Archive for January, 2009

Smaller is Better when it comes to Running Our Schools

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, there have been numerous efforts to try to find the right mixture of ways to improve student achievement while lowering the cost of education involving five major policy making levels (i.e., federal, state, district, school and classroom/student.)  Many of these efforts have looked at the decision making process and how politics impacts that process in terms of the educational policies that result.  Using test scores as a measure of student achievement and local property taxes as a measure of the cost of education, a number of states as well as the federal government have advocated through various means for larger class sizes as well as for school consolidations.  Federal and many state governments have also advocated for the centralization of policy making at their respective levels as ways in which not only to improve student achievement but also to lower the cost of providing education. 


These federal and state level stakeholders whose motto might conceivably be described as “bigger is better” seem to base their belief on presumed economies-of-scale that will lead to lower operating costs and thereby lower property taxes as well as to perhaps improving test scores through the application of nationally determined standards at the state level.  One of their arguments seems to be based on the belief that having larger class sizes requires fewer teachers which in turn lowers operating costs.  In addition, larger class sizes mean fewer class rooms would be used thereby minimizing the demand for new or expanded school facilities.  Another argument advocates for school district consolidation as a way in which to achieve improved operating efficiency primarily through presumed lower administrative costs. 


National standards such as those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its mandated tests are also seen as a way in which to drive the formulation of educational policy at the federal and state levels while the federal level includes an aggregation of state data.  Such national educational policy is believed to help “raise the bar” for student performance.  While NCLB is mandated by the federal government, the states force their school districts to comply with its regulations.  The NCLB test scores are used to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP) for students, schools and districts alike. 


But the combination of federally-determined educational policy implemented through state governments and departments of education has often resulted in decisions seemingly made more in favor of special interest groups than local schools as well as in higher costs.  Consolidating local school districts into countywide or extremely large regional districts removes decision making authority from those levels most affected by educational policy decisions:  the individual student, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at centralized levels where special interests have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes.  Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number with supposedly less combined administrative expense has often resulted in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, excessive political patronage hiring at the county level and reduced local taxpayer input. 


Because the federal and state levels are too distant from where education actually takes place and are more easily influenced by special interest groups, accountability declines at these levels where it is needed most.  Consolidation of local school districts into county level districts also tends to result in more of a traditional military-type command-and-control decision making model.  In this Theory X model the federal level develops the strategy for policy implementation, the state governments and their departments of education translate the strategy into tactics for deployment, and the school districts are responsible for making sure that the federal and state mandates are implemented accordingly at the individual school and student level. 


Because countywide or regional school district consolidations lead to increased education costs, lower student achievement especially as measured by test scores and less accountability such combinations should be prevented.  Eliminating units of consolidation such as county level departments of education will not only remove an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and cut administrative costs but also improve accountability particularly to local taxpayers as well as to parents.  Moreover, without county level departments of education or large regionalized school districts overburdening our educational systems, our schools will be better able to provide quality instruction. 


The majority of research on class size has demonstrated that when qualified teachers teach students in smaller class sizes, the students not only learn more but also these students retain this advantage over other students who attend larger classes.  One leading study is the longitudinal class size reduction initiative conducted over a number of years in Tennessee called the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project.  The STAR project demonstrated that students, who were enrolled in small classes beginning with kindergarten and continuing through third grade, were significantly more likely than their counterparts who attended larger classes, to: 

  • Demonstrate better reading and mathematics skills
  • Complete more advanced mathematics, science and English courses
  • Complete high school 
  • Graduate high school on time 
  • Graduate with honors. 


The STAR project also found that even after the students returned to larger classes in the fourth through eighth grades those students who attended smaller class sizes for their first three or four years maintained an advantage over students who had attended the larger classes from kindergarten through third grade.  The findings of the STAR project are echoed by other projects such as Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project, which was a statewide initiative in Wisconsin that increased student achievement, and Indiana’s Project Prime Time.  In addition, the research demonstrates that having a smaller class size not only increases student achievement but also helps to minimize the achievement gap among different groups of students particularly among majority and minority students.  


“Smaller is better” and it should not be surprising that research supports this.  Having fewer students in the classroom enables the teacher to dedicate more time to each child.  Consequently, students pay more attention to class work and participate more in academics.  Because the students are more involved with their studies they learn more and behave better.  Is it any wonder then that test scores are significantly higher for students who attend small classes?   Based upon the findings of the STAR project and other studies there seems to be little doubt that students taught in small classes enjoy significant and lasting educational advantages. 


The greater is the shift to larger class sizes nationwide, the more teachers will probably be let go.  However, larger class sizes often lead to lower test scores and make it more difficult for students, schools and districts to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by NCLB.  As a result, school districts are likely to be subjected to many of the more stringent penalties of NCLB.  This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education and contribute to a downward spiral of education nationwide.    


Concentrating decision making at the district level rather than at the county, state or federal level will increase accountability not only by focusing more resources on those most affected by education policy, the students, but also by enabling those who are the most intimately involved in providing education, the school districts, to provide improved instruction.  It is the districts that not only are closest to the school systems and students but also have the necessary expertise to most effectively decide how best to provide a quality education. 


But the greatest reduction of our state’s property tax burden would be to eliminate the unnecessary and overly expensive layer of county government (i.e., Freeholders) as the majority of states have already done.  For example, Connecticut had a system similar to the one in New Jersey in which Connecticut not only had the Freeholder level of government but also had the counties involved in the running of local schools as New Jersey does through such legislation as A4S which created the Office of the Executive County Superintendent.  Because those associated with both levels of county government, Freeholder government as well as the County Department of Education, were not only too far removed from local taxpayers but also too expensive, Connecticut’s solution to cutting property taxes while improving the resources available for education was to eliminate county government. 


However, there is perhaps an even greater irony within debate over how best to improve student achievement while minimizing property taxes.  The dilemma facing our schools is that while districts must comply with the requirements of unfunded and under funded county, state and federal mandates, too many school districts are forced to spend much more to meet these requirements than they receive in combined financial aid from all county, state and federal governmental sources.  


Guest Viewpoint by Dr. Bruce Cooper: “Beyond Bricks and Mortar” 1-21-09

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Published Online: January 21, 2009
Published in Print: January 21, 2009


Beyond Bricks and Mortar


With a worsening U.S. economy, America’s schools face tough times ahead. Can new leadership in Washington succeed in linking steps devised to relieve our economic woes with measures to improve education policies—and, in the process, moderate the effects of the recession on our schools?

It would be a terrible mistake to let the schools become a casualty of this downturn. We know from the work of economists such as Theodore Schultz, Henry M. Levin, Martin Carnoy, and others that societal investments in education pay long-term dividends in higher earnings, more-productive economies, increased gross domestic product, and a better way of life. In flush times, it is easy and useful to invest more in schools and the children who attend them. Not so in this terrible economy, with reduced tax receipts and lower allocations to schools at all levels of government. What President Barack Obama advises will be critical.

Of course, public schools, as well as private ones, will have to tighten their belts, eliminate waste, and use money more frugally. They must trim bureaucracies and learn to provide more instruction and support for students with less funding. But they are too valuable to the nation’s well-being to be wrecked or weakened. Federal leadership will be essential in this area, not only in reducing the negative impact on schools, directing funding to where it matters most, and eliminating unnecessary and ineffective spending, but also in providing schools with models of best practices and most-effective uses of funds.

As a first step, Mr. Obama has proposed one simple yet elegant solution: Use part of a government-financed stimulus package to hire the growing number of unemployed workers, who can help build new, much-needed facilities and renovate older schools to better foster student learning. The idea, drawn from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration, which built bridges, roads, and public buildings in the 1930s, is a good one. But there are also other ways to meld educational and economic improvement. Here are some suggestions:

• Merit pay, improved outcomes.

Paying teachers consumes about half the budgets of U.S. schools. We need to keep adequate funding for compensation available, and the ranks of teachers strong. But these allocations could be used to do more than simply pay all teachers at a general salary level. They could strategically target funding, providing more to the teachers of low-achieving students, those working in difficult schools, and teachers in understaffed subjects like physics and math and special education. More also could be given to teachers who make outstanding improvements in student learning.

“Merit pay” has always been a scary term to teachers’ unions, but President Obama could work to persuade teaching professionals that differentiated pay for differentiated responsibility and better performance in hard-to-staff settings and subjects is not a plot to destroy unions. It is a strategy for making dollars go further to benefit students and their communities.

• With less funding available, more directed to the classroom.

Another, more controversial step would be to reduce total school funding, as the economy requires, while maintaining as much spending in the classroom as possible. In 1988, Robert Sarrel, then the business manager of New York City high schools, Sheree Speakman, an analyst at Coopers & Lybrand, and I devised a system (later called In$ite) that accounted for the proportion of real resources that reached the classroom for face-to-face, direct instruction of children. When Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York later instituted use of the Finance Analysis Model, only 33 percent of school funds were found to be reaching the children for direct instruction. Today, the level under his successor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has reached 57 percent for direct teaching and learning (including, for example, teachers’ salaries and benefits, textbooks, computers, and other materials), and a full 90 percent has been spent in the schools themselves, rather than the central office, reducing waste, bureaucracy, and overhead.

America can expand and broaden this trend by directing more of the diminished resources for education directly to schools, reducing the central bureaucracy, and by making more of that money available at the classroom level for instruction. This strategy would enable schools to absorb the decline in revenue creatively and to the benefit of students.

• Managing increases in special education students and costs.

The chief new costs in the field are for special education, as nearly 14 percent of children are now classified as eligible, and more than a quarter of all costs at the district level are for serving these students (from special transportation and occupational, speech, and physical therapies, to double time, scribes to write for kids, one-to-one paraprofessionals, interpreters, and nurses). As the numbers and services go up, the expenses rise. It’s time to build better programs, ones that are more economical and more local, and that make use of existing facilities and resources.

• “Leveling down” to greater equity.

In better economic times, the states have sought to equalize spending across districts, using concepts of equity and, more recently, of adequacy. Now, with states having much less money at their disposal, equity may mean a “leveling down”: Richer districts may find their budgets significantly reduced by a combination of higher real estate taxes and diminished housing values, while poor urban districts could be in slightly better shape. These are times to look at the effects of tax revenues and property values—the key way that local school districts raise money. Equity may change meaning, and the new president should keep a close eye on these changes in school funding across states and between states.

In education, money matters more now than it has since the Great Depression. More children are entering school, and, with preschool and pre-preschool programs growing along with college-going rates, they are staying in school longer. We know that healing the economy will be President Obama’s top priority. But schools, which seemed in the long campaign season to have fallen steeply on the nation’s priority list, are always important. By thinking through the new finances of schools, we can help build, fix, staff, and improve them, even—perhaps particularly—in tough times like these. History has shown us that today’s financial support and operational improvements will pay economic dividends in the future.

Vol. 28, Issue 18, Page 26

Creating Self-Governing Independent Public Schools

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Our public schools must be given the choice of becoming self-governing so that they can be free to provide a top quality educational system.  A self-governing public school district is free of state control as well as federal intervention.  Therefore, it would be independent of the state system but remain a public school district serving the same local community rather than a charter school or a private school or a school run in full or in part by a private company.  While public school districts could elect to stay within the state system and continue to abide by all mandates, all districts should be given the opportunity to legally opt out.  The ability to opt for self-governance would be supported by legislation.  


Self-governance would provide public schools with the authority to improve education consistent with the priorities of their local school communities as well as the flexibility to innovate rather than be forced to march in lock-step to the state’s one size fits all mandates.  Public schools choosing to opt out would be independent public schools free of all state mandates except for perhaps reporting test results but they would also forgo all state aid.  Opting out of the state system would restore decision-making to the local school district level.  Because decisions guiding the operations of self-governing schools would no longer be made largely at the county or state level, parents, teachers, school administrators, boards of education, and local taxpayers would be better able to shape the quality of education which their students receive in their local schools. 


A public school district would become self-governing when a simple majority of the registered district voters who voted in a district-wide vote approved of the change.  While these votes would comply with the laws governing ballot procedures, campaigns and elections, they would be held in April so as to provide sufficient lead time to convert to self-governance by July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.  Once the district community voted to authorize the school district to become self-governing, it would be governed solely by its board of education.  Board of education members would be chosen from among the registered voters in the school district.  Municipal, county, state and federal governments would no longer play any role in the governance or management of self-governing school districts.  Therefore, boards of school estimate would no longer have any role vis-à-vis appointed boards of education. 


Local property tax levies rather than tuition would continue to be the primary source of funding for self-governing public school districts.  Still, these districts would be eligible to receive appropriate state or federal grants.  The annual operating budget and debt authorizations for a self-governing public school district would be decided by its board of education rather than be subject to district-wide public votes.  Indeed, this would be consistent with the fact that the annual operating budgets of municipal, county, state and federal governments are not subject to approval through a vote of their respective electorates.   


Becoming self-governing would enable a school district to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively through the exercise of many new choices.  A self-governing school district would be free to choose whether to have unions.  If it chooses to be union-free, it would be no longer subject to such legislative restrictions as the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act which is commonly referred to as the “PERC law” (Strassman, Vogt and Wary, 1991.)  If the district elected not to have unions, then all union contracts such as those with its teachers would be dissolved and renegotiated once the district became self-governing. 


Free of outside governmental intrusion such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the district also would be free to determine its teacher licensing requirements including training, education and experience.  Because the district would no longer be subject to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS,) it would be free to develop and determine its own curriculum.  The district also would be free to determine whether or not to offer special education because the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and state special education requirements would no longer apply.  If the district chooses to provide special education, then it would have sole discretion over what level and kinds of special education it offered.  


A self-governing public school district would be held harmless from frivolous lawsuits through its enabling legislation.  This would help to greatly minimize escalating legal expenses.  Law suits filed against the district would be heard first by one of several newly created arbitration panels.  Arbitration panel members would be appointed by a newly created state-wide association of self-governing public school districts. 


By changing to self-governance, a school district would be able to cut unnecessary expenses through the elimination of special education-based lawsuits with the ever increasing costs arising from such litigation.  As parents have become more knowledgeable about what constitutes special education programs and services, they have increased their demands to have their children receive not only more intensive services as well as increasing their children’s classification but also more placements in private schools which have resulted in more parents suing school districts for these additional benefits.  New Jersey’s legal system, however, operates according to a fee shifting principle in which a school district losing in an administrative court not only must pay all of the judgment costs but also all of the plaintiff’s legal costs including those for their attorneys and expert witnesses regardless of the length of the trial. 


Litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits which increase legal fees and court costs.  In addition, there is the cost resulting from the amount of time required of teachers, child study teams and administrators to appear in court rather than in school.  While school districts do settle a number of cases rather than run the risk of potentially more expensive outcomes, these settlements fuel the cost of providing special education.  Holding New Jersey school districts harmless from such law suits would be another way in which to enable school districts to allocate more of their scarce resources to student instruction.


The ever increasing cost of unfunded and under funded mandates is not only forcing school districts to cut regular education programs and, therefore, leveling down student achievement but also increasing property taxes.  But New Jersey’s public school districts can no longer afford to pay for these unfunded and under funded mandates because most school districts are forced to spend disproportionately more to meet the requirements of these mandates than these districts receive in total state and federal financial aid.  If local school districts opted for self-governance, therefore, they would eliminate the excessive financial and administrative burdens imposed by the county, state and federal governments. 


Opting for self-governance would increase the financial resources available for the classroom because it would be much more cost effective for local school districts to provide educational programs and services without the administrative burden of state requirements.  The funds that are currently used for regulatory compliance with state mandates could be redirected to improving student learning and achievement, which after all is the real mission of our schools.  Changing our state’s educational system in this way would not only improve the quality of education but also increase property taxpayers’ return on investment.  But Trenton continues to blame school districts for property tax increases rather than take responsibility for their role in keeping property taxes high.  Instead of fully funding their mandates to reduce the property tax burden which drives up the cost of public education, Trenton focuses largely on constricting school district funding, budgets, operations and the independence of local school districts.   


The state’s flawed approach is demonstrated in the new funding formula as contained in the New Jersey School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008 as well as its predecessor the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA,) which caused higher property taxes and cuts in regular education.  Dr. Reock, Rutgers University Professor Emeritus, studied the financial impact on school districts of the state’s failure not only to not fully enact CEIFA but also to freeze most CEIFA funding beginning with the 2002-03 school year and reached a profound conclusion (Reock, 2007.) 


Based on his study (Sciarra, 2008), Dr. Reock found that “the state aid freeze caused massive under-funding of many school districts throughout the state, especially poor non-Abbott districts, and contributed to the property tax problem in the state.”  Instead of fully funding the CEIFA school funding formula as required by law, the state froze financial aid to schools at their 2001-02 school year levels regardless of any increases in enrollment, rising costs as well as state and federal unfunded mandates.  The shortfall was hardest on those districts that were most dependent upon state aid.  During the 2005-06 school year the statewide shortfall amounted to $846 million which translated into per pupil shortfalls of $1,627 in non-Abbott DFG A and B districts, $758 in DFG C through H districts, $386 DFG I and J districts, and $188 in Abbott districts. 


The impact of the CEIFA funding shortfall was minimized on the Abbott districts largely due to their “parity-plus” court mandated protection.  State law forbids the budget of an Abbott district from falling below its level of the prior school year (Hu, 2006.)  Furthermore, under state law, if an Abbott district increases local property taxes without a state directive to do so, it will lose a similar amount of state aid. 


The CEIFA funding shortfall also caused serious imbalances between local school districts.  During the 2005-06 school year Abbott districts received approximately 58% of all state financial aid while educating only 23% of New Jersey’s K to 12 student enrollment.  This meant non-Abbott districts were educating 77% of New Jersey’s students with only 42% of state aid.  This imbalance has continued to widen under SFRA with Abbott aid increasing to approximately 60% of all state aid or $4.64 billion.  State aid reductions and the ever increasing unfunded state mandates force non-Abbott districts to balance their budgets by raising property taxes, increasing class sizes as well as cutting regular education programs and services.   


As part of his statement of New Jersey Supreme Court certification in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008, Dr. Reock concluded (Sciarra, 2008) that “the State’s failure to fund CEIFA for the past six years directly resulted in an enormous shortfall of funding in districts across New Jersey.”  He went further to state, “By 2007-08, the sixth year of the CEIFA “freeze,” the total under-funding of state aid had reached $1.326 billion annually, despite the introduction of several new, smaller aid programs.”  The result was a state-driven increase in local property taxes within non-Abbott districts to make up for the shortfall. 


Creating state-wide self-governing public school districts free of state control is the solution that will lead to a top quality, cost-effective educational system while Trenton continues to force local school districts to pay for its under-funded and unfunded mandates that unnecessarily increase the cost of providing education and drive up property taxes.  By forcing school districts to divert necessary resources to paying for the escalating costs of the State of New Jersey’s mandates rather than investing these scarce resources in the classroom where they are needed most, the State of New Jersey harms the quality of education.  Local school districts, therefore, would be able to operate more cost-effectively with lower property taxes and earn a higher rate of return on their educational investment if they became self-governing by opting out of the state system. 




Hu, W., (2008) In New Jersey, System to help Poorest Schools Faces Criticism, New York Times, October 30, 2006. 

Reock, E. C. Jr., (2007) Paper, Estimated Financial Impact of the ‘Freeze’ of State Aid on New Jersey School Districts, 2002-03 to 2005-06,” Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University, Newark, http://  

Sciarra, D. G., (2008) Certification of Dr. Ernest C. Reock, Jr. for the Supreme Court of New Jersey in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, Education Law Center, Newark New Jersey,

Strassman, E. R., Vogt, K. R., and Wary, C. S., (1991). The Public Employment Relations Law, Trenton, New Jersey: New Jersey School Boards Association.