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School budget cuts not such big news

[This is my Local Living section column for March 11, 2010.]

You saw the headline on the front of our Metro section recently: “Deep budget cuts approved for Prince George’s schools.” The news from Northern Virginia was much the same: “Fairfax County schools chief proposes dramatic budget cuts” and “Proposed Arlington schools budget cuts back in many areas.”

I have been reading stories like this in the Post for nearly 40 years. They have become a ritual. We think that readers want to know what is being done with their tax dollars in their local jurisdictions’ most important government service, education, and how much more they might have to pay next year.

All that is fine. I just wish the stories did not convey such a strong impression of telling us how schoolchildren are doing, or will be doing, because the stories give few or no clues to that important matter.

There does not appear to be any significant correlation between annual changes in the amount of the school budget and annual changes in student achievement, but readers still get upset. My colleague columnist Petula Dvorak reported that one Fairfax parent proclaimed, “If this happens, we’ll be just like the other school districts.”

In a blog post several weeks ago, I called this “the most exaggerated quote of the month.” I noted that in my annual Challenge Index rating of local high schools, Fairfax had an average college-course test participation rate of 2.917 per graduating senior, about six times the national average. “Its average SAT scores are about 300 points above the national average,” I said. “Its college going rates are similarly in the stratosphere. None of that is going to change, despite the budget cuts.”

Many readers took offense at my dismissal of their fears. “I am truly sick of your sanctimonious attitude,” said one. Another said, “This is Fairfax, yes we may be spoiled, but gosh darn it our kids deserve it.”

This year, as in previous difficult budget years, school boards are saving money by raising class size, about two students per class in Prince George’s County and about one per class in Arlington County and Fairfax. Other districts are making similar adjustments. Our stories rarely point out (because it would be taking sides in the political battles over the budget) that research shows no significant impact from such small changes. (It might make more sense for Prince George's to raise class sizes a bit more instead of firing its 120 full-time parent liaisons, whose good work was recently revealed in a piece by my colleagues N.C. Aizenman and Michael Birnbaum.)

Stories about rising or falling state test scores in these jurisdictions are more important in my view, but we often don’t give them much attention because the one-year changes are often small and inconclusive. If our stories instead focused on three- or four-year ups or downs, we would be saying more about teaching and learning, but that would not be fulfilling our promise of giving the latest news.

What most influences learning at school is not budget changes but the quality of principals and teachers. We don’t know how to measure those factors well on an annual basis. Perhaps we would be better off revealing the best and worse examples of change in individual schools, where the most important work in education occurs.

In Prince George’s, for instance, Largo and Surrattsville high schools showed significant gains in college-level test participation last year and some increase in the percentage of students passing those tests. At South Lakes High in Fairfax, the college-level test participation rate rose an impressive 53 percent in one year, with the percentage of seniors passing the tests also going up. The same factors increased strongly at Washington-Lee High in Arlington.

My editors aren’t going to give much space to such granular reporting. They think readers want the big picture. Given the way my scolding of Fairfax parents was received, they are probably right.

But I think we ought to take comfort in the fact that these budget reversals have never, in the four decades I have been watching them, had much impact on what is happening to our kids. That is up to their teachers, and us.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 10, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Prince George's County high school gains, annual cuts don't affect achievement, class size, school budget cuts  
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Prince Georges County Public Schools budget cuts includes 800 layoffs to absorb an $82 million reduction in education funding. Including 5 day teacher furloughs and increased classroom sizes. The elimination of teacher liaisons is unfortunate, but focused must remain on student needs. Teachers with many years of experience are considering retirement, so we may loose seasoned professionals as well.

What you seem to not understand, Mathews, is that PGCPS has the highest percentages of Title 1, Special Education and FARM students. The budget cuts impedes the school systems ability to provide classroom resources for ALL STUDENTS; not just students that take AP classes but overall comprehensive students enrolled in K-12.

Student teacher ratios are already high. Classroom size standards were 27 students/class. Another teacher doesn't have to be provided until classroom size double to 54 students. Presently, most classes are already 30+ students/teacher. Increasing classroom sizes impacts the ability of a teacher providing individual instruction when needed.

Our teachers and students are working very hard to continue successful achievment. It's unfortunate that our school system is still required to do more with less.

Prince George's County residents pay one of the highest property tax rates in the State of MD, yet our schools continue to absorb budget cuts, esp. for the past three years.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | March 11, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

LOVE your column today Jay!! I have kids in Fairfax County Public Schools. I recognize that our school system has weathered many recessions in the past and the students still remain strong. I'm confident we will make it through this crisis too even if we can't get goodies like elementary school french lessons for some students. What I would like to see the Washington Post report about is the severe lack of transparency by our Superintendent for the budget process. Even our School Board members complain that he is not forthcoming with the data they need to make prudent decisions. For instance, when School Board members recently asked him for class size data, he told them he doesn't maintain historical data about class size. These School Board members told him they couldn't vote on increasing class sizes if they don't know what class sizes currently are. Another case in point was the Superintendent's recent proposal to kill indoor track - a program that serves the largest number of students and is a nearly cost-neutral program. Why did he propose cutting indoor track instead of other less popular and more expensive sports programs?! The Superintendent appears to make decisions based only on perception - however misguided - and NONE on actual data. Parents are sick of it. Push for the data and budget impact analysis Jay. That is what parents AND School Board members want to see you write about! Let's see the power of the Washington Post in action to get the information parents and School Board members can't get.

Posted by: abcxyz2 | March 11, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Oh dear! Budgets don't matter, but teachers do!?!

Teachers need to get paid, however. One of the most serious problems facing America's schools is teacher turnover. Within five years, half of all new teachers have left the profession. I would guess that the turnover rate in the shortage fields, especially math and science, is even higher. In addition teachers, even in the recent prosperous times were not well paid, not in objective terms, not in comparison to their peers, and not in their own perceptions. And in many ways the last is the most important. The problem was, and is, particularly acute in high cost areas like Washington. Just where would a young teacher buy a house in the Washington area?
Cutting school budgets will make retaining teachers more difficult in at least two ways, even if no teachers are laid off. First, the Fairfax system has frozen pay and plans to keep pay frozen for several more years. To teachers, this simply says the community doesn't care. It values a second skiing vacation or a a new Lexus more than educating its children. Remember Fairfax is one of the wealthiest counties in the US. Teachers who have other options will eventually take them and those that stay behind will be profoundly alienated. The schools function only because teachers contribute extra time and take on extra tasks. Alienated teachers are much less likely to pitch in.
Second, the school system will cut so-called non-teaching positions -- aides, counselors, social workers, IT staff and so on. The problem is that the work these folks do remains when they leave and teachers will be expected to pick up the slack. If new software needs to loaded on a high school's laptops and there's no IT support staff, who do you think will have to do it?

Posted by: Jphubba | March 11, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Tragically, the only "impact" the schools track is via NCLB/SAT (math and reading). As Diane Ravitch just belatedly realized, we have no clue about the impact of draining social studies, science, writing and arts out of these school systems. And the cuts that are coming down in this cycle (at least in Weast's MCPS budget) will cut the tiny remnants of "special" programming (i.e. social studies/science/writing/arts teachers). Somewhere along the line, social studies/science/writing/arts were tagged extraneous, elitist, expendable. If you don't think there has been a cumulative effect, a pendulum swing into a cold dark outerspace of math and reading and nothing else, I don't know what schools you've been covering.

Sue Katz Miller
School Scene columnist
Takoma Voice

Posted by: SusanKatzMiller | March 11, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the clarity, Jay. Watching so many middle and upper middle class parents unite to fight budget cuts to make sure that other taxpayers will fund their child's sports and activities is distasteful. Instead we should be showing our children that when times are tough we can be resilient and come up with ways to fund our own activities and keep the funding where it matters - in the classroom. And I absolutely agree with the post by abcxyz2 - our school superintendant excels at playing political games that set parent against parent. If he were really an educator, he'd be fighting for low cost, efficient safety nets for our students such as public library funding.

Posted by: Sky22 | March 11, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"What most influences learning at school is not budget changes but the quality of principals and teachers." I agree with this, and we have wonderful teachers in Fairfax County. But how long will the good ones stay without pay raises? And what about teacher morale for those who do stay? How can one of the wealthiest communities in the nation that has a national reputation for excellent schools be facing this situation?

Posted by: mhs11 | March 11, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Mathews...teachers are losing jobs because of budget cuts, others will may be furloughed.

Classroom sizes may be increased others are scheduled to. All this occurring while resources decreasing. It seems all you care about are test scores and forgetting about teachers losing their jobs, or working under the pressure of "I may not having a job in September, what's going to happen to the students in my school?"

Why and the heck would you consider budget cuts NOT impacting education for public school students across the board?

It's like saying that although an individual has $2000/mo bills to pay and annual salary is $250,000/yr., but due to the present economy, salary scale has been lowered $75,000/yr. but $2000 still needs to be shelled out monthly. Aren't standards impacted by this very simplistic scenario?

Sometimes you seem to be so far removed from classroom issues.

BTW...sports programs generate revenue for school systems overall, especially in high school. If sports teams are successful, they ARE pretty much self sustaining and provide equity outside of property taxes and throughout the school year.

Posted by: TwoSons | March 11, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

All of the comments preceding these are excellent - thank you.

I can speak to Fairfax County schools as a retired teacher from there.

Be assured that morale has hit an all-time low among FCPS staff. The Superintendent's callous disregard for putting a living wage into his budget is appaling for the richest place in America. His obfuscation in any and all details of his budget frustrate even members of the School Board. There is no transparency.

Teaching staff continue to leave Fairfax in greater numbers than ever before. Attrition is at fifty percent after 6-7 years. Quality of teaching can only go down. Year-after-year decisions to treat teachers badly with pay freezes is going to make it worse.

The usual excuse for cutting salaries is because it is the largest part of the budget and therefore can make the largest "savings". Salaries are what the schools are all about - paying people to teach the children. Stagnating wages drive the best and brightest away. Yet the Superintendent continues his destructive policies while giving only the best in lip-service to the wonderful school staff by urging them to keep soldiering on.

Sorry, Dr. Dale, actions speak way louder than words. You too, members of the School Board. Nice talk to get elected is worthless when it comes time to stand up to the Superintendent and give instructional staff something worthwhile, namely a living wage for Northern Virginia.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | March 11, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with Jay today. While I fully support the public school system, I also think that systems have to live within their means. For example, Loudoun County has one of the highest property tax rates in the area, yet the school system sucks down 70 percent of that revenue. Still, we have parents acting like any cuts to the school budget will be a disaster. Unfortunately, there are other priorities that the local government also needs to address. Maybe teachers will have to use dry erase markers on regular boards instead of having interactive electronic white boards installed in every room. Maybe some programs will have to be cut, or fees for some extracurricular activities increased. Maybe, if they have to buy an expensive hybrid school bus, they could use it on a route that would actually take advantage of the technology, instead of running it to Thomas Jefferson where most of the route keeps it above the 25 mph at which the electric motor operates.

Maybe the school folks will have to get by for a few years with a Cadillac instead of the Rolls Royce they've been used to.

Posted by: alert4jsw | March 11, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Hey Jphubba,

Fairfax needs to cut MORE non-teaching staff. I dunno if the 419 IT positions are school/non-school based (a game they like to play to essentially hide non-teaching staff #'s), but not sure you need that many to load your software. Just by looking at the proposed FY11 projections, seems more staff cuts are necessary before you raise my taxes, increase kids class sizes and put a bigger burden on our poor teachers:

2341 Instructional Assistants/Specialists
245 Technicians
709 Guid. Counselors/Psych/Social wkrs
720 "Technical specialists"
407 Asst. principals
1257 Ofc. Assts
363 Business Specialists
149 Directors/Coordinators

Seems non-school based staffing has only been reduced by 7% from 2007 to 2011 budgets. I thought they said 15%? There are less than 200 schools/centers - MORE CUTS NOW!

Posted by: gmuer | March 11, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews writes: "In Prince George’s, for instance, Largo and Surrattsville high schools showed significant gains in college-level test participation last year and some increase in the percentage of students passing those tests. At South Lakes High in Fairfax, the college-level test participation rate rose an impressive 53 percent in one year, with the percentage of seniors passing the tests also going up. The same factors increased strongly at Washington-Lee High in Arlington."

Mr. Mathews, once again, your "Challenge Index" blinders skew your perception.

You talk about "significant gains" in AP test PARTICIPATION and "some increase" in the percentage of kids actually PASSING the tests. You say South Lakes High's PARTICIPATION rate went up 53% but you have no correspondingly precise figure for the number of kids who PASSED the test there. Surely you have these numbers available to you. Why not cite them?

Counting the number of kids who TAKE AP tests is a poor measure of a school system's overall quality. Not every student is college bound. You consistently miss that point.

Posted by: daveairozo | March 11, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

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