Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

Nothing is “Away” from the Classroom

One of my favorite examples of the “conventional wisdom” in public education is the often stated “truism” that if a school district needs to make budget cuts, it’s best to make cuts “away” from the classroom.

The spirit behind the refrain is sound. If we are forced to make cuts to our budget, shouldn’t we try to make those cuts that have the least direct effect on our students? It sounds good, but like most pieces of common wisdom, it ignores the interconnectedness and complexity of educating a child as well as fails to see the inherent tradeoffs that need to be made in difficult budget decisions.

We all know that the classroom is just one venue for learning, and the entire school environment is critical, including the library, gym, music room, art room, guidance counselor’s office, sports fields, or even home. Certainly, some of the most critical and intense interactions between educators and students happen in a classroom, but blind adherence to this prioritization ignores the inherent “leverage” of other places and roles in the school. For example, school counselors (assuming we even have them) make the job of classroom teachers more effective by elevating the culture of the school, dealing with behavioral issues, and helping all students be more effective learners and members of the community; i.e., their role has leverage. Strict observance to the “cutting away from the classroom” mantra would always suggest you should cut the counselor before increasing class size.

I’m not opining on what is actually the best solution for any given school district – and that’s the point. There is no colloquialism that can decide this for you; it’s based on the acceptable trade-off for that district. However, I would argue that often spending money on high-leverage investments is actually a good thing, even though it appears “away” from the classroom.

Also, the refrain makes the false assumption that administrators have a secondary (or no) role in educating children, but are just part of the bureaucratic machine that is a school district. Although a politically convenient statement, it is a gross simplification of how school districts actually work. Certainly there are some roles that are purely administrative and seem to have very little impact on students’ lives. But even those – besides being mostly legally required – enable everyone else to do their job. Does the person who ensures teachers get paid not affect student learning? Of course she does. How about our principals, our district staff who work on special education and curriculum, our information technology folks who keep our networks running? Do they affect our students’ education? Of course.

Given that California has one of the lowest ratio of administrators to students in the country, it’s hard not to argue that every one of our administrators provides important leverage in the goal to educate every child. But imagine a school board member (or state legislator) standing up and saying “we need more money for administrators in our schools.” Instead of educating our constituents, we pander to them and give the illusion that we’re being most effective with their tax dollar. If an administrator (or any other role for that matter) wasn’t critical for student learning, then we need to examine why we hired them.

This false bifurcation of “near” and “away” from the classroom leads to other silly and often misleading efforts. For example, most parcel taxes, bonds, and other initiatives put on the ballot contain language that says “no money for administrator salaries.” I appreciate that the backers of local parcel taxes feel they have to put in this language to appeal to voters, but once again we’re just pandering because it’s politically expedient to ignore the complex truth; it’s hard to explain “highly leveraged positions” in a sound bite.

It’s also s a little dishonest, because money is fungible. Yes, some money is absolutely restricted, but in general we’re just moving money from the left pocket to the right pocket. If a district needed to spend money on administration, it just wouldn’t use “that” money to pay for it, but rather use “other” money which is freed up due to a parcel tax or initiative. Economically it’s the same result, and the apparent restriction rarely has any effect. So why have it? (Most mandates are underfunded and therefore encroach on general funds anyway.)

We must be reminded of the big picture and the difficulty that school board members have in making budget tradeoffs. For example, most believe that schools need to do a better job of evaluating teachers, but what is required to do this? We would have to invest in “administrative” costs that are “away from the classroom.” School districts get constantly (and justifiably) criticized for not better engaging with the community in the public process, but then those same people will often cry foul if the district considers hiring a communications person in the district office, because that’s just adding administrative costs away from the classroom.

I’m not suggesting that in all cases the right decision is to favor “administrative” costs or those investments seemingly “away from the classroom.” What I am stating is that we should ditch the sound bites, appreciate the important role that all investments have in fulfilling our mission, and have a reasonable and informed discussion about budget priorities that make sense for any particular district.