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Report Offers States Ways to Find Savings in Schools

State policymakers attempting to bring down school costs should ease and refine class-size mandates and other requirements, and more closely scrutinize how money is spent on special education, a new report recommends.

Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization that analyzes school budgets, offers a range of such suggestions in its report published today. (Disclosure: Education Week's publisher, Editorial Projects in Education, has a partnership with ERS and makes some of its resources available on our Web site.)

Some of those steps are already being implemented in states—not without controversy—such as efforts to link teacher pay to producing gains in student achievement, rather than to longevity or obtaining advanced degrees.

The report, "Restructuring Resources for High-Performing Schools," argues that state mandates should be reworked to focus class-size limits on classes where there is the greatest academic need, such as critical subjects or special populations. The cost of keeping those class sizes low could be offset by slightly larger class sizes for other students.

A number of state policymakers are making similiar arguments these days, as they've seen their budgets for K-12 squeezed. ERS lends some data to the discussion. Its report shows that in a number of districts it studied, "general education" classes—those not serving students with special needs, English-language learners, or other special populations—had teacher-to-student ratios that were often 10 to 12 students higher per class. Classes serving specialized populations were often smaller, partly as a result of mandates.

In addition, states and school districts complicate the allocation of resources by allowing special education students to attend schools of their choice. This forces schools to add high-cost services and employees, ERS says, and sometimes leaves them with classes that are only at 50 percent to 75 percent of capacity. "In an environment of limited resources," ERS states, "schools and districts must balance the desire to keep students in their local school with ensuring these students receive the highest-quality teaching and best facilities."

The report covers many other cost-savings strategies—in areas such as maximizing building and land use, offering more flexible uses of state spending, and creating partnerships with outside entities—which I'll let you consider on your own.

When you've looked at ERS' recommendations, let me know where you think they're on point, or off the mark.

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