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A Catalyst for Reform?

photo by Tommy Giglio

How shrinking budgets have forced efficiency and prompted innovation in public schools across the country by Daniel Anello

Shuffling his feet nervously, Anthony waits for an opportunity to nudge to the head of the mass of students crowding the table in front of him. His hands clutch a folded piece of paper, a list of questions he has been asked to prepare for the polished college recruiter in the suit, who is charmingly answering the litany of queries from eager students. The CICS Ralph Ellison College Fair doesn’t look much different than last year, with rows of tables representing a wide range of colleges and universities from Illinois and beyond. Neither do the classrooms at the CICS campus nor any of the other CICS network schools, with student attention narrowed on the inspiring words of a teacher—or heads bowed, eyes poring over an assignment one last time. These images


| FocalPoint

are what anyone would witness across a host of quality schools in the United States, from KIPP Houston, to Los Angeles’ Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy, to Promise Academy of St. Louis. Each of these schools is determined to inspire a mass of dedicated learners looking for more in education, determined to provide the academics and additional resources necessary to fully prepare their students for a four-year college degree. Yet despite their determination, such schools are facing a rapidly changing resource landscape. It is hard to go anywhere now and not hear about education funding shortfalls. As states struggle to balance their budgets, education funding has suffered nationwide, leading to brutal cuts in teacher ranks, increased class sizes, shrinking wraparound programming, and more. “It’s an anemic way to fund public education,” says Parker Hudnut, Executive Director of Innovation and Charter Schools for Los


This is the biggest win of the economic crisis— using the stimulus funds to catalyze initiatives that would have probably never been pursued. It’s unlikely that these changes would have occurred without the incentive being there. The outcomes of this all still remain to be seen—but momentum in this reform is good.

Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). As a result of such cuts, Hudnut has seen a sharp increase in class sizes: “To walk into an [L.A. public] high school [classroom] and see less than 38 kids today is rare.” Schools are being forced to do more with less—much less. “Education funding across the states is highly varied,” says Mike Montoya, Deputy Director of the Broad Residency, a national leadership development program. His role includes building relationships nationally with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), school districts, and the federal government, providing him with a comprehensive view of education across the states.

According to a report by the Center for Public Education, four out of five districts nationwide reported receiving fewer funds from state and local revenues for the 2011 school year. “The current economy is under assault, and funding is tight everywhere,” continues Montoya, adding that “many [organizations] are anticipating that next year will not be any better.” Hudnut probably knows this better than anyone. California has one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in the country, and continues to see significant annual reductions in education dollars. In the last two years, LAUSD has slashed approximately $1.5 billion and faces

another $1 billion in planned cuts over the next three years. The district expects to reduce its $7 billion budget by more than a third by the 2012–2013 school year. “At some point there are concerns around what will be feasible with such massive decreases,” Hudnut says. In watching Anthony at the college fair however, it is clear that his learning environment is on an even keel, despite his school enduring a 6 percent reduction in per-pupil funding this year. When asked about his college plans, he quips that his goal is to land a Posse scholarship, but hasn’t yet determined his top college. When the conversation turns to his classes, he

“At some point there are concerns around what will be feasible with such massive decreases.”





chatters eagerly about his math teacher and the help he has been receiving in and out of the classroom. The reality is that many schools are doing their best to absorb the burden of the cuts before they hit the students, the battle waging beyond the classroom and college fairs, so that kids like Anthony do not feel the weight while they are in school. This does not, however, alleviate the economic pressure many families are feeling beyond the walls of the school building, as many struggle to cope with the recession. Meanwhile, resources are wanting for out-of-school programs like clubs and sports, which are key tools in mitigating psychosocial problems and keeping families and students engaged. As schools fight to keep core academic programming in place, these are the first services to go. Mary Stafford, who oversees schools in the seven states that comprise EdisonLearning’s Midwest region, points out that this is creating a “growing deficit in broader educational programming.” While some of these issues bleed outside the control of most schools, Stafford says the “lack of investment in after-school and community programming will likely have a greater effect on the communities surrounding schools than people realize.” Behind the scenes nationwide, funding needs are causing many to rethink how they continue to best educate their students where they do have control: within the school. “Efficiency” has become the new buzz word within the space. Hudnut illustrates this further: “School efficiency has been incredibly enhanced due to limited resources, requiring people to focus on the best use of money. It’s a conversation I have heard routinely in the charter space, but that is now becoming more common in discussions at the district [level]. Until recently, there had often been a disconnect between budgets and [organizational] structure, which is something that can no longer continue.” “Cuts in funding have forced us to rethink and focus on what the priorities are,” says Stafford. She explains how there is a silver lining to the recent local cuts: “A lot of available [philanthropic and federal] funding is


| FocalPoint

“The current economy is under assault, and funding is tight everywhere... many organizations are anticipating that next year will not be any better.” MIKE MONTOYA deputy director of the broad residency Oakland, California

Programs provided via partnerships with private organizations are what many schools are utilizing to fill some of the gaps left behind by budget cuts.

“School efficiency has been incredibly enhanced due to limited resources, requiring people to focus on the best use of money.” PARKER HUDNUT Executive Director of Innovation and Charter Schools Los Angeles Unified School District, CA


tied to school reform efforts and access to this money has led to some very swift education initiatives.” Montoya echoes Stafford’s sentiment: “This is the biggest win of the economic crisis—using the stimulus funds to catalyze initiatives that would have probably never been pursued. It’s unlikely that these changes would have occurred without the incentive being there. The outcomes of this all still remain to be seen— but momentum in this reform is good.” With the momentum behind education reform efforts being driven by the federal government’s Race to the Top, the Gates Foundation, and other powerful sources of capital, it’s hard to deny Stafford and Montoya’s position. The $4.3 billion made available by the U.S. government through Race to the Top was explicitly awarded to states willing to take on a more reform-minded approach to education. Twelve states “won” access to substantial dollars by strongly committing to the adoption of common standards and assessments, planning to build data systems to measure and track student performance, evaluating teachers more strictly, and committing to close failing schools. The reality is that financial constraints are causing typically entrenched philosophies to take a back seat to more progressive considerations. Teacher effectiveness initiatives in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are examples where unions and districts have agreed to work closely together in order to access funds through the Gates Foundation. Separate performancebased pay scaling for teachers, bonuses centering on performance and so-called “career laddering” with incentives for taking on additional responsibilities are among a few of the progressive ideas on the table in both districts. This collaborative sentiment is also occurring organically in places like

Denver, Baltimore, Detroit, and New Haven, CT. There, as the players are beginning to recognize the need for cohesion during this economic climate, doing their collective best to preserve jobs, become more efficient, and most importantly, keep the spending cuts from negatively impacting the children they are meant to educate. Meanwhile, new partnership opportunities are blossoming where private organizations, who are also financially constrained, are becoming valuable philanthropic resources for what they can provide—service. These partnerships include everything

For the immediate future, efficiency is becoming a way to ensure that kids like Anthony get access to the best possible educational opportunities despite funding shortfalls. And with no foreseeable relief from the education funding crisis in sight, organizations are finally beginning to consider, and collaborate on, some broader and more innovative reform initiatives that might just change education as we know it.

Opening page TOP LEFT: mary stafford, regional manager, edisonlearning Opening page Bottom LEFT: CICS ralph ellison students attending a college fair BELOW: laura webber, AN accenture EMPLOYEE, mentorS daisha hill, A cics LONGWOOD STUDENT

from advertising agencies like Leo Burnett developing and leading specialized art programs, to consulting firms such as Accenture providing hundreds of volunteer hours for their staff to mentor inner city high school girls. Ultimately, programs provided via these relationships are what many schools are utilizing to fill some of he gaps left behind by budget cuts. They are leveraging donated time, energy, and expertise to create everything from mentoring and tutoring supports to chess, culinary and fitness programs. It’s one more way to find “efficiency” in a very different economic climate.




Budget Cuts  

Budget cuts could potentially inspire reform within school systems.

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