Voices in Education

Q&A with Frederick Hess and Eric Osberg
Frederick M. Hess and Eric Osberg, editors of Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best, on why there has never been a better time to start talking about solutions for successfully managing school budgets.

What led you to explore the topic of education spending?

Certainly it’s a timely topic—across the country, states are facing enormous budget deficits and schools and districts are being asked to make cuts. Yet we fear that this is not a temporary problem. The recent stimulus funding for education merely served to postpone, not eliminate, the reckoning that schools will face; schools cannot simply rely on next year’s budget being a bit larger than this year’s. So we wanted to illustrate for policy makers and education leaders that this crisis could be an opportunity—that schools could make changes, both small and large, first to address their immediate budget needs but also, and more important, to reorganize their workings in the best long-term interests of students, so that they are poised to be successful, sustainable enterprises in the years to come. There is much literature on education finance, but there are few resources that cash-strapped school leaders can turn to for this combination of practical and visionary advice.

What should educational leaders consider first and foremost when making decisions about cutting and spending?

The interests of students must be paramount. For example, over the past several decades, the teaching force has grown tremendously, much faster than enrollments, pushing down average class sizes. However, this has come at tremendous cost—and the evidence on class sizes suggests there are few benefits to students. Likewise, investments in the core academic subjects should take precedence over electives and extracurriculars. While schools should never lose their zeal to deliver a well-rounded experience to each of their students, they cannot afford to be blind to the fact that scarce dollars must be allocated so that the essentials of a good education come first.

What are the implications of increasing concerns about budgeting among educational leaders at the policy level?

The most important implications may be that several sacred cows lose their untouchable status. Personnel costs comprise the bulk of education budgets, and teachers make up the majority of those costs. Yet historically, education leaders have had little ability or will to address teacher costs in order to save money: salaries, layoff procedures, working hours, and sundry other personnel issues are often constrained by teacher contracts or state law. The current fiscal crisis could encourage policy makers to change some of these laws and give union leaders incentive to reconsider such contract provisions. So in addition to training education leaders to focus on the lessons we suggest above, we hope their increasing concerns about budgeting encourage them to support bold reforms in policy and contract language.

What can educational leaders learn about budgeting from the private sector?

A lot. The private sector has been aggressive about supplementing labor with the smart use of technology, making labor more productive and cost efficient. Education has clearly lagged in this area, so opportunities abound—for great teachers to be accessible via computer to many more students, for technology to support teachers by compiling feedback on students and identifying problem areas, and for many other opportunities that we expand upon in our book.

The private sector also has been smarter about understanding its costs—the field of cost accounting has long enabled managers to think in “costs per unit,” an important skill that has rarely translated to education. As a result, school leaders often don’t know when low priority extracurricular activities cost more per student than do core academic priorities.

How does virtual schooling and computer-assisted instruction connect to the budget issues you explore in the book?

Most obviously, it’s a way to save money—John Chubb’s chapter neatly calculates the potential savings of both hybrid and fully virtual models of schooling. In the long run, however, it’s also a way to help infuse education with an appreciation for how technology can support the work of teachers and help them make better use of their time by uncovering trends in data, delivering feedback on student performance, and enabling teachers to maximize their time spent teaching rather than assessing students.

On a practical level, what do education leaders seeking to financially restructure their schools stand to gain from Stretching the School Dollar?

The book can give them some practical tools for addressing costs today and ideas for bigger changes tomorrow. At the practical level, leaders can read about how big urban districts have benchmarked their costs to ferret out inefficiencies, how analysts have helped schools understand their costs on a per-student basis, and how consultants have assisted districts and states needing to squeeze savings out of their administrative costs. In the longer run, Stretching the School Dollar can help leaders visualize schools in which teachers are deployed and compensated in different ways and in which technology plays a more important and useful role.

About the Author: The Harvard Education Press publishes innovative, authoritative books covering critical issues in education. Our books influence and inform education practice and administration, explore ongoing debates, and report on important research.