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Public Skeptical of LIFO and Online Learning, Fordham Survey Finds

While members of the public may broadly support cost-cutting measures for schools and look suspiciously at budgetary decisions that protect teacher seniority, most want districts to avoid laying off not only teachers but also other education workers who work directly with students.

Those findings come from a report published today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, titled "How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education", based on 1,009 telephone interviews in March and with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. There were also four focus groups interviewed about the issues touched on in the report.

Asked about the best approach for a district facing a "serious" budget deficit, a plurality of respondents (48 percent) said they would cut a district's costs by "dramatically changing how it does business." What does that mean? Nearly seven out of 10 respondents, 69 percent, want to reduce the number of district-level administrators to the bare minimum, because in their view it cuts costs without damaging classroom work. (The term "bare minimum" is not statistically defined.) Librarians, school nurses, and after-school sports are also unpopular targets for the budget scythe.

"They like cuts that they won't actually notice," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute.

But the executive director of the National School Boards Association, Anne Bryant, had something to say about what she called "the obvious answer" of cutting administrators, in a statement from the NSBA about the Fordham survey: "Like any business, school districts need officials to manage budgets and operations to ensure that students are safe and teachers and principals can focus on their jobs."

This sentiment could also explain the reluctance of those surveyed to lay off teachers even when purse strings are tightening: 74 percent said they would rather "save jobs" by cutting all teacher salaries by 5 percent, rather than lay off 5 percent of teachers, while only 14 percent would rather lay off 5 percent of teachers.

The survey also touched on seniority-based employment decisions, or so-called "last in, first out" labor rules. Asked about which factor should be more important when officials are deciding which teachers to lay off, 74 percent said the "effectiveness" should take priority, while only 18 percent said "years of service" should take priority. Note, however, that there was no consensus definition of "effectiveness" among respondents, although it's the survey's use of the word itself that counts, Petrilli noted.

"It's a ripe issue for reformers. It's a winning issue. And we've seen real movement on that in several states in the last year or two," he said.

But another "ripe issue" is online learning, and here the public is more skeptical. A plurality, 46 percent, want schools to stay away from "blended" classes that involve both Internet work and face-to-face classrooms, while 42 percent want such classes used more. Petrilli noted that even adults who have taken online courses themselves don't view online K-12 options more favorably, since the public tends to think the school experience provides students important social skills, not just academic skills and knowledge.

There's more in the report about attitudes towards special education and pensions, so click the link to put the whole document on your plate.

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