Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's about Time: Let's Get Real

In today's New York Times, the National "Time to Succeed Coalition" published a full page ad, signed by more than 100 leaders from across the political spectrum, announcing a national movement to increase more learning time in the classroom.  The signatories include superintendents of schools, Mayors, nationally recognized education experts, business leaders, as well as Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  The coalition is calling for more quality time in school:  "Time to learn, time to explore, time to succeed."  Not just adding more time, but well planned quality learning time.

This national consensus reflects a growing consensus that we must address the educational preparation of students who are coming to school unprepared to learn.    Learning requires hard work, persistence, dedication, and of course more time.   When students are behind, a teacher cannot wave a magic wand and catch them up, not even great teachers can't.   Catching up requires the student who is behind to spend more time learning what has not been learned.   Policy makers, researchers and educators are coming to recognize that better curriculum, better teachers, and higher expectations, while important, isn't going to do the job without more time.  

We all know this in the education community, and we are all beginning to give lip-service to this important objective, but when are we going to do something about it, and what?   Its time to get real about finding more time.  

Nobody at the State legislature has a plan to address this problem.  Nobody at the Minnesota Department of Education has a plan.   In our own school district, St. Cloud, we have one of the shortest school days around, but we are deadlocked as an education community without a shared vision of how we would even get to the point where our school days are as long as most other school districts.   According to newspaper reports, Minneapolis teachers had a 38.7 hour teacher work-week, regarded as too short to address the achievement gap, while St. Cloud has a 37.5 hour teacher work-week.   The Minneapolis school district recently increased Minneapolis teachers work week to 40 hours at a cost of $3,000 per teacher as the price of adding 2.3 hours to the workweek.    To put that in perspective, increasing teacher pay by that amount here in St. Cloud would cost the school district $2.1 million per year.  

How are Minnesota school districts possibly going to find the resources to meet the challenge of more time?   The answer is that across Minnesota we are not having a serious and realistic dialog about this.   We are approaching this as if it were business as usual, by which I mean, in a dysfunctional manner.   In the last decade, the St. Cloud school district has made about $25.3 million in "cuts," to a budget with revenue below $100 million.  Here is the history of the cuts that we have made:

2002-2003:  $6.7 million
2003-2004   $4.0 million
2004-2005   $2.0 million
2005-2006   $4.1 million
2006-2007    $ 0.87 million
2007-2008    $1.0 million
2008-2009    $1.8 million
2010-2011      $1.5 million
                    2011-2013     $3.5million (2 year cuts)

In St. Cloud, this year's school district budget will show that since 2006, our operating fund budget revenues have increased from $85 million to an estimated $92 million for 2012-13.    In other words, the cuts that we are making result from the fact that our expenses are increasing faster than our revenues.  The revenue increases are inadequate, that is true.   Our special education deficit is too high. Our operating referendum revenue is insufficient But in that context, we, and virtually every other school district in the State of Minnesota, are cutting back, often deeply.   And part of the reason is that we are raising compensation faster than our revenues are increasing.     I'm not blaming the compensation increases alone. Its the combination of all of these factors.   Some of the cuts we have made during the above time period were necessary to salt some money away to build back the reserves we lost in the late 1990's and early 200's as well.   But basically, school districts in Minnesota have not found a way to maintain the programs that they have, let alone add to them, in most cases.  Many districts are in the process of desperately looking at reducing time, not increasing it.

St. Cloud's proposed 2013 budget shows us with $92.5 million in revenues and $93.2 million in expenses.    But 1.6 million that $93.3 million is one-time money.   Our budget is out of balance without even adding more time.    So we can have all of the national coalitions we want; we can publish full page advertisements with good intentions, but that is all just so much baloney unless we can come up with a comprehensive strategy to achieve that objective in a way that balances revenues and expenses, and Minnesota's state leadership hasn't made even a half-hearted attempt to do that.

Listen:  a lot of the national leadership is talking about charter schools as a way to accomplish this objective.  Most charter schools have existed only a few years.   As start-up businesses, they have lots of new teachers working at the bottom of pay scales.   Some of our Minnesota charter schools have average teacher salaries that are as much as $20,000 or more per year lower than public schools, and some of them even have longer work days at the lower pay scale.  .  It is really hard to maintain that pay scale permanently, because at some point, the teachers have families, buy homes, and start to plan to send their children to college, and so on. So  solving this problem by trying to scale up public education on the charter school model, at rock bottom teacher salaries seems more like an evasion, rather than a solution.

And yet, it seems very unlikely that we can find a solution to the more-time-imperative, unless we can find a way to buy that more time at a price more affordable than the Minneapolis model.   One thing is for sure, the current cycle of cut, cut cut, that has permeated Minnesota education has got to come to a halt, if we are ever going to have a chance to address the needs of 21st century education.  The Minnesota education community and state policy makers must come together and develop a comprehensive systemic solution to bring fiscal balance to Minnesota public education, and that means that system of solving compensation imbalances with draconian cuts must stop. 

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