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Make sure you measure everything

A lot of groups are measuring a lot of things related to the state’s cuts to public education funding, but there’s one big thing not mentioned in this story that needs to be accurately tracked as well.

In March, the Texas Education Agency will release the official numbers on school district employment for the 2011-12 school year, including job losses. The figures will be a reckoning in some ways — the first time the state will actually measure the affect of a historic reduction in financing. But several groups, including nonprofit organizations and professional associations, and at least one lawmaker, would like to have a better idea before then — to help shape their own policies and in some cases to be able to control how the discussion is framed.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, the state branch of the national teachers association, recently released a survey that showed that budget cuts had resulted in widespread layoffs and low morale among public school employees. Linda Bridges, the branch’s president, emphasized the strength of the study’s findings, but because it was an online survey, she said, it was “unscientific” in nature.

The KDK-Harman Foundation, a private nonprofit, is working with Children at Risk, an education advocacy group in Houston, to conduct a comprehensive study on how schools are managing with less money. Jennifer Esterline, the foundation’s executive director, said a lack of both quantitative and qualitative information on the effects of the cuts prompted the study, which was expected to cost just over $100,000.

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Lynn Moak, whose school finance consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates, has kept track of job-loss estimates since the start of the session, said the figure of layoffs could vary widely by source, depending on which employees are counted.

For instance, if only teachers are included, it may be a much smaller number than if all employees are included, because many districts are trying to cut everywhere except in the classroom. Moak said that depending on their financial status, districts may face the greater bulk of their budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year — which could cushion the numbers districts report this year.

These are all good things to know, but to me it all comes down to student performance and graduation rates. Obviously, the state keeps track of those things, but I don’t know if anyone who is tying it to the financial effect on each school district. The cuts were distributed evenly across the districts instead of being proportional to how much each district received in per-student funding, so some districts were affected a lot more than others. How will that be reflected in standardized test scores and graduation rates? That’s what I want to know, and I hope everyone else with a stake in this wants to know it, too. We may not know everything for a fea years, given the addition of high school exit exams and the change to the STAAR test, but we ought to know enough to make a judgment about how the cuts affected the students. What we do from there will depend on the next election, and the one after that.

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