Wednesday, May 18, 2022

In Public Schools it's all About the Inputs

The legislative session is currently about 4 weeks past its expiration date. The hold up continues to be SF 2369, which is the bill that contains the voucher proposal. It appears the House doesn't have the votes to advance the measure, largely because those lawmakers recognize that this proposal will do real harm to small schools around the state. The pressure is on, and proponents are making a lot of claims that lack context. I want to spend a little time today providing that context. 

Voucher proponents suggest that the current school choice proposal won't cost the state any additional revenue while at the same time claiming it won't hurt the local public school district. If you think about this clear eyed, you have to understand both can't be true. Here's why. First, it is accurate the proposal won't cost the state any additional capital outlay. This is because the revenue will be shifted from the local public school to the 'choice school'. That's what makes the second half of this argument false. A shift of funding from public to private does in fact hurt the public school because they now have fewer dollars to work with. Proponents counter with the accurate statement that the public school no longer has the main 'cost element' [the student] in the building to educate. But that doesn't mean it isn't a real cut with consequences. The argument fails due to a lack of understanding about how economies of scale work. How does one go about cutting 1/20th of a teacher? The proponent seems to believe a direct correlation exists where it most certainly does not. There is strength in numbers and it is important to understand that some school programs are simply more expensive than others to operate. Generally speaking, high school courses in smaller schools are more expensive because they are specialized, have smaller sections, and require greater capital outlay. Funding a Family and Consumer Science classroom, Industrial Technology, or Computer Science class is not the same as equipping first grade. The cost per pupil to run an AP Calculus classroom of 5-6 students is much higher than a classroom of 23 third graders. So yes, the shift in funds will hurt public schools and cause them to rethink programming and likely cut some specialty courses because the subsidization factor [and strength of numbers] is diminished.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet that claimed the voucher program will ultimately cost taxpayers less. That deserves some unpacking and context. It's planting season, so I think the analogy of corn growing provides us a good example. If I skip fertilizer and weed control, my cost of input for a corn field is going to be quite a bit less than the farmer down the road who doesn't skip those crucial steps. I may feel pretty good about all the money that I've saved. But, since we are all from Iowa we know how this story is going to end. Come late September, I'm going to pay a pretty stiff penalty for my cost cutting.

It's all about the inputs, right? Schools are no different in this regard. If nonpublic schools aren't held to the same standards in terms of public accountability, admissions policies, and transparency; then right off the top they aren't going to have the same inputs. The most recent Legislative Services Agency (LSA) fiscal note for the transparency bill suggested a cost to public school districts of around $16 million. Nonpublic schools have specifically been exempted from this proposal. In fact, when it comes to education policy in the State of Iowa, most of the time there is a carve out exemption for non-public schools. Of course it will cost less! And by the way the aforementioned transparency proposal included no appropriation which makes it an unfunded mandate. This means of course public schools will have to find a way to pay for it, notwithstanding the fact the main 'cost element' has been removed vis-à-vis a voucher. 

The other part of the argument that it will ultimately cost less is gleaned from a bit of insider information. As you know I spent first 15 years of my career in the nonpublic world. I also used to have a supervisor that would cringe anytime someone would make the claim that non-publics were in some way superior because of the fact costs were less. Let's talk about that for just a moment. As I have stated many times over, the business of education (public or private) is very labor intensive. So labor intensive in fact that over 80% of the inputs discussed in the preceding paragraphs are tied up in personnel. Any guesses why that former supervisor would cringe when talking about costs being less? The salary differential is significant. During my time as a parochial school administrator I was in a losing battle for talent. Frankly, our school served as a great training ground for educators. I would hire them right out of college, get them trained up and fully licensed only to see them depart for one of the local public schools. Why? Much better pay (oftentimes more than 20%), benefits, support systems, and overall inputs. In this labor market and battle for talent, do we really want to exacerbate low wages for educators? We've all heard the saying 'A rising tide lifts all boats'. I hope the inverse isn't true. 

Finally, proponents make the claim this bill is needed in order to help families who cannot otherwise afford private school. If that were true, this bill misses the mark by a longshot. The bill provides eligibility to families of students with a household income 400% of the poverty level. For a family of 4, that is $111,000. To put that in perspective, the median household income in Iowa is about $62,000. Believe it or not, that isn't even the main issue! The way the proposal is crafted, it permits families to accumulate the voucher funds year over year while still paying tuition at the school of their choice. At graduation, they can simply take those accumulated funds and use them to pay tuition at a postsecondary institution. One of the legislators who is a proponent of the bill states it best right here. See bullet point 2, sub 2. Frankly I'm not sure this talking point was meant to be shared publicly, particularly since the sentence begins with the phrase, "For our caucus only"! Not only does this hurt public schools for all the reasons that have already been discussed, it does no favors for non-public schools either. In fact, it goes beyond harm to the institution. It actually puts families of public school students and other tuition paying students at a disadvantage by providing 'families with means' money they don't otherwise need to pay for college.

Today the Senate is meeting to move the Appropriations bills out of committee making them eligible for full consideration in that chamber. For the last four weeks, the Senate has refused to move appropriations until the House took up SF 2369. The House has not done that yet. This means a deal was made behind the scenes to move the bill forward quickly once the House reconvenes, or that the Senate has finally realized the House has held firm and recognized this is a very bad idea that will cause real harm to our system of public schools. If you haven't reached out to House members, please do so soon and ask them to oppose SF 2369.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Right-Sizing Our District

It has been almost a decade and a half since I talked to you about the concept of 'right sizing' our district. At the time enrollment was declining and we needed to make an immediate course correction in order to protect the financial solvency of the school district. For those of you who are newer to the district, the short story was that we were already in financial trouble and had few options. Some folks were worried about the district and wondered, would we survive or become a victim of consolidation? The fact is, that was never even a remote possibility. Truthfully and quite simply stated, we had more employees than were needed for the number of students in our classrooms. Unfortunately the only way to fix that was to cut some staff positions. It was incredibly painful but we persevered. I will always be grateful to the school board that served during that time, and for making those very hard decisions. I do believe the hard work that was done then set us up for the many successes we have had since. Because of that work more than a decade ago, not only have we survived, but now we are thriving!

It is time to begin the 'right-sizing' our district discussion anew. But now it will be a much more pleasant conversation. You see, we currently have the opposite challenge (or perhaps opportunity?). Instead of having more employees than we have for students in our classrooms, we have more students than we have employees to serve them! For the 2022-2023 school year, we will be adding a fourth section of kindergarten. With more than 80 students projected in next year's kindergarten class, it is unreasonable to have just 3 sections. We have also added another section of sixth grade and split our preschool program into two separate sections in order to expand our early childhood program capacity. As it currently stands, enrollment for next year is projected to grow by over 50. That is in addition to being up around 40 in our current year. To summarize, in two quick years we are on pace to be up almost 100 students. Take a moment to let that sink in.

Our enrollment growth is being driven by a couple of factors. First is open enrollment. Since the law changed last spring we have seen a significant uptick in the number of families choosing to open enroll in Hudson. The word is out that we have an outstanding school district with a proven track record of high academic achievement and a comprehensive co-curricular program with options and opportunities for all students. Second, enrollment is being driven by residential development. Folks have learned that Hudson is not only a great place to send your kids to school, but it is an awesome place to raise a family. The number of residential lots and developments that are available right now is just, well staggering!

As our community grows, so too will our school district. In order to take full advantage of this opportunity and maintain our reputation for excellence, we need to continue to attract and retain high powered talent for our classrooms. Luckily we have been able to do just that when filling these positions. Well, perhaps it isn't luck so much as it is a strategic hiring practice that we have in place. It begins with settling our employment contracts early. That can only happen if we present a proposal for a compensation package that is competitive and attractive. In the last couple of  years we have deliberately been more aggressive in our drive to offer wage packages [we believe] that are both competitive and tough to beat in the Cedar Valley. In so doing, we can retain our staff, get a better understanding of where vacancies exist, and enter the labor market before anyone else. 

Additionally, we are very thoughtful about hiring. While all part of the grand plan, we have to look ahead at potential retirements, courses that we may want to add to the program (or courses that are no longer relevant) and then hire to meet those needs. Being able to look into the future is critical as our enrollment increases. In some cases, we may consider 'hiring ahead' in order to get the right person into our district, knowing that while they may not have a full schedule immediately upon hire, they will in just a few short years. In the interim, we can deploy that human resource in other needed areas as we flex outward.

Frankly, all of this is possible because of the diligence in staffing and budgeting over the course of last dozen years. When basing our hiring on enrollment trends with an eye toward the future, it has also enabled us to build capital. This provides the financial backing that permits the district to make calculated hiring decisions with little risk.