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Public Education Research, Analysis and Investigations

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May 1, 2006

1)  65% Solution? Reduce School District Size. EIA has (finally) completed its update of school district enrollment and spending with Census Bureau data for the 2003-04 school year. It's huge, it's unwieldy, but information for 14,218 school districts at least mitigates the problems associated with state rankings, in which a district like Los Angeles gets lumped together with the one in Weed. ("We have an airport located close to town, perfect for pilots looking for an exciting location to fly into.")

One of the bits of information the EIA tables provide is whether a school district spent 65 percent or more on "instruction." The 65% Solution is already a big political issue and promises to become an even bigger one. EIA remains doubtful that meeting such a threshold has any effect on the quality of instruction or on student performance. However, it appears to be a useful yardstick to measure how school districts are spending their money. This is an entirely different issue, and the results pose a challenge to those who champion school district consolidation and the belief that the spending of large school districts is more efficient due to economies of scale.

While there are competing arguments about what is included in instruction spending, there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority is dedicated to teacher salaries and benefits. So when we see a district devoting 65 percent of its budget to instruction, it really means it has to devote a large percentage of its budget to teacher compensation.

EIA ranked all 14,218 school districts by enrollment and checked the correlation between size and the ability to reach the 65 percent instructional threshold. The results should surprise economists, but not observers of public education.

In 2003-04, the U.S. had 26 school districts with more than 100,000 students. Of these, only New York City and Cobb County, Georgia, met the 65% threshold. That's a success rate of 7.7 percent.

An additional 61 school districts had between 50,000 and 100,000 students. Of these, five (8.2 percent) met the mark.

Let's continue down the rankings. There were 170 school districts with 25,000 to 50,000 students. Of these, 25 spent 65% on instruction (14.7 percent).

Then we reach a plateau. There were 7,152 districts with an enrollment between 1,000 and 25,000 students. Of these, 1,213 (17.0 percent) reached 65% on instructional spending. No matter how you subdivide this group, there is little deviation in how many districts meet the mark. But below 1,000 enrollment, the pattern resumed.

There were 2,382 districts with between 500 and 1,000 students. Of these, 476 (20.0 percent) reached the 65% mark. And of the 4,427 districts with fewer than 500 students, 976 (22.0 percent) met the 65% mark.

There are variety of theories to explain why this should be so, but the data demolish any notion that increasing the size of a school district will increase the resources available to spend "in the classroom." On the contrary: the larger the district, the greater the chance that more money will be spent on "non-instructional" programs and personnel.

2)  NEA New York Delegates Approve Merger. As expected, members of the NEA New York Delegate Assembly approved constitutional changes that allow the union to complete a merger with the AFT-affiliated New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). While there are still several administrative hurdles to leap, this vote virtually assures the place of NEA New York as the fourth merged NEA-AFT state affiliate – joining Minnesota, Florida and Montana.

The final tally was 463-124, easily surpassing the two-thirds requirement. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore reiterated his threat to take his 3,400-member local independent, rather than go along with the merger.

Well, it's only about a 216-mile drive along the southern shore of Lake Erie to get some advice from these guys on how to run a large independent local teachers' union.

3)  We're Number 49! No, We Are! EIA gets tons of reports, policy papers and other assorted documents from people and organizations with an interest in public education. And – to be perfectly honest – unless it has something in it that is immediately eye-catching, I'm not going to spend too much time with it.

But, while thumbing through a March 2006 report from the Independence Institute titled, "Counting the Cash for K-12: The Facts about Per-Pupil Spending in Colorado," I came across a graphic that illustrates why it pays to be skeptical.

The institute found that "at least 10 states claimed in 2004 or 2005 to rank 49th in education funding." The list includes Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Utah.

Call it the reverse Lake Wobegon effect. When it comes to funding, everyone claims to be below average.

4)  Good Week for Education Labor Reporting. It is perhaps inevitable that newspaper reporting on teachers' unions should periodically receive some harsh criticism on these pages. But EIA has noticed improved press coverage of NEA, AFT, and their affiliates in recent years. Attitudes of reporters have evolved from "so what?" to "important, but arcane" to "fertile ground."

In the last few days alone, we had a thorough examination of union-endorsed 403(b) plans by Kathy M. Kristof of the Los Angeles Times, and a look at union organizing and charter schools by Jennifer Smith Richards of the Columbus Dispatch, both highlighted in EIA's blog.

This morning, Claudette Riley of the Tennessean also took the time to look at the Metro Nashville teachers' contract, and discovered that a handful of teachers are spending a significant portion of the school year attending to union business. "We didn't know we were being policed," said Metro Nashville Education Association President Jamye Merritt.

Most of this stuff never gets "policed," which is why the unifying factor for most school district operations is inertia. Local newspapers can not only generate some decent stories from this, but maybe even effect some positive change.

5)  One More Dues Hike. The Kentucky Education Association is planning to raise member dues an additional $39 per year, and allow active members to automatically become retired members – an idea that is gaining a lot of traction in NEA affiliates.

6)  Last week's Intercepts. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from April 25-30:

* Teachers' Unions and 403(B) Plans. Getting a lousy return on your union-endorsed plan? Comfort yourself with the news that it subsidizes the six-figure salaries of union bureaucrats.

* Muster the Union Spin Squad! Californians Like Testing! Despite the constant anti-testing drumbeat, Californians march to a different tune.

* Simple and Elegant. The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights destroys Connecticut's anti-NCLB lawsuit in two sentences.

* "I'm condemned by a society that demands success when all I can offer is failure!" The Christina School District hasn't yet learned that you can't have more than 100 percent of anything.

7)  Quote of the Week #1. "The biggest problem is apathy." – Kalamazoo, Michigan, teacher Art Williams, explaining why local union president Millie Lambert has so much clout. Lambert is running for reelection despite being censured by the union's judicial board for conduct unbecoming a union officer. (April 28 Kalamazoo Gazette)

Quote of the Week #2. "Did you know… WEA Research Analysts and the State Auditor's Office independently agree that the District overestimates revenue and underestimates expenditures?" – from the Executive Board of the Shoreline Education Association in the State of Washington, though it would certainly be true of most other school districts in the country.


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