The first three essays in this series have covered some complex and heavy topics: teacher compensation, declining enrollment, and the implications of pension debt on school budgets. Combine these factors with the denouement of ESSER funds, ongoing political and economic volatility, and the wild-card fiscal ramifications of school choice expansion this legislative session and you have the makings of a perfect storm on the education finance horizon. But it’s always darkest before dawn, so let’s take a break from the doom and gloom and imagine some opportunities somewhere over the rainbow…
Toppling the Jenga tower of education resources
I predict that we’re in for a great unbundling of education resources. Education budgets have long operated as a seemingly amorphous mass of resources, full of mysteriously intertwined bits and bobs that are difficult to understand as parts of a whole, yet are constructed with all the dependencies and fragility of a Jenga tower—remove one piece too quickly and things fall apart. School districts’ ability to thrive beyond this decade will largely depend on whether districts cling to resource allocation strategies of the past, or reimagine resource allocation more like LEGO and less like Jenga: combining resources to scale programs up and down in response to student need and demand.
If you ask the average school district how much it costs per student to teach introductory French, it’s unlikely you’ll get a clear answer and that’s not because of financial mismanagement or incompetence: it’s because the traditional budget and accounting structures in school districts have not been designed to ask or answer that question. An accurate answer also depends on answers to several other questions ...
- Is the class taught by a first-year teacher or 20-year veteran?
- How many students are in the class?
- How many sections are offered per day?
- Do you want to include the indirect costs of the building, furniture, lighting, or only the direct marginal costs like the French workbooks?
Future education finance systems and processes may well indeed benefit district officials by being able to ask and answer these types of questions—what if a student in a neighboring school or district, or a homeschooled student, wanted to learn French and their district only offers Spanish? What if a student in their district, in turn, wants to learn Mandarin?
The difference between dismantling and unbundling
I’m prepared for some people to read this as a dismantling of education resources, so I want to call out the distinction. The difference between unbundling and dismantling is akin to the difference between defusing and detonating a bomb. If school districts successfully unbundle resources and instructional programming, they can offer a wider range of curated educational choices for students and families within the public school system, rather than requiring them to seek choices outside the system.
Consider when you go to a restaurant that offers a pre-fixe meal and an a la carte menu— all of the ingredients are in the same kitchen, but the experience is determined by the diners. Unbundling education resources means understanding all of the ingredients in the kitchen and offering a variety of menu options to accommodate dietary tastes and preferences; dismantling education resources would be more like bringing out a tray of raw ingredients to each table. To stretch this metaphor to its absolute limits, unbundling education maintains a shared kitchen and dining room, operated by professional chefs and trained staff that know how to buy fresh ingredients, negotiate for the best price, meet food safety standards for all, and can adjust for any allergies or preferences at the table. Dismantling education resources requires we rebuild the entire food supply chain across countless amateur chefs who can maybe make a mean tuna melt, but forget it if you don’t like fish, can’t have cheese, or want gluten free bread—go eat somewhere else. And all too often, dismantling resources would also bring about the elimination of food safety regulations and inspectors, labor laws and protections, and non-discrimination for diners.
Unlocking individualized public education experiences
Historically, there has been resistance to analyzing the unit economics of public education—it sounds overly corporate and seemingly antithetical to an institution that values whole-child learning and wellness. And unit economics are hard to translate into practice when so many education costs are “step-wise”—we need a new teacher once we hit a certain number of students so class sizes aren’t too large, but losing or gaining one or two students won’t change how many teachers we hire. What if we flipped this narrative on its head? What if flexible, dynamic instructional and extracurricular options created more equitable, accessible, and customizable learning experiences for students and families and were, in fact, the very key to unlocking truly individualized public education experiences? What if the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts? This will take both courage and innovation.
The "Jenga" resource model is “do or die”: you successfully build a tower with a set number of blocks (that are all the same size and shape), or the structure crumbles. In the "LEGO" resource model, you can assess the resources you have and get creative with building structures—maybe you build one big tower or four small houses or two medium buildings; there are endless combinations versus an “all or nothing” approach. One of the biggest barriers to this type of resource allocation is the limitation of space and time: the best French teacher in the country might only be 25 miles away, but there’s no way to get there and back before Math class.
The promise of modern technology and innovation
This barrier isn’t limited to students’ time—the logistical calculations and permutations required to get 50 million students assigned to the right classes at the right time and place while simultaneously meeting individual student academic needs, state mandates, budgetary constraints, and teacher/staff contract specifications is a not-so-minor tactical miracle often accomplished by an administrator equipped only with spreadsheets and Post-It notes. Add even more complexity to this model by eliminating space/time barriers and you’ll be faced with a revolt of the school staff who are already buried by this task. Even parents experience time/space constraints while balancing transportation for students and participation in school-family events, alongside the requirements of their work and other family obligations. During the pandemic, schools started using purpose-built technology solutions to conduct virtual IEP meetings for special education compliance, which was often met with, “Can we please keep doing it this way?” responses from parents.
Staffing, scheduling, transportation to place-based instruction, and legal mandates have required a rigid, tightly-knit web of resources to make schools work. Modern technology and innovation offer an opportunity to revisit preconceived notions about what is possible in terms of resource allocation. Do you know why FedEx can ship a package around the world in a day or you can have groceries delivered to your exact specifications in less time than it would take to drive to the grocery store and back? Billions of dollars have been invested in sophisticated logistics technology to optimize the movement of things around the world with eerie precision. Yet we often expect schools and districts to make sure every kid graduates on time without breaking any laws or contract terms with little more than a big stack of Post-Its (ask me how I know). In K-12 education, we’re often asking humans to manually do the tedious work of rule-based logic that has been automated in nearly every other industry—but more on this next week …
This article is the fourth in a series that reviews “10 Predictions for the Next 10 Years of Education Finance.” Stay tuned for more learnings and predictions around the dominant themes and challenges facing education finance over the next decade!
Read other topics in the series now:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jess Gartner is the founder and CEO of Allovue, where edtech meets fintech - #edfintech! Allovue was founded by educators, for educators. We combine powerful financial technology with education data, giving administrators the power to connect spending to student achievement. Jess has been featured as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Education (2015, 2016 All-Star), The Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch (2013), and Baltimore Magazine’s 40 Under 40 (2013). In 2014, she was recognized as the Maryland Smart CEO Innovator of the Year in the Emerging Business category. Before founding Allovue, Jess studied education policy at the University of Pennsylvania and taught in schools around the world, including Thailand, South Africa, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. She taught middle school humanities in Baltimore City and received her M.A. in teaching from Johns Hopkins University.