Stephen Bowen Comments On School Shut Down Days

Stephen Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center has a few things to say about Maine using school shut down days to trim down the education budget.  Mr. Bowen goes in-depth on alternatives to shut down days, school district consolidation, and teacher compensation.  Mr. Bowen’s full comments after the cut.

School shut down days are, of course, a terrible way to balance the budget. The problem is, though, that it takes time to do the things we ought to do in order to cut costs, such as improving administrative efficiencies and tying teacher and administrator pay to outcomes.

Take school system consolidation, for instance. Here was an opportunity, had it been handled better, to generate real savings by cutting down on over-administration and duplication of services. The approach I proposed, which was to create regional “service districts” that handled back-office operations, facility maintenance, transportation and so forth for a number of districts, would have saved millions without completely restructuring the entire system by which our school districts are organized and run.  Instead, the state enacted a one-size-fits-all approach that was so poorly designed and implemented that we now have an initiative on the ballot to repeal it. What a wasted opportunity to save real money.

We ought to change the way we pay teachers as well. Today, we pay teachers to take college courses , get teacher certification, and attain advanced college degrees, none of which has been shown to have any impact of student outcomes. A much better, and more cost effective approach, would be to recruit the best folks we can to teaching, use alternative routes to teacher certification that don’t involve meaningless coursework that wastes time and money, and pay the best teachers far more than we are paying them now. How does this approach cost less? Because if we have a top-notch teacher in every classroom, we can give them 25 kids to teach instead of 12.  Our pupil-teacher ratio in this state, which is something else that has a questionable correlation to positive student outcomes, is one of the lowest in the nation, which is costing us a fortune.  So let’s make a deal with the teachers-  we’ll pay you far more – $70-$80,000 a year, let’s say, and we’ll use regionalization to cut down on the number of administrators breathing down your necks, which will give you more freedom to work with. In exchange, we’re going to increase your class sizes, at least to the national average, and hold you accountable for your results.  More pay and more freedom to teach the way you want in exchange for 6-8 more kids in your classroom? I’d take that in a second and so would most teachers.

Unfortunately, developing all that takes time, as does regionalization. The other source of money that we are not fully exploiting is federal stimulus funds.  It has become clear now that Maine, because it is one of the very few states without charter schools, is destined to be near the bottom of the list of states to get a chunk of the billions of education dollars that the U.S. Department of Education is making available.  I’m amazed, frankly, that the Maine Education Association would rather have school shutdown days, which will cut the pay of every teacher in Maine, than allow the state to enact charter schools. They wouldn’t say that they do, of course, but that is the choice that has been created by their recalcitrance on charter schools.  If we had charter schools, we’d be more likely to get federal education funding. Since we don’t, the options for cutting costs at this point are few.

It will be fascinating and revealing to see how the MEA, the Maine Principal’s Association, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association, all of whom opposed the charter school bill, deal with the school shutdown proposal. Are they really prepared to take money out of the pockets of every teacher and administrator in Maine, through shutdown days, rather than adopt charter schools and access the billions in federal school funds that are just sitting there? I can’t wait to find out.

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