Curb Your Dog (or Your K-12 Spending)

by Martin Harris

In the past, the municipal admonition to “curb your dog” meant what it said: lead your “companion canine” to the paved street, not lawns or sidewalks, on his poop-walk. Now it means “pick up his poop in your own poop-bag”. But not for recent pledges by Vermont’s Golden Domers to “curb school spending.” The verb “to stem” is used interchangeably with the verb ‘to curb”: the dictionary definition (Cambridge) is “to stop something unwanted from spreading or increasing”. “Curb” , for sanitation purposes, once meant “control-the-problem” and now means “correct and/or remove it”; “curb” for education purposes doesn’t mean “solve-the-problem”: it means “stem-it” (sort of). Case in point: voter rejection of the Leicester Central School budget.

It could have meant “solve-the-problem”: Rhode Island, for example, reducing its per-pupil spending from $18,729 in 2010 to $15,803 in 2011, a cut of $2926 or 16% (all figures from “Fifty States Comparisons, 2012” published by The Taxpayers’ Network) is an illustration. In contrast, Leicester’s rejected school budget of $1,127,521 was reduced by $9,881 (less than 1%) by the Board for a second try, asking for $1,117,640, for a 5.3% year-to-year increase. With an enrollment of 67 (all school data from State Ed Dep’t website) that “reduced” spending requests works out to $16,681 per pupil. For that expenditure, Leicester, like all Vermont schools, brings just over a third of its students to Math and Reading Proficiency (and Advanced ) in the elementary grades: the Grade 4 Reading percentage was 41 on the nation-wide Federal NAEP test for 2009. The other 59% could not function at grade level. To get to cosmetically-better numbers, Vermont signed on for (and helps pay for) the NECAP tests, on which Grades 3-6 of Leicester students somehow made 80% Proficient or Above. (The SED website shows Leicester’s Reading tested for Grades 3-8, but the natives know better.) But failure to bring almost all students to at-grade Reading Proficiency, as all American K-12 schools did until the 60’s, when grade-repetition for non-Proficiency was re-defined as socially unacceptable, is not the controlling element in Vermont’s per-pupil spending, at $17,447 for 2011: it costs no more for Leicester to send the majority of 7th graders, those who can’t read too well, on to Otter Valley High School than it does to send the minority: those who can. You might even say that “social promotion” is a cost-saver in that it doesn’t require spending on remedial instructional time.

It costs more (a lot more) to run small classes than the once-larger ones in which near-100% R & M Proficiency was once typically achieved, which explains why Leicester’s classrooms could seat about 25, if so furnished. Now, class sizes are: pre-K, 8; K, 8; Gr. 1, 9; Gr.2, 10; Gr.3, 10; Gr. 4, 10, Gr. 5, 10; and Gr. 6, 2. Historically, small rural schools addressed the small-class-size problem by multi-grading, but that practice was aggressively discouraged by the educational establishment in the late 60’s until, having pretty much accomplished a desired level of small-school closings and larger-schools construction by the early 80’s, multi-grading was frequently re-introduced (in the new consolidated schools!). The nearby Sudbury school is designed with 25-student classrooms for grade-pairs. To what extent Leicester uses multi-grading, we’re not told, but we know that the pupil-teacher ratio is 11.75, which works out to 5.7 full-time-equivalent teachers for the 67 students. If the p-t ratio were 17.65, increasing average class size by about a half, Direct Instruction cost, 62% or so of most public-ed budgets, could be cut by about a third. In Leicester, the D.I. percentage is 69: using a bit of grade-school Math, it works out to $11,510 per pupil in the requested budget and $7,712 per pupil with an increased class size. Multiplied by the 67 enrollment number, that’s a total budget reduction of $254,466 or about 23% of the new request, from $1,117, 640 down to $863, 174, or $12,883 per pupil. Note: these are total spending per-pupil numbers, not the somewhat lower “current expense”.

That class size (about 18) is in the middle of the “optimum” range for primary grade clusters, as set forth by the Vermont Education Department itself in a set of Class Size Policy Guidelines published in September of 2010 : 15-18 for K-2, 15-20 for 3-4 and 5-6. The guidelines for secondary schools are modestly higher: 18-22 in most courses, 20-25 in Phys-Ed, and 15-22 in so-called “Singleton” courses. The extent to which these State-level recommendations are to be taken verbatim (think “curb your dog”) at any level from State to local can be seen in the average class size in Vermont schools: 13.5 students, per the Federal (National Center for Educational Statistics) chart for 2007-8. The VT SED doesn’t put up-to-date numbers on its website, but About.com does, and it shows Vermont’s average class size now at 10.5 (p/t ratio would typically be slightly different, depending on school-free-period policies). Given that Class Size Policy Guidelines already exist (but aren’t observed, either seen or obeyed) in State and local education-governance, one might innocently ask why State legislators are now proposing to develop just such policies, in order to (so they tell us) to “curb” school spending.

As for the Leicester school budget, it’s clear that a. neither the taxpayers nor the Board nor the administration has wanted to address the pupil-teacher ratio/class-size question defined by the already published stats for both; a proposed cut of less than 1% (but still a year-to-year 5.3% increase) after a budget-vote defeat for a proposed 6.3% increase was not a meaningful spending “curb” or “stem” by any definition; and none of the concerned parties seem much concerned over the productivity imbalance: ever-higher spending, ever-stagnant (and low absolute) Proficiency test scores. Vermont, like all other States except one, has devoted considerable effort toward obtaining an easier test with seemingly better scores (counting NSRE which preceded NECAP, the about-to-come-into-use Smart Balance will be #3) and has devoted zero effort toward re-examining the ever-lower class size policies which, for the last 40 years, have promised, and failed to produce, better achievement scores, even as they have produced ever-higher spending per-pupil levels. As for public education productivity at the State level, the relatively small number of Leicester-type budget defeats, the silliness of legislators proposing to “curb” spending by, for example, writing rules just like those which already exist, the adoption of easier tests to obscure the dismal results on the Federal tests, and the decisions of all officials, from Governor to Ed Commissioner to Superintendent to school board association leadership, to avoid any call-of-attention to any of the above, doesn’t bode well for any improvement. As with the original “curb your dog” mandate, the poop was still left on the pavement.