingly, employment); I hope that school and district leaders find an opportunity to take a look at the situation with fresh eyes, realize that business as usual is impossible going forward, and look at some fresh solutions for dealing with the reality of the situation.