Thursday, November 08, 2007

He has learned well 

There are times where something you say lays a seed that you get to watch grow. One time in a conversation with Gary Gross, I talked about zero-based budgeting. On the phone later he expressed how much he liked the term and wanted to learn more about it. A little education followed.

In the wake of several failed school levies, the newspapers have already started to get letters about where to go next (beyond the usual "back to the voters next year" answer. That's to be expected.) A Write Now in the local paper -- almost offering the Times as a blog for letter writers -- argues that schools have too many administrators. The comments after quickly filled, including this from former mayor John Ellenbecker.
Could we please have the specifics of which administrators are excess? If they can be identified specificly then we could have a legitimate discussion on the merits of that position.
Gary quickly replied,
That's the wrong question, John. The question should be "which administrators are necessary"?
Bingo: Zero based budgeting.

Now certainly you can dig up statistics suggesting bloat. Mark J. Perry argues that private schools have much lower costs than public and thus must have excess administrators (as well as higher class sizes, without any appreciable difference in test performances.) Now certainly mandated higher spending for special education is one distortion in that calculation, but can it explain all that difference? The only way to answer that is to ask for a proper accounting. (Kudos to the Times editorial board this AM for its understanding of that point.) Allocate teachers and administrators from zero so that a dollar spent anywhere gets the same additional amount of improvement in student learning, and you will have budgeted well. Then, if you want to receive more, tell us the amount of additional learning received on the investment. If all you talk about is cost and not about the benefits that parents and non-parents alike care about, levy votes will continue to be difficult.

When the staff/student ratio rises faster than the teacher/student ratio, as Prof. Perry also shows, you have some explaining to do, and some reason for me to wonder why a failed levy will lead to larger class sizes. Why do schools need to increase instructional staff at a faster rate than that at which it increases its teachers?