Cutting Class?

The state’s budget is shrinking. So how do you slash spending for public education and simultaneously establish world-class schools?

Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, chair of the LEAD committee, says examining the state’s education budget was easy compared to the challenge of actually implementing changes. Photograph by Phil FlynnThe Earth, according to most astrophysicists, is doomed. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point in the future, an asteroid is going to collide head-on with our dear planet—and it won’t be pretty.

Indian River superintendent Susan Bunting knows the feeling, only her Earth is a Delaware school district, and her asteroid is a budget cut she knows is on its way but cannot yet see. “What would help us most at this point would be some kind of concrete figure, a worst-case scenario so we could start planning,” she says. “But right now we’re in no-man’s land. We just don’t know.”

Bunting has been here before. Less than a year ago, Indian River was anticipating a devastating financial blow. With a $600 million state budget deficit hanging over Delaware’s head, Bunting’s school district braced for a $4 million cut to its overall funding for fiscal year 2009. In the end, the General Assembly found a way to limit statewide education cuts to $30 million instead of the projected $80 million, and Indian River was spared the worst.

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Instead of the expected $4 million loss, the district wound up with about $820,000 in cuts, saving nearly 1,000 jobs and dozens of programs. And while this monetary slash certainly left its share of scars, a collective sigh of relief went up through the ranks. The asteroid hit—but at least it was a small asteroid.

Even without dire economic forecasts, the state’s public school system—which ranks eighth in the nation for overall spending, but only 27th in overall performance—has been struggling to revise its approach to teaching Delaware’s youth. With the state economy trying to keep its head above water, the quandaries administration and legislative officials face have only become more complex.

“In education, we like to say there are some things that are interesting to know, some that are important to know and some that are absolutely essential to know,” says Bunting. “That’s kind of how we have to start thinking about the budget now as well. What’s interesting, what’s important and what’s essential?”

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Fiscal efficiency in education is an obvious priority for every state, but when 34.4 cents of every dollar in your budget goes to funding public education, that priority takes center stage.

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Last February, at the request of then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner, the Leadership for Educational Achievement in Delaware committee presented an extensive study titled “Cost Efficiency in Delaware Education.” In its report, the committee identified between $86 million and $158 million it said could be redirected from the state’s $1.6 billion education budget to more efficiently improve teaching and learning through public education. It wasn’t a silver-bullet solution to the problem of better education for less money, but it was a start.

LEAD made 16 “efficiency recommendations” to the state in seven different categories—including transportation, salary and benefits, and construction—identifying savings that would be captured at the state, district and school levels. But folks like LEAD committee chair Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals say reexamining the state’s education budget was the relatively easy part. The difficulty comes with implementing change.

“The LEAD report has good recommendations in it,” says Markell. “My plan includes changing the way we fund public education and the way we measure student achievement. We need to intensify our effort to make our schools world class.”

“Frankly, Delaware supports public education pretty well,” says Schoenhals, who heads Vision 2015, the 28-person educational reform coalition from which LEAD sprung. “Right out of the box you can see that our spending is on a good level, but that we’re not getting our money’s worth in terms of student performance.”

The good news, it seems, is that this problem is somewhat obvious to everyone concerned. The bad news is that even with such detailed reports as the one filed last year by LEAD, no singular, simple solution has emerged. Opinions on the matter are as varied and diverse as the state’s 21 public school districts.

Some point to a need for more nuanced teacher accountability. Others say early childhood education is the key—such as statewide full-day kindergarten. And more still decry the state’s outdated and cumbersome funding distribution formula, which they claim is the source of most monetary problems. If there is a unifying theme here, it’s that each of these matters will be examined closely as the state prepares to finalize its financial plan for 2010.

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But why is public education funding such a perpetually prickly animal to tame? The answer may have to do with some of the abstraction inherent in the system. Unlike the building of roads or the collection of trash, measuring the success of public education is fraught with philosophical differences of opinion and takes a lot of time to measure. (Consider that today’s first graders won’t enter the workforce until at least 2020.)

“It’s no wonder public education funding is so complicated,” says Michael Jackson, of the Office of Management and Budget. “The entire business of public education is complicated.”

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John Taylor knows this all too well. In addition to his role as executive director of the Delaware Public Policy Institute, Taylor is senior vice president of the State Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Vision 2015 implementation committee. “We’re talking about a sea change here in the way our schools are run,” he says. “These are not the types of things that can easily come about. But then again, if I thought it couldn’t be done at all, I’d pack it up and go do something else.”

But he isn’t moving on to something else, because Taylor knows how important a well-educated population is to the success of his state. “Businesses can’t survive without good people, and if students are coming out of school unprepared for the workforce, that’s just not very good for business,” Taylor says. “If there’s lousy education in Delaware, it affects the quality of life, and that makes it more difficult to attract good people to come here and work.”

So right now it’s a one-step-at-a-time march across a very foggy landscape. Practically speaking, school districts across the state are devising action plans that will allow them to make financial decisions as soon as specific cuts are announced. At Indian River, for example, Bunting says her team is looking at future budget scenarios in large chunks.

“First we decide how we’ll respond if we lose $500,000. Then we move on to the next tier. What about $1 million?” she says. “We’re doing this now because when the decision comes, we’re going to have to move fast. And I’m the kind of person who likes to plan ahead.”

These plans involve reducing spending wherever possible, like working toward totally paperless documentation and diminishing the size of events like Teacher of the Year receptions—anything that can be reduced without cutting faculty and thus increasing class size.

“You only have so much fat you can trim off,” says Bunting. “And we don’t have a lot of fat.”

Everyone has his or her magic wand change initiative, that one element of public education policy deemed most crucial in moving through tough transitional times. For Taylor, it’s bolstering early childhood education. For Schoenhals, it’s changing the way Delaware distributes its public education dollars. For Bunting, it’s keeping as many teachers in the classroom as possible. And for Governor Jack Markell, it’s restoring parents’ overall faith in the system.

“I talk to a lot of young parents who say they’re faced with a dilemma,” says Markell. “They say, ‘Do I stay in Delaware and send my child to a private school, or do I move to Pennsylvania to send my child to a public school up there?’ One of the ways I’m going to measure the success of my administration is how many fewer of those conversations I’m having when I leave office compared to when I got here.”

Markell is keenly aware of the difficulties Delaware’s public education system faces, and he knows the looming 2010 budget is going to force administrators to make some very difficult and unprecedented decisions. Moreover, during his 2008 gubernatorial campaign, Markell stressed his desire to avoid faculty layoffs as a solution to a state budget shortfall. “Let me be clear,” he said in April, “as governor, I will not cut the education budget in ways that force teacher layoffs or take necessary resources out of the classroom.”

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To that end Markell says he has taken many of the LEAD recommendations into account—especially those pertaining to the consolidation of district services and leveraging school construction—but that he has a detailed plan of his own he hopes to implement during his first term.

“I think we ought to be doing what we can to make sure education dollars are focused on the classroom. The LEAD report talked about the fact that money could be saved if we were to have shared purchasing across school districts. That makes sense,” Markell says. “And the report has other good recommendations in it, but it’s not my plan. I accept the premise of Vision 2015 that unless our schools are great, we’re not really doing everything we can for the people of Delaware, but I have a detailed plan that I’ve already laid out myself. This includes changing the way we fund public education and the way we measure student achievement. In the end, we need to intensify our effort to make our schools world class.”

To be sure, silver linings are hard to come by these days. Delaware may be facing a budget deficit in 2010 that’s three times the size of 2009’s. Jobs may be lost. Programs may be cut. And many of the educational reform initiatives proposed by the governor and groups like Vision 2015 may be slow to materialize (if not indefinitely put on hold). But Appoquinimink School District superintendent Tony Marchio says there is a positive side to all of this, even if it’s hard to see.

“I think if there’s a silver lining in this whole thing it’s that we’re back to the basics of good classroom instruction,” says Marchio. “It’s what you have to do in your own family. If you have hard economic times or you lose your job, you think of the basics: shelter, food, staying warm. You may have to think about what is really important and the things that sustain life, and I think that’s what we’re doing now. We’re looking at life-sustaining issues here that are absolutely critical. Sometimes, everything else is secondary.”

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