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U.S. Education Secretary’s guide to budget cuts

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 at 8:43 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

California isn’t the only state looking at deep education funding cuts.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday that governors from across the nation have sought his advice, as they try to make difficult funding reductions in schools.

To help out what he called “one of the largest new crops of incoming governors,” Duncan sent a letter and two documents to states, outlining flexible spending options and “Smart Ideas to Increase Educational Productivity and Student Achievement.”

Here’s a rundown of some of his ideas, which he discussed during a Thursday news conference:

— Put students first: “ … evaluate all policies and practices against the ultimate bottom line: is this policy or practice improving student outcomes?”

— Invest in what works: “ … over time, many states and districts have invested resources in effective educational programs and practices or in programs and practices without enough evidence of effectiveness.”

— “Share ideas and learn from success.”

— Work with stakeholders: “Engaging in honest, productive conversations with stakeholders can lead to real savings and improved results for students, while not working together can result in acrimony and little else …”

— “Avoid shortsighted cost-cutting … Shortsighted cuts include: reducing the number of days in the school year, decreasing the amount of instructional time, eliminating instruction in the arts and foreign languages, eliminating high-quality early learning programs, abandoning promising reforms, and indiscriminately laying off talented teachers be they new, mid-career, or veteran …”

— “Protect the neediest children and communities: Where funding reductions must be made, governors and other policymakers can take steps to ensure that the neediest communities and children are not the hardest hit …”

— “Support early college high schools and dual enrollment opportunities: Enabling students to replace some of their high school courses with more rigorous college-level courses saves time and money for the student, the high school, and the college — while also increasing student achievement and access to accelerated course work …”

“Ease or eliminate ‘seat-time’ requirements in order to allow students to progress to new courses or content as soon as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, rather than when sufficient time passes …”

— Leverage alternative funding sources, local partnerships and resources

— Close persistently low-performing and under-enrolled schools, and enroll students in higher-quality campuses: “In each case, it is important to consider the broader impact of such closures on students and make these decisions in an equitable manner across the state or district. Families, teachers, and the community should be included in the decision, and districts should provide information about high-quality options and transition and support services for affected students.”

Duncan also advised districts to use technology wisely and suggested that teachers and principals should be compensated based on excellence, with higher pay for those who work in “high-need schools, subjects or specialties.” He said small class sizes should be weighed against the need for excellent teachers.

“I’m a parent of two young children,” he said. “If I was given the choice between an extraordinary teacher with 28 students or a mediocre teacher with 23 students, I would choose the larger class size. Not all parents would make that choice. But that’s a conversation we should have.”

In addition, Duncan said educational programs should be funded based on success to create incentives for improvement and that schools should consolidate or share services with other agencies, including local governments. Incentives could also be created to reduce costs for transportation and other services, he added.

Duncan also called for the elimination of “unnecessary or unproductive mandates” and encouraged flexible funding. Finally, he encouraged “high-quality teacher and principal evaluation systems,” investment in “meaningful” data systems and “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

During the question and answer period with the press, Duncan said educational agencies should focus on what they’re getting in return for the money they’re spending.

“We have to make sure that every single scarce dollar we spend is doing the maximum amount to get students educated,” he said. “We have to be smart, we have to be strategic.”

I asked Duncan about the importance of strategic planning and told him the district I cover (Mt. Diablo) has no strategic plan and recently decided to close a school for which it had received a $1.7 million, three-year “transformation” School Improvement Grant.

“Strategic plannng is extraordinarily important,” he said. “There are a number of ways to transform a school.”

He said the federal government is leaving these decisions up to local officials, but stressed that he and others at the U.S. Department of Education are visiting schools to see what is being done with the money.

“Those grants are funding that came through the state,” he said, “and we’re going to be looking very closely at how districts are using those scarce resources to dramatically improve education.”

You can see the complete list of ideas, along with Duncan’s letter and flexibility options, at”

Do you think California school districts should follow Duncan’s advice?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

16 Responses to “U.S. Education Secretary’s guide to budget cuts”

  1. Mr. S Says:

    Arne Duncan should take the time to check out Holbrook Elementary! He would be impressed with the collaboration and competitive spirit of Holbrook’s teachers and principal. He would be encouraged that a school is actively and effectively using many of the latest and best teaching practices(EDI, Boardmath, Step Up to Writing, Kevin Feldman’s Academic Language Program, and using DATA Analysis to monitor and drive teacher instruction. If he visited on Tuesday afternoon he could observe our 5th grade girls building, innovating and preparing for careers in math, engineering and science with our Techbridge Program. After viewing Holbrook’s PLC room he would understand how this school improved its API by 50 points! Most importantly, he would see students enjoying the challenge of school and striving to do their very best until 6:00 at night. Hey Secretary Duncan! Failure is not an option at this school! Unfortunately, our school and district needs your support. We need the cash! ps. Bring your basketball shoes.

  2. 4Students Says:

    I’m a big fan of Secretary Duncan. He’s a rock star. Did you get his autograph?

    This is all great, especially what he said about “seat time requirement”! We have a big problem with foreign languages. Students should be able to test to progress to the next level. Use language labs more. Incorporate online courses if necessary.

    The problem with class size requirement isn’t class size as much as that classes may not be offered. Isn’t that why YVHS cancelled drama last year? – and why NHS had a class cancelled this year after first semester. It’s a problem with foreign languages, such as French 2 that students need for college, and there are too many for 1 class but not enough to fill 2 classes. It’s a nightmare for the students, and for our principals and VPs to schedule!

    And we return to the problem with the SIG grant applications last year. Based on what Sec. Duncan said, it’s obvious MDUSD should have closed Glenbrook last year before the Nov. 1 application, and received the SIG grant to relocate the students.

    Sec. Duncan says “Strategic plannng is extraordinarily important.” We hope MDUSD was listening!

  3. Jim Says:

    I would echo the perspective of 4Students above on foreign languages and Mr. Duncan’s advice to schools — particularly on staying flexible and examining “seat time” requirements. Not every decision in favor of students costs money. Sometimes you can SAVE money and IMPROVE learning options for students.

    Our son at NGHS is now in his 3rd foreign program because of problems in language instruction there. After 3 years of French in middle school, we thought he would continue it at NGHS, but the quality of the French program there was really dubious, so he moved to German, where our older son had experienced an excellent program. But instructor changes, dissatisfaction with the program, and enrollment declines left the German program endangered after one year, making it uncertain whether our son could complete the 3 years of HS foreign language instruction that is recommended for the UCs. So he moved to Spanish. As a sophomore, he has only 3 years left, and we figured NGHS would keep that program, if nothing else.

    NGHS parents tried to supplement the middling foreign language offerings there with online courses that are already accredited by CA and used by thousands of students across the country. Our principal was supportive and really went to bat for us, but the district office was indifferent, if not downright obstructionist. They couldn’t decide whether CA state funding would apply to online courses. They wondered “where” it could be offered. (Hello! It’s an online course!) They insisted that a credentialed teacher be present, even though a single teacher would not have expertise in all of the languages offered and therefore would have been no help to most students. After “funding” objections came up, parents even offered to pay the modest course fees out of pocket. (Costs for online courses are extremely low for public schools, if you have a reasonably sized group of students. They don’t even have to take the same language.) But after months of spinning and indecision and registration deadlines coming up, we decided our son should go with traditional Spanish classes.

    There are districts around the country that are letting students take online Mandarin and Arabic courses (as well as hundreds of other courses that districts can’t afford to offer in a traditional setting), but here we are in MDUSD, gradually cutting our foreign language options down to traditional onsite Spanish classes — take it or leave it. Here was a case where MDUSD could have INCREASED course offerings at REDUCED cost, and they could not make that one simple decision for students. In fact, everything BUT student learning seemed to complicate the decision.

    And people wonder why parents want more school choice!

  4. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Mr. S: Do you believe the closures of Holbrook and Glenbrook are “equitable” across the district? Did your community feel included in the decision? Do you believe your students are being given “high-quality options” for relocation? Is the district providing students with “transition and support services?”
    4Students: It’s not clear that Duncan would have preferred that Glenbrook close sooner. I thought he was stressing the importance of using SIG money wisely according to a well-conceived plan. Sending some Glenbrook students to Oak Grove MS would not be recommended by the USDOE, since that campus is lower-achieiving than Glenbrook.
    Jim: Superintendent Steven Lawrence wants to offer online resources to independent and home study students (as an incentive to keep them in the district). Do you think this idea should be expanded to high schools? Here’s a link to a story about a “hybrid” high school that combines online and traditional teaching:

  5. Jim Says:

    Theresa: I would like to see Mr. Lawrence help MDUSD offer more online resources to students, but I’m not sure whether independent or home study students would be the place to start. I know he wants the funding they represent, but what could he offer them? After all, most of them already have access to online resources and use them quite a bit. (Any student in CA can enroll in the state’s free virtual charter school, and enrolling in other online resources is often also free or inexpensive.) What MDUSD can’t seem to understand is the value of online courses for current students in bricks-and-mortar schools — to offer a wider variety of courses, including AP and language courses, and to offer them with more scheduling flexibility. (College-bound students are often hard-pressed to schedule all of their required HS courses. Having just one class of French IV is not helpful if many of the students also want to take the one AP Chem class that is scheduled at the same time.) Many districts are already using online courses in this way, but MDUSD seems to act like it’s still 1995.

    The article you cite provides an excellent description of the “blended” learning model, and as it happens, I mentioned it earlier this week in my own blog:

    The article describes a school in AZ using essentially the model that the Flex Academy HS charter plans to bring to central Contra Costa next fall. (You remember, the one that MDUSD fought tooth and nail, and then didn’t even show up for the hearing about it at the CC County Board of Ed.) The article also mentions the existing Flex Academy in SF, which you should definitely visit, if you haven’t already. I visited it last Dec. for an article for my blog, and was impressed with the students and the whole set-up. We’re considering it for our own son next fall. You might also ask the folks at Flex how they cope with current per-pupil funding rates in CA. (Hint: they don’t seem nearly as stressed as the people at MDUSD.) Imagine — a good high school education, with broader course offerings and more individualized attention for students, for less money than we are spending now! The rest of the world has discovered that technology can help create a better user experience as well as save money. That’s why we use ATMs and shop online. Isn’t it time that administrators in our big traditional districts took a more open-minded approach to technology, instead of fighting the charters that offer the very innovations that they should be trying on their own?

  6. 4Students Says:

    My wording may not be perfect, but I didn’t imagine Sec. Duncan was familiar with Glenbrook specifically. I still wonder whether MDUSD thoroughly considered all options before the Nov. 1 application? Now it might be easier to “move” the Glenbrook students by either: starting over with the jigsaw puzzle and changing all MDUSD school boundaries, and ideally creating articulated K-12 feeder patterns which are the norm in other school districts; or the Superintendent’s Council option of consolidating Glenbrook and MDHS into a 6-12 or 7-12 school. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has consolidated schools in this way, and created a separate middle school campus on the high school site.

    Kudos to Mr. S and Jim on excellent comments!

  7. Wait a Minute Says:

    Good points Jim.
    Like I said in another thread on here as the MDUSD flounders, well run and innovative charter schools will come in and fill the vacuum.

    These and residents opting for home schooling (shutting schools or having unsafe schools always increases this) will lead to further revenue shortfalls for the district and the whole cycle becomes one of a self-perpetuating correction to the terrible leadership of Eberhart, Lawrence and others.

    Most school districts today are 20 plus years out of date in a structural sense.
    They are based on large and costly bureaucracies that simply can’t adapt to change and exist only to suck money out of the classroom into mostly worthless district level positions.
    Only about 60% (or less) of the shrinking total revenue is actually being spent on the children. Outrageous I say!

    Another indicator of this inefficiency/incompetency is the MDUSD’s legal costs. Close to a million dollars yearly is being spent on legal. Absolutely outrageous considering the district has a full-time in house lawyer (Rolen). Whenever a district is having to spend money defending itself in court there needs to be immediate corrective actions taken to reduce these costs which take away from the children.

    As others point out, how could the MDUSD not embrace the technology being invented right here in the Bay Area like good online foreign language courses!!!
    I could go on and on.

  8. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Perhaps the district could turn to its own students for help.
    Northgate HS is planning a new Global Outlook program designed to give students indepth experience interacting with community leaders to solve problems:
    Ygnacio Valley High has an education academy that could serve as a resource for the district office. Students would likley appreciate getting hands-on experience in district administration.
    Statistics classes could analyze the school closure data and come up with their own recommendations.
    Mt. Diablo HS has an entrepreneurial program that teaches students how to write business effective plans. The school also has a highly sophisticated “Digital Safari” academy filled with students who could likely help the district update its website and make it more user-friendly. A few years ago, one of these students helped the city of Concord update its Website.
    One member of the Parent Advisory Council recently complained that the district’s budget information is difficult to find and understand online. Yet, the organization the district turns to for its financial projections — School Services of California, Inc. — has told education leaders that clear communication to stakeholders is essential, if they want the public to support the governor’s proposed tax extensions.
    Mt. Diablo HS teacher Dan Reynolds and his Human Rights class has proven that students can bring new ideas to the district and help improve it.

  9. Linda Says:

    I think the District under utilizes both its student and parent resources. Look at the amazing things students and parent do at individual school sites. During the one of the last rounds of budgets cuts it was suggested that a parent help with District communication. The response was that a volunteer can not replace a laid-off position. Even when it was pointed out that the parent role would be much less than what Sue Berg did, the reaction was still “no”
    If they would reach out and make those partnerships some great things could happen.

  10. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I think it would require some concessions from the unions to allow parents to replace employees.
    Students, on the other hand, could do “service learning” types of projects that could be mutually beneficial to both the district and the schools.
    The city of Walnut Creek used to hire teen interns to help them feel “ownership” of the city in which they live — working in a host of different depts. including police, planning, parks and rec and maintenance.
    The students learned new skills and the city benefitted from bright, talented teens who were eager to get out of the classroom and see first-hand how city government works.
    Unfortunately, I believe the the city has discontinued the paid internship program, due to budget cuts.
    But you make a good point about parents being able to help in a pinch. I was surprised at the Glenbrook school closure meeting, when Superintendent Steven Lawrence said his PowerPoint presentation wasn’t posted online because his secretary wasn’t there. Surely, someone else in the district knows how to post a PowerPoint online — I’m sure the Mt. Diablo HS Digital Safari students would be able to figure out how to do it.

  11. Mr. S Says:

    It certainly appears that the school closures were not equitable across the district. Due to the fact that the Holbrook Community did not have a representative on the School Closure Committee, it is fair to say that they were not included in the decision.
    In addition, Holbrook is a Title One School with 64% of its students on free and reduced lunches. It definately would qualify as a school that Secretary Duncan would refer to as “one to protect”.Even more so given that Holbrook is a school that has a thriving PLC with a great shot at reaching an 800 API this year. Do you think Duncan would go along with closing this school? With the state and nation’s economy in such a troubled mess,it would seem logical to invest in schools that are working and making excellent strides.

  12. Theresa Harrington Says:

    FYI, the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting is at It includes school closure plans, deep budget cuts and more layoffs.

  13. 4Students Says:

    Overnight it appears the agenda was posted, and hallelujah the Measure C link was updated!

    However Measure C questions remain. The “fullprogsch” shows “modernization” in 2013, after solar, technology and HVAC. But the most recent bond sale listed new classrooms at 2 high schools? Does that mean those new classrooms will come before the other priority items? If so, who set this priority?

    And more detailed questions – the photo of Central Services shows parking lot instead of landscaping, but the scope of work includes irrigation. If there are plants can they just stop watering (like we do at our homes to conserve water and water bills)?

    Under HVAC, what is LVAC? Is that Loma Vista a/c? Why is it it “Group I” ahead of our K-12 schools? Gary Eberhart said K-12 classrooms should have priority!

    Would it make more sense to install solar first at the schools that will receive HVAC first, because they will have increased electrical usage? But only one school Sun Terrace is on Solar “Increment I” list and HVAC “Increment I” list. I assume there’s a good explanation, that the electrical capacity can handle the boost until solar is installed, and I hope they’ll give some reassurance about this boost.

    And why are Glenbrook and Holbrook in “Increment I” for solar?

    Going back to other comments, I think it would be great to get the students involved. CVHS started a “Community Service Academy” a few years ago and assume it’s still going and might generate some ideas? And for the district web site, I see that it now has links to UMDAF and MDMEF which is good, but still doesn’t have links to our education foundations FPHE and PEAK, or to the Chamber(s) of Commerce or other business partnerships which many other district web sites have on their home pages.

  14. 4Students Says:

    A few questions from the agenda:

    1. How many music teachers are in MDUSD? If they cut 33.55 music teachers, is that the entire music program, including all middle and high schools?

    2. Did they consider moving Glenbrook Areas 4 and 5 to Valley View? Then could they redirect the Title I funds, instead of bussing students to Oak Grove, and spend those funds in classrooms? By the way, it looks like they renamed and updated with asterisks the online document “Matriculation Channels of Enrollment”

    3. It seems counter-productive to “Eliminate Vacation Buyout; convert to use or lose” (potential cuts round 1, 10-N16). Then teachers will take more vacation days and our students will have more substitutes! Did they factor in the expense of substitutes? Either way, more teacher absences will be bad for “student achievement”!

  15. MDUSD Teacher Says:

    In response to 4students…

    3. It seems counter-productive to “Eliminate Vacation Buyout; convert to use or lose” (potential cuts round 1, 10-N16).

    This does not apply to teachers, but to all the other employee groups. (CST, M&O, DMA,CSEA)

  16. Doctor J Says:

    The Supt is willing to place school children’s safety “at risk” by reducing the secretarial staffs to below safe levels and yet refuse to consider the following cuts I proposed on March 1:
    1. Eliminate all medical benefits for board members.
    2. Reduce the Supt and all Asst Supt’s salaries by 20%.
    3. Reduce all directors salaries by 15%.
    4. Double up small elementary schools to share one principal.
    5. Eliminate Vice-principals at Middle Schools. It worked in Elementary schools.
    6. Cut by 50% vice-principals at high schools.
    7. Rescind the Gang of Five raises.
    8. Hire another in house lawyer for the legal department and reduce outside lawyers to $100,000 from $600,000. Require ALL inside lawyers, including Rolen, to have 2000 “billable” hours per year.
    9. Immediately freeze all longevity salary increases of administrators.
    10. Immediately stop ALL overnight travel, seminars, conferences, unless approved by the board.
    11. Stop watering the lawns, reduce mowing to once a month, and stop weeding.

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