Friday, January 14, 2011

The New Normal

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the following statement at the American Enterprise Institute on November 17, 2010.

“I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the great challenge of doing more with less. My message is this: challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo. It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

On the CBS 60 Minutes broadcast of December 19, 2010, Steve Kroft did a piece on the looming meltdown of state budgets.

“By now, just about everyone in the country is aware of the federal deficit problem, but you should know that there is another financial crisis looming involving state and local governments. It has gotten much less attention because each state has a slightly different story. But in the two years since the "great recession" wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes. There is also a trillion-dollar hole in their public pension funds. The states have been getting by on billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, but the day of reckoning is at hand. The debt crisis is already making Wall Street nervous, and some believe that it could derail the recovery, cost a million public employees their jobs and require another big bailout package that no one in Washington wants to talk about.”

Why is Secretary Duncan talking about the “new normal?” Why is 60 Minutes talking about a looming financial crisis in the states that will dwarf the housing bust of the last few years? Why does this matter to educators? What do education leaders do to ensure the current generation of children are provided with an educational experience that prepares them for their future and not our past?

All education leaders know there is a funding cliff looming for 2012 and beyond. State and local education budgets have been propped up by federal stimulus funds for the past two years and through 2011; however, the stimulus funds are drying up, and most pundits predict that the federal government will not be able to support another round of stimulus funding to help state and local budgets.

Currently, the national debt has reached $14 trillion. That amounts to more than $40,000 for every American – including our children and grandchildren. By the end of the decade, the federal debt is predicted to exceed $20 trillion, and for every additional trillion, that means more than $3,000 added to our individual amount.

Recently, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued recommendations that would begin to address the rising tide of debt. Immediately, the recommendations were met with criticism and cynicism from the right and left.

In their book Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best, Frederick Hess and Eric Osberg offer several other reasons behind the “new normal” speech delivered by Secretary Duncan.
* Education has always been seen as the “sacred cow” in federal, state and local budgets. For more than 100 years with very few exceptions, the per-pupil expenditure for education has increased. Even during times of recession, education has seen increases in spending per pupil. Since the late ’50s, education has almost tripled the amount spent per pupil, while at the same time, our ranking among international comparisons and national assessments show stagnant performance as other countries are moving rapidly past the U.S.
* Over the past few years, the American public has signaled less support for continued increases in education spending. Given the constant bombardment of criticism placed on public schools and the current economic recession, the public has been persuaded that money is not the fix for public schools. Citizens reason that if they have to tighten their home budgets, then schools should be forced to do the same.
* The competing interests of other special interest groups have influenced education budgets and will continue to compete for declining federal, state and local resources. Education is facing competition with health care, criminal justice and the needs of an aging population.
* Public employee benefits are not sustainable and will become the final “brick” that breaks the back of federal, state and local budgets. The public pensions and other retirement benefits are structurally unsustainable. Current projections place an unfunded requirement of more than $1.3 trillion.

Last week, I announced a two percent reduction in the foundation funding (SEEK) for school systems. Over the past three years, Kentucky schools have faced reductions in not only foundation funding, but also in textbooks, professional development and other support processes. Kentucky schools are facing the “new normal.”

I am encouraged by superintendents to push state leaders for more funding for schools and at least the restoration of funding cuts. However, I also am faced with the four issues mentioned above from other stakeholders.

My position will continue to be this – as commissioner I will promote funding for what children need to be prepared for their future. I also will continue to focus on the most effective and efficient delivery methods to help children reach success. I WILL continue to encourage school leaders to look carefully at the status quo and determine if there are more effective and efficient ways to help students achieve success.

Over the coming months, I will continue to focus the conversation on four key areas that I believe will help Kentucky educators face the “new normal” and help the current generation of children in Kentucky achieve success. The four areas that I will focus on are:
* structure of schooling
* benchmarking processes
* effective and efficient labor costs
* productivity and effectiveness of all education processes

Our job as adults is to provide our children with the opportunity for a successful future. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

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