Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tracking the Education Dollar

An updated version of Tracking the Education Dollar in Texas Public Schools is now available on TASA’s web site.

The report, prepared by Moak, Casey & Associates and sponsored by TASA, TASB and TASBO, has overall information about how much money is spent on education in the state and in what areas, but also breaks down the education dollar from the perspective of the Texas public school student. Figures are presented in terms of pennies on the total education dollar using basic educational costs from 2008-09 PEIMS data.

The data show that education is a labor-intensive business, with 80 percent of the education dollar going to salaries and benefits.

This can be a very useful document for sharing budget information with your community. Hope you find it helpful.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In education, one size doesn't fit all

There’s another statistic out there lawmakers are paying attention to and using as a justification for cutting funding for public schools.

 It’s from the Legislative Budget Board and shows that Texas has more employees per student than any other state in the country. According to the LBB, Texas has 273 employees for every 10,000 students. That’s substantially higher than California, which has 193 employees per 10,000 students.

Some lawmakers have pointed to that and intimated that if California can get by with fewer people, why can’t we? Well, right off the top of my head, I think the first question we should ask ourselves is do we really want to model our public education system after California’s?

But I figured we need some research to back up a defense of that number beyond bashing California. So here it is. Yes, we do have more employees per student than California. The answer is largely due to our sheer geographical size and the fact that so much of Texas is sparsely populated, making small schools a necessity. Smaller schools are more expensive to operate per student than large schools. That’s just an economic fact.

For example, Texas has only nine high schools in the entire state with a population of 3,500 or more. And only four of those schools – Elsik High and Hastings High, both in Alief ISD, North Shore Senior High in Galena Park ISD, and Skyline High in Dallas ISD – are north of the 4,000-student mark. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County alone, there are 13 schools with more than 4,000 students and many of those approaching 5,000 students.

Some might question if packing that many kids in a school in the first place is a wise investment, but I’ll leave that debate for another time and focus on the economics.

The total number of schools in California is 9,855, with a student population of about 6.2 million students. That means an average school enrollment of 628. Texas has 8,342 schools for 4.7 million students. That’s an average school enrollment of 577. 

But you really see what makes Texas different if you break the average enrollment numbers up by school size.

Here’s the average number of students per school in districts based on size:

 50,000 students and higher: average school size 765
25,000-49,999 students: average school size 798
10,000-24,999 students: average school size 681
5,000-9,999 students: average school size 631
3,000-4,999 students: average school size 530
1,600-2,999 students: average school size 438
1,000-1,599 students: average school size 323
500-999 students: average school size 230
Under 500 students: average school size 152

Those numbers make it easy to see the economy of scale. And in Texas, where so many districts are geographically large and rural, 1.3 million kids attend school in districts of 10,000 students or less.

Another interesting fact, while Texas has more employees than California, a higher percentage of those employees are classroom teachers. While 50 percent of Texas public school employees are teachers, that number is 46 percent in California.

Our demographics, geography and population are beyond school districts’ control. Public school leaders are doing their best to provide Texas schoolchildren with what they need to succeed. And what Texas students need is not necessarily the same thing students in Oklahoma, Arizona or even California need.

Education isn’t one size fits all.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Clearing up the misconceptions about 1:1

At a time when the Legislature is looking to gut education funding, it seems a lot of interesting, previously obscure, statistics pop up and get repeated. 

One of those is the 1:1 ratio of teachers to non-teaching staff in Texas and, according to one study, that the ratio has shifted from 5:1 in the 1970s. Lawmakers often point to it in breathless tones of disbelief, as if stating the statistic alone justifies cuts in education.

But, as with any statistic, context is needed.

Recent research by Moak, Casey and Associates highlights the misperceptions around those statistics. Here’s the rest of the story: Texas didn’t count all staff in the 1970s. The largest portion of non-teaching staff – auxiliary personnel – were not counted until the PEIMS data system was established in the ‘80s, so the two numbers are not an apples-to-apples comparison.

 Moak, Casey found that a look at comparable data shows the percentage of teachers to non-teachers has actually not changed substantially since the late 1980s. The percentage of staff that are teachers has declined slightly, from 52 percent to 50 percent since the 1989-90 school year, but the ratio has remained essentially the same for more than 20 years.

And here’s another thing that bothers me about that argument: The implication that those employees in the “non-teaching” categories don’t contribute to what goes on in the classroom. Of course, we all realize the importance of the classroom teacher and what a critical factor that person is in a child’s education. But there is support that is necessary for that teacher to do his or her job.

In using the 1:1 ratio, some have been referring to all those “non-teaching” positions as “administrators". This brings to mind images of tie-wearing bureaucrats at central office. (Bureaucrats, by the way, who have the responsibility of hiring the best teachers, developing curriculum, cutting paychecks, managing multi-million dollar budgets, keeping track of mountains of regulatory paperwork required by the state and federal governments, etc.)

Those central office folks have important jobs that require specialized skill sets. But if there was a 1:1 ratio of central administration staff to teachers, I think we could all agree that would be ridiculous. In truth, central administrators make up only 1 percent of school employees. That doesn’t sound outrageous to me, nor does it jive with that 1:1 ratio.

You could lump campus administrators in with that number, but they only make up another 3 percent of public school district employees.

So who are the rest? 

They are professional support (9 percent), educational aides (10 percent) and auxiliary staff (27 percent).

And what do they do? 

Professional support is a broad category of positions, from people who write curriculum and provide teachers with professional development to computer technicians who run the district’s network. They are also auditors, accountants, risk management experts, special education coordinators and dieticians. 

Educational aides help teachers in classrooms, often with special needs children, providing one-on-one attention to kids who need it most. Auxiliary staff includes bus drivers who get children to and from school safely, cafeteria workers who feed them breakfast and lunch, custodians who keep their schools clean and safe, and school secretaries who staff the front office, register kids for school and help parents on a daily basis.

In the current budget outlook, it’s inevitable that some of these crucial positions will be eliminated. But to assume that eliminating them won’t affect the classroom is ludicrous. To use a military term, these are “mission essential” people. Cutting these positions will affect children. Their school day will be different. The atmosphere will change. More will be required of teachers, which will mean less time for what they should be focusing on: instruction. 

To imply otherwise is at best naïve.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Talking points: Discussing the budget

Several superintendents during TASA's Midwinter Conference mentioned that having talking points at the ready would be helpful for speaking to legislators, members of the media and the community about how budget cuts will affect public schools and why it's important for lawmakers to Make Education a Priority.

TASA and TASB staff generated some talking points when we were preparing for editorial board meetings at newspapers across the state in the fall. At those meetings, members of TASA and TASB talked about the state of school funding and how budget cuts would affect their districts.

Here are some of the broad points they covered. Feel free to use these in your own districts.

  • Because of changes the Legislature made to the school finance system in 2006, our district has been operating with essentially the same amount of per-pupil revenue for the past five years. Meanwhile, annual costs - including a state-mandated teacher pay raise - have continued to go up. Standards have continued to increase as well, which means districts are not only being asked to do more with less, but do it better.

  • The next two years bring even more challenges and districts need adequate funding to meet those challenges. (Here talk about your district's growing or declining enrollment and explain how the scenario affects your district's bottom line, such as hiring more personnel, building facilities for growing districts, the challenges of less funding for declining enrollment and decisions that have to be made of closing schools for districts with declining enrollment. Also talk about growing population of economically disadvantaged, LEP and special education students and how these groups require more personalized instruction.)

  • During the 2012-13 school year, we will begin administering end-of-course exams, which will be more rigorous than the exit-level TAKS. Despite the budget deficit, lawmakers have so far been adamant that there should be no delay in implementing the new system, even though they acknowledge the financial strain it will place on districts. (Be specific about what types of programs will need to be implemented to prepare students for EOC's and other costs associated with the new testing program.)

  • Because we have been in financial crisis since the Legislature froze funding levels in 2006, our district has already cut costs wherever possible. (Give specific examples of cost-cutting measures.)

  • During this past school year, we spent $__ per student, of which $__ went directly to instruction. Only __ percent of the district's budget was spent on district administration and __ percent was spent on campus administration. If  our state funding is cut at the level that lawmakers are now talking about, we anticipate having to cut the following programs and services: (be as specific as you can.)

  • Failing to invest in today's schoolchildren is dangerous and ultimately unfair. Texas children need and deserve a quality education. If funding is cut for our schools, our students and the state's economy will pay the price.