The East Penn School District will spend approximately $138 million this academic year– a lot of dough! One of my key concerns is whether the district is spending money in the most cost-effective ways, and in ways proven to make the biggest positive impact on students and our community.
There are many aspects of the budget in which local control has been taken away (see Passing the Buck [INSERT LINK] for some examples). But for those things we still can decide for ourselves, I believe we need to make evidence-based decisions based on facts and rigorous research.
Alas, one of the things I’ve learned in my four years on the school board is that this doesn’t always happen. People advocate for funding simply because we’ve always funded certain things. There are other times when funding proposals follow the latest educational fashion or new (untested) idea. Or there are some proposals that are politically popular, even if they don’t work very well.
Let me give a few examples:
- Cyber Charter Schools: East Penn spent $4.5 million on charter schools this year, much of which went to the failing cyber charter schools that operate in Pennsylvania. Not a single cyber charter has ever received a passing grade in the state’s school evaluation system in any year it has been in operation. A study by researchers at Stanford University showed “100% of [Pennsylvania] cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math.” Now, I support the principle of choices in education, and believe innovative charter schools can play a valuable role in the ecosystem of our community. But beyond this principle, we should also care about results. Our local district should not be required to continue dumping millions of dollars into the failing cyber charter system. (For more, see How One Charter School Spends Your Money)
- Common Core: Rebranded “PA Core Standards” in Pennsylvania, common core is a list of the knowledge and skills in math and language arts that students should have by the time they reach certain grade levels. But these standards were based on the recommendations of committees, not quality data on what knowledge and skills are most important. And the standards have been adopted without any research or evidence that students who acquire these knowledge and skills do better in college, do better in the workforce, or are better citizens. Some common core standards may be great, but the point is that we just don’t know for sure because the state has adopted them without researching their impact. I support high standards in education, but there are many proven ways to both set and measure such standards. We should not be spending our limited education dollars on “aligning” our curriculum– including textbooks– to the unproven common core, or paying for the increased standardized testing that has come hand in hand with them. (For more, see 3 Myths about Common Core)
- SRO: The district recently paid for a school resource officer (SRO), a member of the Emmaus police department who now works full time in the high school. It seems reasonable to assume that such a move would improve school safety. The problem? Studies show that SRO programs generally don’t. Hiring the SRO was politically popular and made intuitive sense. But I would rather see the $100,000+ annual price tag of the SRO position go to proven solutions to documented safety problems. (For more, see A Community Guide to School Resource Officers)
The core point is simple: facts should matter. People of a certain age will remember the famous Wendy’s ad featuring an elderly woman repeatedly asking, “Where’s the beef?” In discussions of the school district’s budget, I think we should all be asking for more “beef”: facts and evidence to support the effectiveness of funding priorities. Without the beef, we end up with a budget that is both too expensive and that leads to poorer outcomes for students, teachers, and taxpayers. The budget should not be about “how it’s always been,” what is currently fashionable in education, or what is politically popular. For $137 million, it should be about what works.
Evidence-based decision making is just one piece of the larger budgetary puzzle in our district. To read the other pieces in this budget series, check out: