Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech yesterday at an American Enterprise Institute panel event. Like Rick Hess, my socks were knocked off. You mean, the same Obama official who oversaw billions upon billions in stimulus and Edujobs (not to mention Race to the Top) spending now says:
I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K‐12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less.
My message is that this challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system
lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.
It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat‐your‐broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.
An acknowledgment of new political realities in Washington? An admission of prolonged economic malaise? Perhaps. But all five pages of the transcript must be read. Challenging words for union leaders, administrators and school boards alike that amounts to a strong statement from Secretary Duncan. Is Colorado ready to embrace the challenge? My experience at two recent panel events gives me pause.
Ten days ago I accepted an invitation to drop in on a CU-Denver-hosted panel discussion on how Colorado K-12 agencies can weather the fiscal storm. The panelists — outgoing state treasurer Cary Kennedy, the School Finance Project’s Tracy Rainey, new DPS CFO David Hart and Michael Griffith from Education Commission of the States — offered a bleak picture.
Kennedy herself made the statement that Colorado’s per-pupil funding is at the same inflation-adjusted level in 1989. I’d really, really like to know where that info comes from. A look at NCES data (adjusted by the Denver-Boulder CPI) shows Colorado increased current per pupil spending by 21 percent and total per pupil spending by 28 percent between 1989-90 and 2007-08. Looking just at the primary School Finance Act portion of K-12 budgets, one will find that total program spending grew about 2 percent less than inflation. So while Colorado K-12 per-pupil real operational expenditures may have grown somewhere less than 20 percent, someone will have to explain the correctness of the statement I heard from Treasurer Kennedy that spending has been flat. But I digress….
I had a greater disappointment from the CU-Denver event. When confronted by both the moderator and later by a member of the audience (someone beat me to it!) about ways school districts can innovate and adjust to face the fiscal reality, answers from the panel ranged anywhere from thin and vague to evasive. I refuse to believe K-12′s near-term fiscal challenges can only be addressed on the backs of students. We need to hear from other voices on this matter (including district leaders showing some bold outside-the-box thinking), and Arne Duncan’s certainly will do!
At a second panel event this Monday co-sponsored by many groups and inspired by the theme of the new film Waiting for Superman, most of the representatives of established groups repeatedly came back to the need for more “resources” to advance reform. To his credit, CASB’s Ken DeLay proved a notable exception by emphasizing that Colorado taxpayers expect to see real earnest change before again being counted on to provide more funds. Modest reductions in local and state tax dollars due partly to economic stagnation aren’t the only challenge officials and administrators face. Duncan’s announcement makes clear that K-12 school systems can’t expect to lean on federal dollars again any time soon, either.
One thing I want to know is whether groups that have touted Colorado’s slower-than-other-states’ growth in per-pupil spending as a crisis will start rejoicing if future trends reverse and Colorado’s spending declines in real terms but at a significantly slower pace than other states. That’s one way to close the gap with the national average.
Even if he is a little late to the game, I prefer to follow Duncan’s lead, to think how districts and agencies can do things differently, and to focus on productivity and outputs in Colorado public education. Seems like a good prerequisite for the next commissioner, too.
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