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It’s time to face the fiscal tidal wave

Posted by Feb 11th, 2010.

I’ve been gone from these pages for awhile, but return a voice crying in the wilderness. Not exactly as a prophet of doom (I don’t have the long gray beard or ragged robes for the part), but I do wish to make a point emphatically in hopes that citizens, officials and policy makers will lift up their heads and take action before the very real threat of a fiscal tidal wave arrives.

Jeremy Meyer’s story in the Denver Post today contains the unpleasant news of the budget cuts faced by many Colorado school districts. No one will deny the difficult and painful decisions that must follow. All our hopes are for cuts that minimize the impact on classrooms and student learning.

But I am now confident more than ever that it is imperative for school districts and state lawmakers to seize the moment and fundamentally redesign systems for efficiency. Houston superintendent Terry Grier’s controversial call to stop funding master’s “bumps” is a modest but important step that demonstrates just how difficult this process will be.

For those who have dedicated themselves to the work of public education for years or even decades, stepping back to look at the big picture may not be easy to do. But it must be done. A tepid approach today exacerbates tomorrow’s pain and likely worsens future consequences.

Last month the Fordham Foundation and American Enterprise Institute co-sponsored an event titled “A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better” (our own Commissioner Dwight Jones was a panelist). The greatest value of the event is the repository of serious and scholarly analyses on effective ideas to save money. There simply isn’t space here for me to rehash them all. Please check them out.

Most important among the published analyses, and first on the list, is James Guthrie and Arthur Peng’s well-researched examination of the big picture “A Warning for All Who Would Listen: America’s Public Schools Face a Forthcoming Fiscal Tsunami” (Please note it’s a draft document, I look forward to the final product). Guthrie wastes no time getting to the point:

A 100-year era of perpetual per-pupil fiscal growth will soon slow or stop. The causes of this situation are far more fundamental than the current recession. Schools should start buckling their seat belts now.

This article has two major points. First, even when controlled for inflation, school spending has been increasing substantially for a century. Second, political and fiscal pressures will soon coincide to reverse this condition. Issues of productivity and performance will become paramount.

In other words, public school agencies have had it good for a long time, but tough times really are coming (we’re talking 2012 and beyond, after the recession). Judge for yourself whether Guthrie should be taken seriously. But he argues persuasively that changing demographics, the pension time bomb, massive shifts in dependency from local to federal revenue, a mounting national debt, and growing competition from political interests will combine to unseat K-12 from its privileged funding perch. Something has to give, my friends.

The public’s fascination with small class sizes, or at least the expectation that the fundamental classroom design will remain unchanged in perpetuity, is among the things to give. And we can expect the general amity between teachers unions, other education employee interest groups and the public at large to fade as well. Competition for a suddenly shrinking pie of resources will do that.

Colorado may be relatively blessed. While our state’s real growth in per pupil spending has been more modest than the nation as a whole (25 percent over the last 20 years or so vs. about 40 percent for the national average), it seems likely that any crash would hit Colorado with less force. Not to downplay the fiscal pain in real terms, but this case would be one in which it would be relatively better to have a low national ranking.

Still, some day before long private school vouchers or tax credits may win the day largely on the appeal of saving taxpayer money. Public schools are thankfully an institution that will be here to stay, but they almost certainly will look a lot different a generation from now. It is up to the courage and persistence of Colorado school officials to help determine how much of the re-shaping will be at their own hands and how much will be imposed on them by outside pressures too great to control.

I hope this conversation will continue, and spread far and wide. Pressing local and state political concerns of the moment are always hindrances, but we need clear-headed leadership with long-range vision now as much as ever. So why do I fear everyone will just go on his merry way?

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