Why Accountants Should Not Run Schools

Jeff Bryant

There’s a reason why accountants traditionally wore green eyeshades. In their “vision-intensive, detail-oriented” work, they were prone to “eyestrain” caused by scrupulous attention to columns and rows of numbers on a ledger. Now, of course, the strain is lessened by the softer glow of a computer screen. But the accountant’s job is the same, nevertheless.

Historically, in fact, the practice of “accountancy” has not changed a lot in over 7,000 years, with the exception of the innovation of double entry bookkeeping by Luca Pacioli during the European Renaissance. Yet despite this doddering pedigree, accounting has ascended to the lofty realm of becoming “the language of business” that rationalizes all sorts of large-scale economic and political policy decisions in our society.

Take, for instance, the whole concept of so-called free trade agreements that have been driving American and international financial decisions for the last 20 years, at least. As my good colleague and friend Dave Johnson has observed on this website, the rationale for these policies derived from an accountant’s mindset.

From the accountant’s “detail oriented” perspective, the column labeled “cost” — in this case, the cost of labor — represents a problematic figure influencing what happens in the cell labeled “profit.” And when that cost remains stubbornly fixed — or even rises, God forbid — this sets the accountant’s mind to squirming like a toad. But when that cost of labor can be magically lowered — in this case by outsourcing the cost of labor from a high-wage country to a low-wage country — what a brilliant innovation!

As Johnson pointed out, the impact of outsourcing labor costs can be catastrophic on the lives of people in the high-wage country, in terms of rising unemployment, lowering of personal incomes to low-wage jobs, foreclosing homes, damaging whole neighborhoods and communities — you get the idea. But those are “costs” that are off the accountant’s books. Off the spreadsheet, out of mind, so to speak.

This whole preoccupation with tidying-up the account’s ledger while the rest of us down here on the ground cope with the resulting mayhem is what is at the very foundation of what’s wrong with the American economy right now. And all the emphasis on keeping corporate profits high is worsening the financial conditions of the population at large.

Only now, unfortunately, we’re aiming the very same accounting “logic” at America’s public schools.

States’ Steep Cuts Hit Schools Hard

What we’ve been hearing in state houses across the country is that public schools “cost too much” and have to be cut. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities keeps a useful tally of the financial carnage and made the following observation at the beginning of the current school year:

    Our review of budget documents finds that, of 46 states that publish education budget data in a way that allows historic comparisons:
    • 37 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in the new school year than they provided last year.
    • 30 states are providing less than they did four years ago.
    • 17 states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent from pre-recession levels.
    • Four states — South Carolina, Arizona, California, and Hawaii — each have reduced per student funding to K-12 schools by more than 20 percent. (These figures, like all the comparisons in this paper, are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)

A recent update from CBPP included these specific examples:

    Colorado cut public school spending by $260 million, nearly a 5 percent decline from fiscal year 2010. The cut amounts to more than $400 per student.
    Florida’s 11 public universities raised tuition by 15 percent for the 2010-11 academic year. This tuition hike, combined with a similar increase in 2009-10, results in a total two-year increase of 32 percent.
    • In Minnesota, as a result of higher education funding cuts, approximately 9,400 students lost their state financial aid grants entirely, and the remaining state financial aid recipients will see their grants cut by 19 percent.
    Virginia’s $700 million in K-12 education cuts for the current biennium include the state’s share of an array of school district operating and capital expenses, and funding for class-size reduction in Kindergarten through third grade.

No doubt, most of the state legislators who approved these budget cuts to schools congratulated themselves after “balancing the books.” But is there any accounting at all of what this will cost the rest of us?

Does Money Matter?

Many of the current “luminaries” guiding current education policy tell us that “education budget cuts don’t have to hurt learning.”

As Matt DiCarlo recently pointed out at the ShankerBlog, prominent education pundits and policy makers emphatically point out that per-pupil expenditures have roughly doubled since 1975, while results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been relatively flat in both math and reading. “In other words, we are spending more and not getting better results,” they conclude. So, “Money doesn’t really matter.”

This conclusion is, of course, unfounded. First, because, as DiCarlo points out, “the coincidence of two trends (in this case, spending and test scores) by itself proves nothing about the causal relationship between them.” But also because this a conclusion coming from the narrow-mindedness of an accountant’s perspective that recognizes “cost” as only what is spent directly on students and “revenue” as only what is represented by a test score.

What would be the real cost to society if did we not spend money on our children’s education? If we cut the costs of public schools, what does that cost families and communities in terms of their care and raising of healthy children? What are the many benefits, other than test scores, produced by spending money on education? Those values are not in the accountant’s sphere of consideration.

We should know better. And in fact, we do. Just last week, one of the leading experts on financial matters related to public education, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, presented us with the wider perspective that considers more than just the spreadsheet calculations of “money-in, test scores-out.”

Published by the Shanker Institute, the study Does Money Matter in Education? has gone mostly unnoticed in the mainstream media. But the conclusions need to be spread far and wide.

Money = Resources

Baker looked first at the money flowing into schools in relationship to the resources that money buys — most notably, teacher quality and class size.

What Baker gleaned from the literature on teacher salaries and benefits reveals all sorts of evidence that what we pay teachers affects the quality of those who enter the profession, whether they stay, how equally they are distributed to high-needs schools, and how their quality is adversely affected by spending reductions.

One particular item of note, quoted from an earlier study, is that “raising teacher wages by 10 percent reduces high school dropout rates by 3 percent to 4 percent.”

Regarding class size, Baker found that “children in smaller classes achieve better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial or socio-economic achievement gaps.” So keeping class size small is something worth paying for.

What Baker concluded is pretty hard to argue with:

While money alone may not be the answer, adequate and equitable distributions of financial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving adequacy and equity of outcomes. That is, if the money isn’t there, schools and districts simply don’t have a “leverage option” that can support strategies that might improve student outcomes. If the money is there, they can use it productively; if it’s not, they can’t.

Seeing the Forest

As a “numbers guy” himself, Baker is certainly not averse to spreadsheet analytic approaches to problem-solving. But a bigger point he makes is that simple spreadsheet logic alone can’t take into account all the factors that matter:

Using the simple juxtaposition of two trends — spending and average test scores — to draw causal inferences about how one affects the other is irresponsible and not at all compelling. The “true effect” of funding on educational outcomes is extremely difficult to isolate.

replacing bricks and mortar schools with online learning or firing more teachers to increase our children’s future incomes.

In his analysis, Baker allowed that there “may exist alternative uses of financial resources that yield comparable or better returns in student outcomes.” But there’s currently “no clear evidence” that identifies what those alternatives are.

But in the meantime, the cutting proceeds, the account’s ledger gets tidied up, and costs are shifted off the books onto . . . what?

Where Costs of Education Shift To

As we continue to apply the account’s logic to the nation’s schools there will no doubt emerge disturbing signs of what the large cost of this brutality is to the society at large.

One manifestation already making headlines is the cost transfer from public education to the criminal justice system. At least it’s making headlines overseas, as a reporter from The Guardian couldn’t help but notice how schools in the U.S. that are increasingly emptied of the teaching force are being repopulated with the police force. Instead of teaching children, more school districts are arresting them and hauling them before judges.

The reporter cites Texas schools in particular:

Each day, hundreds of schoolchildren appear before courts in Texas charged with offences such as swearing, misbehaving on the school bus or getting in to a punch-up in the playground. Children have been arrested for possessing cigarettes, wearing “inappropriate” clothes and being late for school.
In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanour” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.

But this trend isn’t peculiar to the Lone Star State alone.

In a special issue of Rethinking Schools, educators and experts from various sources describe a “school to prison pipeline” that is becoming a dominant condition of American culture. The editor traces the school to pipeline to many sources, including inequalities, zero tolerance policies, stressed-out teachers, and the War on Drugs.

But the overwhelming evidence is that as we strip the nation of the funds devoted to educating the nation’s children, we’re allocating ever more resources to arresting and incarcerating them.

In fact, today in America one-third of all young people will be arrested before age 23.

What to Do

It’s important to note that the accountant mentality that is starving America’s public schools isn’t being applied to the financial realm only.

In witnessing the recent 10 year observance of No Child Left Behind, the nation’s flagship education policy, what we were presented with was one perspective after another ruminating over the policy’s legacy of infusing throughout the American school system a narrative of improving education by analyzing the “simple juxtaposition” of various “inputs” on test scores.

Instead of rejecting this way of thinking, policy leaders continue to embrace it — in the form of Race to the Top, value added teacher evaluation, and other measures. What must occur instead is to set the spreadsheets aside for a moment, listen to other perspectives, and realize that the chartered accountants that have led us down this broken path aren’t anymore “education reformers” than they are lion tamers.

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