dollars and cents

A principal explains how his 5 percent cut became 8.5 percent

The 4.9 percent figure that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has given for each school’s budget cut seriously underestimates the severity of the cuts, especially at schools where teachers want to stay, a principal told me yesterday.

When he first got his new budget from the Department of Education, the Brooklyn principal, who asked to remain anonymous, saw a cut of almost 5 percent, as Klein had warned. That amount was significant, but he could handle it. Things looked much worse when he saw that his expenses were also rising, by nearly the same amount that was being cut. In total, he said, his effective budget is set to drop by 8.5 percent, a size that means he will probably have to let go at least one teacher.

The second surprise came when he realized what was driving the rising costs: The arguably good news that staff members at his school, from teachers to school secretaries to administrators, are sticking around. That means they have more years of experience than they have in the past — and therefore must be paid more, thanks to the salary structure in schools gives teachers and other employees, including the principal himself, more money every year they stay in the system.

Klein explained the phenomenon at a recent City Council hearing on the Department of Education’s proposed budget.In the past few years, the city’s average teacher salary has been edging upward, a result of better teacher retention, Klein said. That wasn’t a problem in the past because the system’s budget was expanding faster than the salaries were increasing. But this year, Klein said, the department’s overall budget is staying flat, turning salary increases into what is effectively a system-wide budget cut.

The same phenomenon is happening at the school level. Holding onto teachers helps schools maintain stability, but it also means their budgets are locked into annual increases. The recession could inflate costs even more, since fewer teachers are expected to leave their jobs in the tough economy. That means teachers who in other years would have exited the system and been replaced by younger, lower-paid teachers are instead staying in the system and racking up salary increases.

The principal I spoke to said his 8.5 percent budget cut is going to force some tough choices. Even before he realized that was his number, he considered cutting down on payments for teachers who work extra hours, buying fewer supplies, and forgoing substitutes when teachers are absent. Now, he says he’ll talk to teachers at the school to brainstorm ideas about what to cut before the June 18 deadline to submit his budget. (What is your school cutting?)

Yet even as he struggles with the cuts, the principal said he is glad things aren’t worse, which they could have been. “Thank God — and Obama’s election — for ARRA,” the principal said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the official name for the federal stimulus package. Without the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the stimulus put back into his school’s budget, the school would have been down more than 15 percent of its budget, he said.

“Could we function without it?” the principal asked. “Probably not.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”