C. Kirabo Jackson; Cora Wigger, Northwestern University; Heyu Xiong, Northwestern University
Audits of public school budgets routinely find evidence of waste. Also, recent evidence finds that when school budgets are strained, public schools can employ cost-saving measures with no ill-effect on students. We theorize that if budget cuts induce schools to eliminate wasteful spending, the effects of spending cuts may be small (and even zero). To explore this empirically, we examine how student performance responded to school spending cuts induced by the Great Recession. We link nationally representative test score and survey data to school spending data and isolate variation in recessionary spending cuts that were unrelated to changes in economic conditions. Consistent with the theory, districts that faced large revenue cuts disproportionately reduced spending on non-core operations. However, they still reduced core operational spending to some extent. A 10 percent school spending cut reduced test scores by about 7.8 percent of a standard deviation. Moreover, a 10 percent spending reduction during all four high-school years was associated with 2.6 percentage points lower graduation rates. While our estimates are smaller than some in the literature, spending cuts do matter.
STATE LEGISLATORS, freshly empowered by the Supreme Court to use whatever methods and timetable they choose to provide all children with a decent education, prefiled a blizzard of school-related bills in advance of the 2018 legislative session that begins on Tuesday.
There’s a bill to eliminate standardized testing, one to let districts start classes earlier and another to shortchange students a day of education for “forgiving” a day schools were closed for hurricane evacuations. There are bills to prohibit public schools from recruiting student athletes, to turn the school bus program over to the districts, to create a STEM Education Day and to require metal detectors in schools. There’s also a bill that orders the state Board of Education to “develop a standard, durable poster for use in displaying” the mottoes of the United States and South Carolina, which would be displayed in all public schools.
Perhaps, since this doesn’t always come across well in writing, I should explain that I’m being sarcastic when I cite this odd assortment of good and bad ideas as the solution to providing a decent education to all children. Like nearly all school-related bills filed every year, these would not do that; wouldn’t even nibble around the edges of doing that.
And to be fair, the Legislature passed a few helpful measures last year, and the House passed several bills that could help; those bills are stuck in the Senate, which could pass them this year.
But the fact that there are already bills to do what legislators want to do doesn’t usually stop them from pre-filing new bills to do the same things. So it’s worrisome that we haven’t seen more activity leading up to this first session since the state Supreme Court washed its hands of what might be the biggest challenge our state faces — and certainly is our biggest education challenge: the need to provide all children with a decent education.
Recall that after the court’s ruling ending 24 years of litigation and oversight, House Speaker Jay Lucas declared in November that “the General Assembly can now focus solely on our children’s education needs rather than compliance with the arbitrary standard set forth in the Abbeville lawsuit.”
And so we wait.
I don’t pretend to know the best way to teach children to read or the best way to motivate children to want to learn to read — particularly when their parents aren’t interested in education. I don’t pretend that there are easy solutions to either challenge. Nor do I pretend to know how to convince good teachers to move to poor, rural communities to take on these challenges.
But I know that even those of us who were blessed with good educations will suffer as long as a large portion of children in our state fail to receive a decent education, because those children will fail. And when they fail, they will consume government services — whether it’s food stamps or Medicaid or space in prison — that the rest of us will pay for. And they will produce another generation that follows in their footsteps. And fewer businesses will expand or move to our state to provide good jobs for us and our children.
I also know this: The first step to answering those difficult questions is to recognize that we have to do this. That means the Legislature must acknowledge that it owns the schools. Not the local school districts, which were created by the state in order to carry out the state’s job. The state. And then it has to start acting like it.
Right now, we have districts — too many districts — that are run by elected school board members and the superintendents they hire. And for a lot of places, I’ve just named the biggest obstacle to providing a decent education to all children.
Maybe it would be too radical to blow up that system, although I’d love to see it happen. Short of that, the Legislature needs to deal with the fact that not all of those people are up to the job. It needs to acknowledge the problem of school board members who treat the district like a political-patronage factory, and superintendents who aren’t creative or energetic enough, and principals who can’t get rid of substandard teachers (particularly the one whose brother-in-law is on the school board) or attract the best teachers.
It would take a lot to fix all that. We’d need to give state officials the power — and mandate — to remove elected school board members who can’t meet certain requirements; ditto superintendents. We’d need to give principals more flexibility to get rid of teachers who aren’t up to the job, pay teachers more when they produce the results we want, pay them more still to leave the comfort of their middle-class schools to teach remedial classes to poor kids in poor communities — kids who started out behind because they weren’t exposed to the educational enrichment opportunities that most of us take for granted.
Those changes don’t directly answer the questions of how to motivate and teach children who aren’t learning as well as our state needs them to learn. They don’t provide the additional funding that schools need to provide after-school and summer-school and other intensive education programs to children who are behind. But they can provide the leadership we need to answer those questions. And lawmakers who are willing to make those sorts of changes are lawmakers who can find a way to turn those answers into action.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.