by James C. Sherlock
I am a big fan of small schools.
Studies and common sense both indicate the benefits for the kids and staff can outweigh any disadvantages.
But small public schools are being driven out of business by costs in some parts of Virginia. Much of the cost disadvantage in those small schools is driven by administrative bloat forced by a combination of state laws and regulations and school division mandates.
Some of the latter-day “must haves” of management and specialist staffing for schools have demonstrated value in improved outcomes for the kids, some have not. In general, the state mandates the positions that matter, local school often districts require additional ones that don’t.
The fixed cost of management and administration must be absorbed no matter the size of the school, driving up per student costs in smaller schools. Many are being driven out of existence by costs they are not permitted to control.
I am going to offer here for comparison two schools, both elementary schools, one in Loudoun County and the other in Wise County.
They differ in size. Hillsboro Charter Academy in Loudoun has 143 kids. Union Primary School in Wise County has 789.
The Wise County school has a traditionally far more challenging student body than Hillsboro. Sixty-two percent of Union kids are economically disadvantaged, including 27 homeless kids. The Loudoun school has a student body 2% economically disadvantaged with no homeless children.
And Hillsboro Charter Academy spends more than twice as much per student as Union.
But even with that built-in head start and small class sizes, Hillsboro gets poorer academic results.
If you think that the cost differentials are driven entirely by salary differentials, you are mistaken. The difference in cost-per-student can be traced in considerable part to Hillsboro’s huge administrative bloat driven by Loudoun County staffing rules, not state requirements.
For a look at the difference, see here. Scan the entire document. The differences are astonishing. It shows what happens if you get enough education Ph.D’s and Ed.D’s on a division staff with near-limitless funds to expend in the nation’s richest county. Ed schools work in mysterious ways, many of which won’t survive rational analysis.
Yet there is no evidence offered that the differences in non-teacher staffing matter to the children’s educations.
The difference in performance of the children between the Loudon school and the Wise County school is inexplicable by anything other than better teaching, better learning and better environments for both at Union Primary.
That, in turn, is traceable to leadership at every level, starting with the district.
In Loudoun, we will consider Hillsboro Charter Academy in Purcellsville.
In 2018-19 Hillsboro Charter Academy in Purcellville had 143 kids. Students: 2.8% Asian; 2.8% Black; 6.3% Hispanic; 7.7% multiple races; 81% white. Economically disadvantaged 2.1% – three kids. English learners 1.4% – two kids. None homeless. Students with disabilities 6.2%.
SOL pass rates: Reading 80%; math 89%.
Hillsboro, a K-5 public charter school, has a staff of 27. Seven of those are teachers, one for each grade and one for special ed. Five are teachers assistants. The rest, 15 of 27, are the “leadership team.” specialists, and interventionists.
One of the Hillsboro employees is an ELL interventionist. There are exactly two ELL kids in the school. Four Hillsboro staff are employees of the district, and may be shared with other schools. There is no school nurse listed.
With 142 students in six grades, Hillsboro has the following leadership, management, specialist and instructional staff:
- Principal, Leadership Team
- Operations Manager, Leadership Team
- First Grade, Dean of Instruction, Leadership Team (I have counted as first grade teacher)
- HCS/Office Assistant
- Counselor, Testing Coordinator, Leadership Team
- Dean of Curriculum; Gifted Specialist; STEAM Specialist; IF,T; PD, Leadership Team
- Social Worker* (*employee of school division – might be shared with another school)
- Educational Diagnostician*
- School Psychologist*
- Speech/Language Pathologist*
- ELL, Interventionist
- Reading Specialist, Interventionist
- Art Specialist
- Music Specialist
- P.E. Specialist
- Special Education
- Kindergarten Teacher
- Second Grade Teacher
- Third Grade Teacher
- Fourth Grade Teacher
- Fifth Grade Teacher
- Math/Reading/STEAM Teacher Assistant
- Kindergarten Teacher’s Assistant
- Special Education Teacher Assistant
- Instructional Teacher Assistant
- Teacher Assistant
Cost per student: $19,930. District average costs per student $15,507.
In Wise County, let’s look at Union Primary.
In 2018-19 Union had 789 kids. No Asians; 3% Black; 1% Hispanic; 1% multiple races; 95% white. Economically disadvantaged 62.4%. English learners – three kids. Homeless – 27 kids. Students with disabilities – 11%.
SOL Pass rates: Reading 90%; math 97%.
With 789 students in five grades, Union Primary has a principal, an AP, a family engagement coordinator, a nurse, a speech therapist, two school counselors, one clerical support person, sixty teachers and three paraprofessionals.
Cost per student: $7,848. Wise County school division cost per student $9,254.
Bottom line. First, congratulations to Wise County for showing what can be done with the right leadership, management and parental involvement. But then Hillsboro, as a charter, also has parental involvement.
That leaves leadership and management as the issues in Loudoun County.
Second, it is time for a real analysis of the need, as opposed to desire, for ever increasing non-teacher staffs in rich counties, including “leadership teams,” specialists in virtually everything, and lots of teacher assistants. Just because they can be afforded does not mean that they help the kids achieve. Perhaps in some cases they should help, like reading specialists, but we need the data to judge.
Such a review can usefully start in Loudoun County.
The school board, when not otherwise distracted, needs to look at the actual data and see what is happening. They are unlikely to get enough information to do their jobs in Powerpoint presentations from the superintendent.
Citizens should also seek to ensure that the elect boards with broad experience. Former teachers can and do contribute, especially so if they also have school management experience, but theirs are not the only experiences and talents that count.
The Superintendent needs to examine the data and manage to results, not just ask for a bigger budget every year while layering on more consultants and school staff requirements.
Indeed, the board should examine the cost-effectiveness of his staff.