Ep. 200: The Unbundling Series – Five Services Public Education Should Do Differently

August 13, 2020

The authors of our latest blog series, “The Unbundling Series,” discuss creating a more resilient education system and more. Read the first of six posts here.

Marty Lueken: Welcome to EdChoice Chats. I’m EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis, and I’m your host for this episode, Marty Lueken. I’m joined today by two stellar individuals. Our very own Mike McShane—he’s the director of national research. And Benjamin Scafidi, who is professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, and also a Friedman Fellow here at EdChoice. They are here with me to talk about a series we co-authored titled, “The Unbundling Series: Five Services Public Education Should Do Differently.” Ben and Mike, welcome to the program.

Mike McShane: Great to be with you, Marty.

Ben Scafidi: Thanks, Marty.

Marty Lueken: So as the title indicates the theme of the series is unbundling in K-12 public education. So let’s start with the obvious questions. Mike, what do we mean by “unbundling?” What is unbundled and why would we want to unbundle anything generally speaking? What is the problem that unbundling helps to solve?

Mike McShane: Yeah, that’s a very good place to start, Marty. So yeah, unbundling. If we think about all of the things that schools do we imagine them all to be kind of bundled together. So in addition to educating children, we have to transport children to school. We have to feed them. We have to provide professional development for teachers. We do extracurricular activities. We do sort of core academics, reading, writing, arithmetic. We do all sorts of these things. We go on field trips. We have of these things that schools do that we have bundled together into sort of one operation. And if you think about it, we don’t have to do that. We don’t necessarily have to have the same people that teach reading, writing, and math be the same people that organize transportation or that provide food or that do professional development for teachers.

There’s lots of opportunities to separate those things out so that people that are best at whichever that thing is, can focus on that. And so that sort of gets to your second question, which is sort of like, what problem does this solve? Well, the problem is when you ask any organization to do too many things, especially if those things are different from one another, the likelihood that they will be able to do all of them well is low. So someone who’s dynamite at teaching math or an organization that’s dynamite at teaching math might not necessarily be an organization that’s great at feeding people, right? Just like we wouldn’t say a great chef is going to be a great math teacher. We don’t necessarily think like a principal who’s maybe a great instructional leader will also be great at organizing all of this other stuff. So by allowing different organizations, institutions, to do the bits of the story that they do best it maximizes the likelihood that we’ll get quality in all of those different areas.

And the second piece of it, I think a lot of our work on this has been inspired by the sort of coronavirus right now to show that we need a more resilient education system. Schools need to be able to handle shocks better than they do now. And one of the problems that we saw was this sort of single point of failure. So if one school superintendent or a district superintendent or a school principal said, “We’re going to shut the school down.” Families were completely left in the lurch, right? Because all of these different ancillary services that schools provided for students or that were responsible for, were all sort of simultaneously shut down. So what does it mean to build a more resilient education system? Part of that is to diffuse these responsibilities and have different people in charge of different things. So if one of those institutions fails, there are other people who are able to pick up the slack.

So it’s trying to maximize the likelihood that we have quality, but also trying to build in this resilience because, while we are in this sort of once in a generation event—Lord willing a once in a generation event—bad stuff happens all the time, and we need schools to be able to be resilient to it. So the whole point of this project was to look at five of these different areas. And I know you took the lead on the transportation bit, so maybe it might make sense for you to talk a little bit about unbundling transportation. The way you sort of looked at the problem you dug into some of the costs. What are some of the stuff that you found?

Marty Lueken: Well, people of transportation is a $25 billion industry in the K-12 public sector. So it does serve a lot of students. I think, according to the federal data, about 55 percent of public school students use public transportation. So, this is about 7 percent of the total K-12 spending. Now, if you break that down on a per student basis, students who use it per day, you’re talking about $5 a day. So in that way, cost are probably lower than what many expect, but obviously you’re going to have a lot of variation across states and across districts. Now there’s a lot of challenges with student transportation. How we safely transport a large number of kids to and from school. This requires a ton of infrastructure and manpower, right? So we have sometimes issues dealing with stranded buses, missing kids, districts who are struggling to recruit drivers, and then you introduce choice policies.

And then that presents another set of challenges to get students to the schools of their choice and whatnot. And then there are also challenges at the student level… kids riding on bus for long periods of time. What are the opportunity costs for a student who’s waiting on a bus or in transit for 45 minutes. Not to mention behavior or bullying issues. And then you throw COVID into all this mix. Now you have a lot of places, a lot of districts, who are really struggling to meet guidelines that say have been proposed by the CDC or by the local governments. So for some districts COVID may create a really substantial financial and logistical problem for these districts. So let me ask you, Mike, ‘cause we wrote this piece together. What are some things that policymakers and district and school leaders can do differently? Are there ways that they could reduce costs or improve services?

Mike McShane: Yeah. We ended up spending all this time looking at pupil transportation issues and others. And I think one of the interesting areas to think about with all of this is on the regulatory side. School busing is a highly, highly regulated industry. Both at the sort of federal and at the state level. And it sets pretty stringent requirements for what school buses have to look like and how they have to operate. And I think we see variation at the district-by-district level of how they choose to attack this problem where they try to outsource it or try to operate it themselves. It seems like a lot of the research that’s been done shows that even when it’s outsourced districts aren’t necessarily able to do dramatically better. Whether it doesn’t do all that much better, and it doesn’t save them all that much more money.

So, I think the big question here is how can we innovate in pupil transportation? How can some of the innovations that we’re seeing in other forms of transportation, whether that’s in ride sharing. All of the work that’s being done there that sort of bundled up in ride sharing. So it’s like more efficient routing, better understanding of tracking, understanding where buses are so they don’t have that stranded bus problem. Whether we can know whether kids have made it on the bus or not. So it’s not, “Oh my God. We have a kid waiting at a bus stop and the bus has already passed by them.” So how can we integrate technology into this?
How can we look at regulations to try and create a bit more space for innovation. For experimentation to try new and different things, pilot projects, where we work across these. Because as you brought up, Marty, the more we see school choice and the more we see inter districts where students are able to transfer across district boundaries, the more charter schools, the more private school choice. If we want these things to be able to be accessed equitably transportation is one of the biggest hurdles that we have to that because it doesn’t matter if they’re eligible to attend some new school. If they can’t get there, they can’t take advantage of that.

So this is a huge problem that we need to continue to think about. And so we walk through in the piece a few of these different areas where that could come in.

Marty Lueken: And another area that we look at is food service. So Mike, what can you tell us about food service? What is the current state of it today? And what are some of the challenges that that area faces?

Mike McShane: It stinks. No, I think one of the problems that we see is just generally low quality. Kids don’t like school lunches. There’s been interesting work by the government accountability office. There was a great New York Times piece that we quote in there that talks about. I can’t remember the title is something like, “Why Kids Hate Their School Lunches” or it was something along those lines. And again, it’s sort of a similar story to transportation. Part of it is sort of a funding issue and the flexibility is related to there. Part of it’s a regulatory issue. So the types of regulations that are placed on what has to be part of a school lunch. In the New York Times story that we quote in there, they show these school lunches from around the world and you look at this French school lunch and it’s like, “Oh my God. This looks delicious.”

And it’s something out of a restaurant. And they talk about how they’re able to do it inexpensively. And then they hit you with the kicker. Which is, this wouldn’t be allowed in America because it was either one area where it was too much sodium. Or there was some piece of it that says, “Nope, we can’t have that in the states.” So again, it’s sort of looking at regulatory barriers that prescribed much to discretely exactly what food needs to look like. Because unfortunately what we’ve seen is particularly in some of the larger school food providers. They have figured out how to maximize under the regulations the caloric regulations. And, it has just the right amount of protein and not too much salt and no trans fats or whatever. But the food is terrible, right?

So it’s the classic how institutions respond to regulations and others. But the big takeaway is just lots of kids don’t like school lunches. There’s data on the students that participate in it. And the kids who actually pay as opposed to having it subsidized. A number of them has been going down because if they can get something else they will. So again, rethinking, how do we regulate these things? How do we fund them? How can we create the flexibility. School districts across the country have actually tried innovative things. And unfortunately, sometimes that means having to opt out of the federal school lunch program, either partnering with their own culinary classes that high school kids are taking to have them cook lunches themselves. Partnering with local restaurants to work with them. So there’s tons of sort of options and opportunities that we bring up in the piece. But that’s definitely something that needs to change. The school lunches are not good enough right now. We need to do better.

Marty Lueken: Now Ben, you wrote about teacher professional development and remedial services. And when it comes to teachers, our K-12 system doesn’t always treat them like professionals. Right? In fact, in the PD piece you wrote you point out that teachers often pay out of pocket for things like classroom supplies. So to be sure our system should do a better job for public school teachers in many areas. So what can you tell us about the current state of professional development, which obviously is an important area and thing for teachers. And what are some of the issues that it faces.

Ben Scafidi: Sure. I agree with you, Marty. Human resource practices in public schools are literally deplorable. And here’s how I think about this. In the private sector, they call their frontline talent, very reverentially, “The talent” and they treat them that way. In public schools, we treat our teachers like third graders and I’ll just give you two examples.

One is with professional development. Is it treating teachers like professionals to let their boss choose their professional development? Or even worse someone in central command at the district office choose it for all the teachers in the district? Is that treating teachers like professionals? And second, like you said, teachers are spending hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies. Public schools should provide that for teachers. Teachers shouldn’t have to pay that out of pocket. And so the problem is that we have actually scant evidence about whether professional development actually makes teachers better and students learn more. But the evidence we have suggests that it, by and large, doesn’t work. But we have tons of evidence that teachers hate it. That they are subjected to this professional development, but they think it’s no good. And I’ll just give you an example. Suppose a school district said, “We’re going to have professional development class on how to use a smart board really well.”

Where you can use the internet and stuff and use technologies. They’re really cool gizmos in classrooms. Well, what if you’re a teacher that’s young that just came through your teacher prep program and maybe you learned how to use the smart board really well there. They’re wasting your time, right? Making you take a class on smart board ‘cause you could probably teach it. Or what if you’re an older teacher and you’re not going to use the smart board anyway, right? Or what if you’re in a class where does it make sense to use a smart board? And they make you take a class on professional development on smart boards. That’s also wasting your time. And the new teacher project they surveyed a bunch of teachers and they found that teacher spend on average 19 days in professional development. So basically, 10 percent of their school time is on professional development. And again, the evidence is overwhelming that they hate it. And the empirical hub is that it doesn’t work. So that’s the problem there. And then the problem with classroom supplies is that we make teachers pay for out of pocket, which is frankly ridiculous.

Marty Lueken: So, what can districts do and what can policy makers do to help solve some of these issues?

Ben Scafidi: So, what I proposed in the piece was that states create what I called “Professional Teacher Accounts, PTAs.” At least professional teacher accounts. I use data from Georgia and you could easily put $750 a year per teacher into this PTA account. And let teachers buy their own professional development. Districts could set up professional development fairs and let vendors come and sell their professional development. And teachers could choose which ones to go to. Colleges of education could do the same thing in the summer. They could have big professional development fairs in their college classrooms and let vendors come and let teachers choose. And teachers could get it on their own. And it would just be deducted from a little debit card. You could also put $500 for classroom supplies on these debit cards. And so there’d be $1,250 and then teachers could decide how much is spent on professional development, how much to spend on classroom supplies.

I would even let teachers share their money with other teachers. Let them save it for the next school year. What have you. And a lot of these ideas first came from Horn and Goldstein about five years ago. And they had a really wise idea. They said start it out as a randomized controlled trial. Let a random sample of teachers in this state get these Professional Teacher Accounts as I call them. These PTA accounts. And then let others not get it and then follow them and then track their performance and track their students and see if they actually work. I think that’s a great idea. I guess a contrary argument could be, “Yeah, but some teachers are not going to get good professional development that they need.” Right. And I have two responses to that. One is in the piece I say that if a teacher’s rated low, if they get an ineffective rating, then let the school continue to control their professional development.
But we know that over 99 percent of teachers are rated effective. So it’s going to be just a tiny sliver of teachers. Second is what Mike said at the very beginning of this podcast. If a school district is making professional development decisions for the entire group of teachers in their district and they screw it up. That messes it up for everybody. If me as a teacher chooses bad professional development for myself, I just screwed up for me and my students. And I might get an ineffective rating. And then the district can come in and give me professional development that they think I need. Right?

So as Mike said at the beginning, it’s a much more resilient system. And this is actually being done to some degree. There’s a company called ClassWallet that does this for classroom supplies for teachers in 20 states in 3,200 schools. And they just signed a contract with the entire state of Utah. So they give teachers a little debit cards and let them buy classroom supplies, and then they track it all electronically. So there’s no paperwork for teachers. So we can easily tack on professional development there into again to what I call Professional Teacher Accounts.

Marty Lueken: That sounds like a great idea, actually. Obviously we do a lot of work on educational choice for students and for families. Here, we have an idea for expanding choices for teachers and empowering teachers. The more you wrote in about another area in the series about student remedial services as a prospect for unbundling. Can you first tell us about remedial education in the public system today and what challenges are present in this area?

Ben Scafidi: Well, the first one I talked about was probably just very frustrating for teachers. This one is actually very sad. Achievement gaps between poor and non-poor students have been stubbornly large for decades. Achievement gaps between like black and white students have also been large and stubborn for decades. And that’s very sad. And what makes it even more sad is since the great society in the 1960s, the federal government has spent big bucks on remediation through the Title I-A program. And states now spend big bucks on remediation. But these gaps in achievement between groups of students are still large, even decades later. And this issue has become even more salient this summer, of course. Because of things like the Black Lives Matter movement. In the research, for example, federal Title I-A money is that it’s ineffective at helping students learn more. But it’s also poorly targeted because it’s given to entire schools.

And then we have no idea how it’s spent in that school. So we don’t even know if that money is getting to the students who need it the most. And again, I just find this all very sad.

Marty Lueken: So what can be done about that here?

Ben Scafidi: Here, I propose what I call Child Opportunity Grants, or CO Grants. So I would take the money we spend on remediation of public schools now, and put it in grants directly to parents, these Child Opportunity Grants. And let them decide on what remediation is best for their child. Again, using data from Georgia, I found that you could easily give all low-income kids in Georgia public schools a $1,000 Child Opportunity grant, so that their families could choose remediation from them. Think about what a $1,000 grant would mean. And I’m just making this example up. Let’s say your child needs help in reading.

You could pay a reading tutor for one-on-one tutoring $30 an hour and get 33 hours of reading tutoring for your child. That would be one way to spend that money. I would even let families use that money to pay existing teachers in the public schools to tutor their children on non-school days. Right? But I would let them choose tutors or other remedial services for lots of places. Now contrarians could say, “Well, didn’t we try this in No Child Left Behind through the supplemental education services program?” Well, yes and no. Right? We did take some Title I money and say if the public school wasn’t performing well after a couple of years, we said, “OK, we’re going to give that money directly to parents.” But it was run through the public school that was deemed failing. And it was an inherently adversarial relationship. The public school wanted to keep that Title I money for itself.

So they had no incentive to one, tell parents about the availability of these funds. And second to help them find vendors or help vendors find them. I remember I was actually working in the governor’s office in Georgia at the time. And this parent came to see me and she showed me a form from her school district that said, “Your child is eligible for supplemental education services. Do you want to use the DeKalb County Public Schools as your vendor?” Which was where their child went to school. “Or do you want to use other?” And then there was a blank and you fill in the blank. How does a parent even know what supplemental education services even means? It was a terrible process. So I think states need to set it up so it’s completely independent of the public school system. Just like EdChoice recommends administration of education savings accounts programs. In Nevada, it was set up under the state’s treasurer’s office.

So set up away from school districts, set it up away from the state department education. And have some independent body do it. And again, yes, one parent might buy ineffective remediation services for their child. But what we’ve been doing for over 50 years in this country is having the public school system buy ineffective remediation for all children. We can do better than that. And again, word of mouth will help parents make better decisions about how to spend that money over time. And teachers will learn, “Oh, my student last year got math tutoring from this place. Maybe you should try that one.” Right? So trial and error and word of mouth will help make this system as Mike said at the beginning of this podcast, resilient.

Mike McShane: Definitely. Yeah. Thanks for sharing those ideas with our listeners. Now, the last area that the series covers deals with core education services. So, Mike do you want to talk about that a little bit? What exactly do we mean by core ed services and what are some of the challenges in that area?

Yeah, this is the tough one, right? When it comes to unbundling. Cause we’re talking about when we think of school, the thing that it does the most. Which is teaching academic content to students. This is reading, this is math, this is science, this is social studies. So when we think about unbundling it, if we take a step back for a moment and sort of ask why.

It’s a very sort of simple calculation here. Which is the idea even in a great school. Even if we think about schools that are doing awesome, the likelihood that a child will have… Let’s say they take six or seven classes in a day, did like every one of those classes will be awesome. Maybe four of those classes are awesome or five of those classes are awesome. But the likelihood that every single class for every single student is going to knock it out of the park is just low. It’s probably not going to happen for everyone. And so we can sort of hem and haw, and try and judge the school, and say whether it’s a good school or a bad school.

Or we can take a step back and say, “Hey, look, what if we have a little bit more freedom?” What if we have a little bit more flexibility to allow students to say, “Hey, look, this school is awesome. I love everything that’s going on here. Except math class. We don’t have a good ninth grade math teacher. We don’t have a good geometry teacher. Whatever it is this just isn’t necessarily working for me. Could I go to an outside provider just for this one class. Everything else I do will be exactly… The other six classes I’ll take. I’ll play for the football team. I’ll be in the school play. Everything is the same, but can I just take this one class from an outside provider?” And so there are programs that exist across the country that do this. They’re generally called Course Access Programs and they create some funding flexibility to allow that very thing to happen.

There are also some schools that have looked at trying to do this. There’s a charter school network out of Oklahoma called the Epic Charter Schools. I think they now have more than 30,000 students. Though, given sort of the coronavirus and everything this fall I imagine the number is going to go dramatically up from there. They started as a 100 percent online school. And one of the interesting things that they did was that they actually allow students to choose the curriculum that works best for them. I think they have 20 or 25 that students are able to choose from when they enroll.

There’s all of these online self-paced curricula and students get to choose. So there are two students that are both fourth graders at Epic and they have different curricula that they use. You’re then matched with the teacher that regularly checks in with you. And so you’re able to do all of that up sort of customized to you. Interestingly for this unbundling conversation, which we may have to put a pin in and come back to. Even though I will give a short shout out to my Cool Schools podcast series, where I interviewed Ben Harris, who founded these schools.

If you’re scrolling back through EdChoice Chats, it’ll be a few chats ago, but I talked with him about this. They give every one of their online students a $1,000 learning fund where they’re actually able to choose because it’s an online school. They’re not able to do things like sports or art classes or those sorts of things. And so they give families a huge amount of flexibility and $1,000 to spend to create those things for themselves. So this is like unbundling on top of unbundling, but I bring up just these examples just to get the sort of mind going about what these possibilities could be by choosing to think about…Well, look, a school doesn’t have to directly provide every minute of every child’s education. They can outsource some of that to things that are better. Lots of state universities have dynamite calculus courses or things that would tee up a student.

I know in the state of Missouri where I live, the University of Missouri has a great one. If kids are going to go to Mizzou, how great would it be to sort of get started their junior or senior year with classes that are already made available to them? So I think there are tons and tons of possibilities related to this. I think that the coronavirus is only sort of accelerating this. Because the amount of online learning that’s being done, and the lessons that are being learned from that will only sort of pay dividends for schools that are trying to do this. But again, it relies on a sort of psychological shift, a philosophical shift that says that the school doesn’t have to have a sort of complete sort of territorial monopoly on that child’s day, and that child’s time.

Marty Lueken: Oh, that’s a lot to think about for sure. And thanks Mike and Ben for sharing these ideas. Hopefully our listeners can glean some insights from this and start to think about how to move towards a more resilient system for education. Well, it’s been fun, gentlemen. Thank you very much for joining.

Ben Scafidi: Thanks for having us, Marty.

Mike McShane: Yeah, it was great chatting with you all.

Marty Lueken: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. Please be sure to follow us on social media @edchoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. We’ll catch you next time.