The “New Normal”

While the economy may be showing signs of life, local school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. The “new normal” of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

This Fordham Institute released a policy brief earlier this month, authored by Executive VP of the Institute, Michael J. Petrilli, that provides a tool for navigating the financial challenges of the current school-funding climate, complete with clear dos and don’ts for anyone involved in or concerned with local education budgets.  The “answers” provided in the brief are based on three key premises:

  1. Solving the budget crisis shouldn’t come at the expense of children.  Learning opportunities should be protected, and effectiveness and student achievement should continue to receive attention.
  2. Nor can [the budget crisis] come from teachers’ sacrifice alone.  Depressing teachers’ salaries for the long-term “isn’t a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have.”
  3. Quick fixes aren’t a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.  The reforms and investments with the greatest payoff are those that maximize student outcomes at a lower cost.  The most promising reforms are those that rethink the staffing model: “whom we hire, how we pay them, and what we do with their time.”

In the “what not to do column,” author Petrilli includes the following:

  • Shrink the workforce by laying off the newest teachers.  Layoffs should be determined by teacher effectiveness, not seniority: when staff is let go based on seniority, student learning is lowered by 2 ½ to 3 months when compared to layoffs based on effectiveness.
  • Narrow the curriculum.  This means students learn less, and are therefore not college-ready or internationally competitive.
  • Use furloughs to reduce costs.  Adopting “Furlough Fridays,” shortening the school year, or trimming the school day will move the US in the opposite direction of other OECD countries.  Furthermore, furloughs are a “terrible fiscal policy.”  Total labor costs of a week’s worth of work are actually higher, due to the fact that salary and benefit structures remain untouched, but are squeezed into fewer working days.
  • Passing the buck to families.  This widens the already wide gaps between haves and have-nots.

So, what should policymakers do?

First, they should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce.  This should not be done through firing teachers and increasing class sizes; rather, roles of all instructional and support staff should be redefined to encourage productivity.  Second, pay for productivity.  People should be compensated fairly for being more productive and taking on more responsibilities.  Among other measures, salary schedules should be more aggressive and salaries should be prioritized over expansive benefits packages.  Finally, technology should be integrated thoughtfully into K-12 education via online or blended school models.

To read the full brief, please visit