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Can Ed Reform Thrive During State Budget Slumps?

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One of the most disturbing things I heard today during a press conference about state budget conditions was this: the economic downturn in many states could last three or four years.

That's about as long as the next president's first term.

Even if the national economy takes an unexpected upward swing, states are always slower to come out of slumps. Ray Scheppach, the executive director of the National Governors Association, explained that it's because states typically don't feel the negative impact from unemployment (which means fewer dollars coming in from income taxes) until months after job losses hit their peak. For example, even though the recession in the early 2000s officially ended in 2001, states had to make huge budget cuts in 2002 and even into 2003. The NGA and the National Association of State Budget Officers unveiled the latest edition of their fiscal survey today, which is quite gloomy (unless you're in an energy- or food-crop-rich state like Texas, Wyoming, or North Dakota.)

When considering the national economic woes and the presidential candidates, it's important to look at state budgets for several reasons. First, states (and their local governments) are responsible for paying nearly 90 percent of the tab for K-12 education. Second, K-12 education is the biggest line-item in a state general-fund budget. And third, states are often the incubators of education reform. (If you need another reason, then consider that Obama is meeting with Democratic governors on Friday to involve them in the larger discussion about the economy.)

I can think of plenty of ways that a drawn-out slowdown in the states could affect the education plans of the next president, whether it be Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain.

For one, Sen. Obama's promised $4,000-a-year tax credit to offset the cost of college tuition won't go nearly as far if higher ed institutions jack up tuition and fees because state lawmakers cut their funding. (Higher ed is traditionally cut long before K-12 education is.)

Sen. McCain's pledge to freeze discretionary spending, including Title I money that accompanies No Child Left Behind, would be even more painful.

States and school districts, though always welcome to new money, are often hesitant to start new programs if they worry the funding source might disappear. Overall, I wonder how any new programs proposed by either candidate—whether it be funding to expand technology (which McCain's camp has talked about) or devoting more money to recruiting teachers (Obama's plan)—will be embraced if states are still struggling to pay for the basics. It will be hard for education leaders who are involved in the day-to-day running of schools to think about revolutionizing K-12 when they're struggling to pay the salaries of their existing teachers, or the fuel to bus kids to and from school.

Just one more reason why the economy and education are so closely tied together.


2 Comments

Thank you!

And the bigger factor is not the budgetary problems that come from economic downturns. The real problem is that economic hardships damage families, and kids bring the trauma to school. Our school was on a clear path to improvement, but it ended OVERNIGHT during January 2002. We had been collaborative, benefitting from the confidence that adults and students were gaining during the boom of the late 90s. The next year we lost 10% of our teachers due to cutbacks, but that wasn't the real problem.

The real problem is that when the nation's economy catches a cold, poor families are stricken by far worse. As the economists debate whether we are in a recession, families are already being hit. Overnight, the students bring their new fears to school and they act out their distress.

Coincidently, in contrast to the bogus approach articulated in the new Fordham Executive Summary, the text of their new study shows how closely NAEP scores for the bottom 10th percentile conform to economic factors. In the early 90s when top students' scores were increasing, the scores for the bottom decreased markedly. Fordham unsuccessfully searched for an accountability-related cause, but the explanation should be obvious. Fourth graders at that time lived most of their lives during the crack epidemic, the recession of 1991, and the "jobless recovery" of the Clinton years had barely begun. During the boom from 1998 to 2002, we saw the test scores increase as the rising tide lifted all boats. As NCLB was implemented, middle school NAEP scores for the bottom 10th started to decline, and the growth for elementary scores leveled off. The Fordham report (at least in the main report that few read) did a good job of explaining why 2002 could be seen as the start of the "NCLB period," and I could use their data to take a cheap shot at NCLB. But the real blame goes to the recession.

When test scores go down in 2009, I predict that many commentators will look for explanations in schools. Liberals will cite budgetary challenges, and conservative will argue that ...? The real explanation should be obvious to anyone with relationships with poor people, or if you ask a teacher, or better yet, if you ask the students.

I'm surprised reporters aren't asking more difficult questions.

At least with a Republican you know what your getting. I just can't fathom how one person, like Keegan, can manufacture so much controversy in one life time. Republicans might look at their polls more often.

If you are a reform state, then you will probably notice a vocal movement towards Waldorffing what a few lame state officials refer to as the 'everybody else' track.

Citizens would sure like to know:
1. What happened with the audit investigation at the Education Leadership Counsel, which implicated Keegan in the mismanagement of federal funds?
2. What is Keegan's role in soliciting federal funds through grants and NCLB funding?
3. Why did Keegan deny any connection with Education 2020, when she was Director of this corporation?
4. What are she and the McCain's doing with New Way Learning Academy? Why the new push for NCA accreditation, when before she had stated that NCA was unnecessary? Does it have something to do with online school accreditation?
5. Is New Way Learning Academy a front for E-Learning and Education 2020.

Keegan is not alone, there are many other trouble-prone superintendents who managed to jump the leadership bar. Its not that difficult.

Doesn't the media have some role other than propagandizing the propagandist? Schools can't stand and deliver while politicians give public education the 'flow-through' treatment. Costs for educating children have sky-rocketed and children learn far less than 10 years ago.

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