Safeguarding the right to a sound basic education in times of fiscal constraint.

Author:Rebell, Michael A.
Position:V. A Framework for Constitutional Compliance B. Promote Efficiency and Cost Effectiveness Without Undermining Constitutionally-Required Student Services to C. Undertake a Cost Analysis to Determine an Adequate and Cost Effective Funding Level, p. 1920-1964 - Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke Sixth Annual State Constitutional Commentary Symposium: The S
 
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  1. Promote Efficiency and Cost Effectiveness Without Undermining Constitutionally-Required Student Services

    Although a child's constitutional right to a sound basic education cannot be put on hold because of fiscal constraints upon state governments, neither can the need for fiscal prudence be ignored, especially during recessionary times. Indeed, in such times, every effort should be made to ensure that education funds are spent as efficiently and effectively as possible. (275) States cannot reduce educational services below constitutional thresholds, but they can respond to fiscal exigencies by seeking more efficient and cost-effective ways to provide the constitutionally-mandated level of services.

    The U.S. Department of Education has exhorted states and school districts to do so, and its "Increasing Educational Productivity" website (276) offers a list of ten "Innovative Approaches & Best Practices" to help them in this endeavor. (277) In addition, the Department recommends seven "Key Readings on Educational Productivity" for guidance in this area. (278) Although there are many useful suggestions in these lists of best practices and recommended readings, at the same time, many of the proposals are simplistic exhortations (e.g., "process improvements"), (279) ideologically charged policies (e.g., use of performance pay), (280) and untested new directions (e.g., enrolling students in online courses full-time). (281)

    Two education policy scholars have expressed profound skepticism regarding the value of these materials. After reviewing all of the Department's recommended works, Bruce D. Baker and Kevin G. Welner concluded that "the sources listed on the website's resources page are speculative, non-peer-reviewed think tank reports and related documents ... that generally fail to include or even cite the types of analysis that would need to be conducted before arriving at their conclusions and policy recommendations." (282)

    Baker and Welner insist that cost reduction strategies should be based on thorough-going peer-reviewed research utilizing "cost-effectiveness," (283) relative-efficiency, (284) and "cost-benefit" (285) analyses. I agree with Baker and Welner that ideally--and ultimately---cost reduction strategies that are going to be widely implemented should be based on the kind of rigorous empirical testing that they recommend. I also agree with their recommendation that U.S. Department of Education--and, I would add, each state education department--should form a consortium of scholars and researchers in these areas to develop short- and long-term agendas for carrying out cost-effectiveness and relative-efficiency analyses. (286)

    Nevertheless, given the cost pressures that state policymakers face at the moment, it is unrealistic to expect that no cost-reduction policies will be put into effect until this rigorous empirical testing regime is completed. Some of the ideas on the U.S. Department of Education's website and the recommended sources, like making greater efforts to have full enrollment in "non-core" elective and AP courses (287) have obvious commonsense appeal; others, like using "per-unit costs" for education analysis, (288) appear to be insightful analytic tools for promoting efficiency. Implementation of policies based on credible suggestions like these should be encouraged, with, however, two major provisos. First, proposed efficiency and effectiveness policies should be developed and/or vetted through a transparent process such as a task force composed of respected scholars, economists, educators, and policy analysts. (289) Second, a major aspect of this review process should be to subject each cost saving suggestion to a sound basic education impact assessment that will give full consideration to the likely effect of adoption of the proposed policy on students' educational opportunities. This type of assessment would ensure, for example, that a policy that promotes full enrollment in elective and AP classes will not mean, in practice, that important electives or AP classes will be cancelled if, despite best efforts, enrollments turn out to be low. The operational description of sound basic education will provide a workable analytic tool for members of the task force in conducting this review, and for members of the public, and the courts, if necessary, in evaluating their judgments once they are promulgated. A further empirical sound basic education impact assessment should be conducted as a regular part of the state's accountability efforts, after these policies are implemented in the field.

    In the pages that follow in this section, I will offer some suggestions on how the available evidence and experience can be used in this manner. I will discuss five specific areas in which I believe that greater efficiency and improved cost-effectiveness can be achieved, while maintaining or even improving the opportunities for a sound basic education for students. These discussions are, of course, meant to be suggestive and not definitive. The five areas I will consider are mandate relief, special education reform, school district consolidation, teacher retention, and employee pension reform.

    Before beginning a brief examination of these topics, I think it important to mention two major contextual factors that are relevant to any discussion of cost reduction in education. First, approximately seventy-five percent of educational expenses in the United States are personnel costs, and these costs tend to rise more rapidly than inflation and non-personnel costs. (290) One of the reasons for the outsized increases in personnel costs is that health insurance and pension costs--the major benefits that teachers and other school employees receive--have risen dramatically in recent years. (291) Although some slowing in the growth of these costs may be possible, (292) much of this burden is outside of school districts' control. Because the research is clear that effective teachers are main drivers of improved student performance, (293) and it is important that teacher compensation remain competitive with other career options that capable and motivated college graduates can pursue, (294) proposals to cap or cut teacher salaries and benefits in order to meet immediate budget targets are likely to prove counterproductive. (295)

    Second, current pressures to reduce costs in education are intensifying at a time when national policy is calling for significant and immediate improvements in student performance in order to improve our economy, to maintain America's competitive standing in the global economy, and to preserve the integrity of our democratic institutions. (296) Meeting this challenge obviously will require expanding, not contracting, services, especially those for low-achieving students from backgrounds of poverty. Over the long run, investment in education will yield significant economic benefits. (297) The United States now spends on average 2.35 times as much per year on each prisoner as it does on each public school students ($22,722 versus $9,683). (298)

    1. Mandate Relief

      A major generator of inefficiency in education is the tendency of federal and state governments to impose unnecessary and/or excessive monitoring, reporting, and management requirements on funds that are allocated to schools and school districts. Accordingly, leaders like New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo have stressed mandate relief as a prime vehicle for reducing the cost of government operations during this period of fiscal constraint. One of Governor Cuomo's first acts upon taking office was to establish a Task Force on Mandate Relief to undertake "a rigorous, systematic and comprehensive review of mandates imposed on local governments, school districts and other local taxing districts, the reasons for such mandates and the costs on local governments," in order to "identify mandates that are ineffective, unnecessary, outdated and duplicative." (299)

      In a March 2011 preliminary report, the Governor's Task Force issued a number of general recommendations such as prohibiting new unfunded mandates, requiring independent cost analyses of mandates, and numerous specific recommendations like giving local governments the opportunity to piggyback on Federal General Services Administration contracts for information technology. (300) Other recommendations included authorizing the Office of General Services ("OGS") "to provide centralized services in the form of purchases of electricity to political subdivisions," (301) and adopting electronically-formatted school transportation contracts and school bus purchase contracts to eliminate unnecessary paperwork. (302) Only a handful of these items dealt directly with mandates affecting school districts. A few, but far from all, of these specific recommendations were adopted by the legislature in its 2011 session. (303) Major recommendations like costing out all future mandates were not.

      In its final report, the task force stated that the changes enacted by the legislature would save the taxpayers approximately $125 million and it urged the legislature to adopt a series of additional recommendations that it estimated would save an additional $245 million. (304) It also announced that a "Mandate Relief Council" had been established in the governor's office to continue its work and that this council would review requests from local governments for relief from specific state mandates on a continuing basis. (305)

      The task force's focus on a laundry list of relatively minor items, and the legislature's limited follow through, even on those meager recommendations, clearly do not seem to reflect the "rigorous, systemic and comprehensive review" that the governor had promised. (306) The $125 million in savings that the task force claimed--which applies, of course, not just to education but to the entire state budget--is a paltry sum in light of the current shortfall of almost $5 billion in...

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