Monday, February 28, 2011

More big burdens, more small shoulders

From Jonathan Cohn:

Please indulge me while I share some local news: Rick Snyder, newly elected governor in my home state of Michigan, announced this week that he will call for massive cuts in state spending on education.* (*Note: My [Cohn's] wife is a professor at a public university that would lose some funding under Snyder’s plan. I doubt she'll feel much impact from these cuts. But, as you can guess from this item, I think my kids will.) Very roughly, it will result in a reduction of about $470 per student.

I know enough about public education, and public education bureaucracies, to believe that school districts could find ways to reduce spending without hurting the quality of education. And, yes, it would probably mean teachers and staff making more concessions on salaries or, more likely, benefits.

But could they find $470 per student that way? I don't think so. On the contrary, I expect that schools--including the ones that my sons attend--would end up with fewer teachers, fewer courses, and fewer extracurricular offerings if the legislature approves Snyder's plan. And my kids would be among the lucky ones. It would be much worse in places like Detroit, where an ongoing funding crisis is about to swell some classes to 60 students. (No, that’s not a misprint.)


  1. Hey Mark, You can count me as absolutely opposed to these cuts in education. But since the blogosphere is talking a lot about unions, I figured I'd point out that one of the worst aspects of many contracts with teachers is the "last in first out" rule, whereby if anyone is laid off, it must be the employees who were most recently hired, no matter how great they are. Admittedly, I know little about Michigan's teacher contracts, but if it is like many other states, then this gives us particular reason to believe that cuts in spending will hurt children.

  2. I think that these issues would be less severe and easier to handle without large pro-cyclical cuts in education. It'd be less traumatic for all involved if we'd focus on these issues in a period of decent growth.

  3. Hi Joseph, I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "these issues." Are you agreeing that "last in first out" is a very bad provision in labor contracts? Though I agree that this is an especially bad time to make cuts in government spending, I'm not sure why we would want to wait until better economic times before removing such provisions from contracts.

  4. The "last in, first out" provision is limited in a number of ways. The main purpose, so far as I can tell, is to avoid management doing the reverse (last in, last out) to reduce payroll (as pay tends to rise with seniority). What is needed is a good performance based metric, and I have been uncomfortable with the performance of the ones that have been most recently proposed.

    That is the reason I am cautious about these changes. The high stress environment of a budget crisis seems to be tough time to try and make sure that fair replacement mechanisms are instituted.

    I also think changing this would require rethinking a lot of elements of the teacher compensation package. If you could be laid off after 15 years, would not a 403b or 401k retirement plan make more sense?

  5. Thanks for your reply Joseph.
    To summarize, you fear that giving management more discretion about who to layoff has a good chance of resulting in even worse layoff decisions than "last in, first out." I'm willing to entertain this is possible, but think it unlikely. What hypothetical study design would bring us closest to agreement?

  6. I'd like a cluster randomized trial with student centered outcomes. It's a dream but it might be worth it for the long term learning involved.

    I could support any reasonably objective method of teacher evaluation that is outcomes based. For example, I am not as concerned with tenure as a professor because I believe in the process and know how to evaluate my progress. LIFO is definitely a system that could be improved on.