If you’re gonna go, go big
Federal stimulus money ($100 billion over two years, close to 10% of ALL spending on education) was supposed to buffer schools from the economic downturn, providing a bridge to a time when tax revenues recovered. But we hit a snag: the money ran out and the economy hasn’t bounced back. In fact, there’s active debate as to whether we’re about to enter a second recession. And even if we manage to avoid the technical definition of a recession, it’s easy to see strong economic headwinds in the future that will prevent future growth in education spending. (For more on this point, start here.)
We’re now in the middle of a conflict between a desire for new revenue (from the schools) and a reluctance to provide it (from the public). This EdWeek article sums it up nicely. It was completely predictable - and utterly avoidable.
I say predictable for two reasons. First, because the economic tea leaves were easy to read. The Boomers are a major economic force, and as they rolled through history they produced great gains along with some bubbles, including the housing bubble. It was great for schools going up, as property tax revenues exploded; those revenues have only now started to decline, and as the Boomers retire they’ll have an ongoing negative impact on K-12 spending. And second, because the gap between communities and their schools has widened over time. In ‘boom’ times, people don’t mind that more funds are flowing to schools; they’re doing well, and that funding – as a proportion of their own income – isn’t changing. But in ‘bust’ times, people watch every dime, and if they don’t feel attached to something (like their schools), and if they don’t see a benefit or ROI for that spending, they want to minimize it.
So yes, it was predictable – and it was avoidable with a little foresight. The good news is that it’s also fixable.
The fix will not come through the traditional partnership or foundation work we’ve seen in the past. That work, though positive and appreciated, has not operated on a scale or at a scope needed to counter economic forces, nor can it. We’ve never seen public support flow into the general district budget – any direct financial support typically goes into “wraparound” activities (scholarships, after-school and curricular programs). Other types of support (donations, volunteers, etc.) have had a “supplemental” or “enhancement” focus as well.
Instead, the fix – the way to counter current economic challenges – is to re-engage the community as full and equal supporters. Invite your community in as true collaborators, with the authority needed to co-direct the setting of goals and the means of achieving them. Move them from the periphery to the core of K-12 education and take a true zero-based budgeting approach to schooling. You’ll see community support skyrocket, and levels of support will increasing accordingly. You’ll also see lots of expenses fall away as you collectively decide what’s not important in your education mission.
Radical? Yes. But given the intractable financial challenges we face now, and will begin facing at an increasing scale in the future, there is no other solution.