Ten Ways to Improve Public Schools …That Don’t Cost a Penny

Published February 1, 1998

Year after year, the tune is the same: “We need more money to pay our teachers what they are worth” or “we need more money to build a new school or addition.” Taxpayers are asked to give a little more — sometimes a lot more — to “give every child an opportunity to learn.”

We are told that the value of our homes might be adversely affected if we don’t “maintain the quality of our schools.” Spending, teachers salaries, and teacher-pupil ratios at our school are compared to those of other schools, and they always seem to show us just a little below average, or about to slip back a place or two in the rankings . . . unless we spend more money.

For couples without children, older couples whose children have long-since left home, and homeowners on fixed incomes, these constant appeals for more money have long been irritating. What, exactly, do they get from all the money that is spent on the neighborhood schools? Where is it written, they might ask, that one person should be compelled to pay for the education of someone else’s children?

More recently, even couples with children are losing patience with their public schools. Taxes, according to the Tax Foundation, consume a growing share of the average family’s income: nearly 40% in 1997. School taxes are one of the largest components of that total tax burden. And while inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending is at an all-time high, test scores are near their all-time lows.

Parents who send their children to private and parochial schools have twice as many reasons to oppose the call for higher school taxes. They already pay twice for the education of their children: once through their taxes, and again when they pay private-school tuition. What do they get when school taxes go up?

Parents and taxpayers who speak out against higher taxes for public schools risk being called selfish, misinformed, or uncaring. In the public debate, the simplistic reasoning seems to be that support for better schools = support for higher spending, and vice versa.

In reality, there is a second choice: support for better schools = support for more efficient schools. Before we give them more money, we should ask whether our schools are using as efficiently as possible the money they already have. Wasteful and frivolous spending should never be tolerated, of course, but eliminating them is only the first small step toward schools becoming more efficient.

In the private sector, major efficiency gains have been accomplished through the adoption of management systems such as Total Quality Management and Performance-based Accounting. These systems require managers to think carefully about the true outputs they are responsible for producing, and then to redesign their manufacturing, information, marketing, and sales systems to produce them most efficiently. This often requires thinking “outside the box,” challenging conventional ways of doing things, and refocusing on the organization’s most basic mission.

Applying these management techniques to public schools reveals many opportunities to improve the quality of public schools without spending more money, or even saving taxpayers’ money. Here are ten money-saving ideas that should be adopted immediately by any school district that thinks it needs more money to get by.

Write these ideas down and put the list in your wallet or purse, or post it on your refrigerator. The next time you are asked to support higher taxes for better schools, ask if the school district has considered any of these alternatives. Don’t be surprised if the answer is that not a single one has been considered. If that is the case, your school doesn’t need more money. It just needs some fresh thinking!

1. Contract out for support services. Private companies can operate cafeterias, provide school bus service, and maintain facilities and grounds more effectively and at a lower cost than school employees. These companies specialize in the services they perform and so know how to deliver them in the most efficient fashion. When they are local divisions of national firms, they often can use their bulk purchasing power buy supplies and equipments at prices lower than what a school would have to pay.

2. Don’t custom-design schools. New schools are usually custom designed for a school board. In the case of a large suburban school, architect’s fees alone may amount to $1 million or more. But except for vanity, there is no reason why school districts should insist on custom-designed buildings. Simpler, “boiler-plate” designs cost as much as 30 percent less to build than their fancier custom-built cousins, make superior use of available space, and are easier to maintain.

3. Hire teachers in private practice. Some courses, such as advanced physics, calculus, and foreign languages, attract relatively small numbers of students and require highly paid teachers.

Many schools hire full-time teachers capable of teaching these courses, and then have them spend much of their time teaching introductory classes or even managing study halls. Instead, the school could contract with a teacher in private practice for just those hours that the school actually needs. Much like a lawyer or doctor, this teacher has multiple clients who are billed only for the time they actually require. The result is lower personnel expenses for the school, plus the services of a teacher the school might not be able to afford to hire full-time.

4. Reform the collective bargaining process. Collective bargaining agreements and union contracts often make it extremely difficult and expensive to fire incompetent teachers. For example, in New York it costs nearly $200,000 on average to fire a tenured teacher who appeals. In New Jersey, it costs over $100,000, while in Illinois it takes three years and costs at least $70,000. All the while, the teacher remains on the school’s payroll. State and local officials can reform the collective bargaining process to shorten the appeals process, saving a typical school district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

5. Utilize distance learning technologies. Schools can use computer-assisted learning programs to speed up the learning process while reducing the amount of time a teacher must devote to each student. Compact disks, interactive video, and the Internet make it possible for the country’s best teachers to appear simultaneously in hundreds of classrooms, and even to take questions and engage in discussion. These technologies are reducing the cost of schooling, yet, many schools use the need to acquire computers and software as an excuse for calling for higher spending!

6. Encourage charter schools. Twenty states now have laws allowing parents to start their own schools and petition state or local authorities for public funding based on a per-pupil formula.

These programs typically pay less than the current per-pupil spending level of the neighborhood public schools, so each student who transfers from a public school to a charter school saves the school district money. Since charter schools seldom receive funding for capital costs, their presence also reduces the school district’s capital budget needs.

7. Encourage home schooling. Sufficient research has now been done to confirm that home-schooled students perform as well or better than public school students on standardized tests, college entrance exams, and college admission rates. Home schooling is obviously a bargain for the school district, since every child who is home-schooled saves the school district the amount that otherwise would have been spent on a typical student. School districts can encourage home schooling by informing parents of the opportunity, opening school facilities (such as libraries, gyms, and chemistry labs) to families that home school, and paying for some school expenses.

8. Place new schools at work sites. For many families, a school located near a workplace or in a shopping mall would be more convenient than one located in a residential neighborhood. As the nation’s economy continues to move from manufacturing to services, more and more workplaces are in quite, safe, and clean office buildings, perfect sites for schools. Locating small schools in office buildings or shopping malls can significantly reduce capital, maintenance, and transportation costs. This option also creates opportunities for partnerships with employers that can enhance curriculum and further reduce operating expenses.

9. Encourage early graduation. How many public schools aggressively challenge the notion that it should take the same number of years for an extremely bright child to earn a high school diploma as it does an average or slower student? Enabling the former to graduate in ten years instead of twelve saves the school 12.5 percent of the usual per-pupil cost. The state of Minnesota has encouraged early college entrance for several years, with very positive results. Computer-assisted learning makes it even more likely that some part of the typical school body can master the skills and knowledge necessary to obtain a diploma in substantially less than the traditional 12 years.

10. Local option vouchers. When Rod Paige, Superintendent of Schools for Houston, Texas, ran out of space for students, he didn’t ask taxpayers to pay for new schools. Instead, he proposed contracting with a private school to enroll the overflow. If approved by the school board, the district would pay $3,565 per pupil per year for approximately 200 students to attend the private school, less than half as much as the school district currently spends. Communities in Texas, Virginia, and New Jersey are contemplating doing the same thing. So long as parents are free to choose the schools their children attend, there is no constitutional barrier to participation by religious schools.

Every one of these recommendations has been tried and is working somewhere in the U.S. Why not encourage your local school board to look into trying them in your school district?

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, an independent nonprofit research organization based in Illinois. He is the author of several books and reports on school reform. This essay represents his own views and do not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute.