The following is an op-ed column by BCPS Board member Ann Miller regarding the decision to cut 300 programs from the school system budget in order to fund the unvetted $375 million STAT program.
The column is published as submitted.
What is the opportunity cost of the STAT program? STAT is a digital conversion initiative by Baltimore County Public Schools which puts expensive HP EliteBook laptops in the hands of each of the system’s 112,000 students, beginning in kindergarten.
With the initial “Lighthouse School” rollout started in fall 2014, we are now over half way through our third year of implementation with more than $275 million already invested, plus annual projected costs of $60 million. To put it in perspective, the opportunity cost of $60 million per year is 1,200 teacher salaries. This is the most expensive and experimental program in our school system history.
While the Lighthouse Schools were a way to “start this transition”, Superintendent Dallas Dance has stated he never intended to pilot the initiative. To date, no quantifiable evidence shows STAT is improving student educational outcomes. In fact, due to a rollout which had no planned measures to evaluate student success, the only indicators we have show evidence that STAT is hurting our school system:
- PARCC scores have dropped
- MAP scores are below the average in our state
- MSA scores peaked in 2012 and have declined every year since, most substantially since 2014
- NAEP scores have declined
- SAT scores have declined starting in 2014
- Teachers are overwhelmed and leaving the system
- Through thousands of stakeholder emails and testimony, we know our school system is suffering in almost every department
The superintendent made cuts to over 300 out of 500 system programs to pay for STAT, but the board voted against my motion to require him to release this list to the board. This valuable information would give us a quantifiable measure of the opportunity cost of STAT.
There are three ways to consider opportunity cost: how STAT impacts pedagogy, the 300 programs cut, and the basic educational needs of the system that remain unmet because the funding and resource priority is on STAT rather than on these essential needs.
First, STAT’s impact on pedagogy. What are we losing when instruction is delivered more through devices and less through teachers? The initiative was touted as being adaptive and differentiated – “student-centered” is the catch phrase. But teachers make nuanced changes in the way they deliver instruction to their class and to individual students constantly through real-time interaction and by personally knowing their students and their needs.
Second, there is opportunity cost in the programs already cut to pay for STAT. The timing of certain cuts suggests they could have been part of the reductions:
- Elimination of magnet program at Lutherville Lab
- Central office appropriation of school budgets
- Reduction of budgets for textbooks even when digital curriculum not available
- Grounds and building maintenance
- Print management consolidation
- Reduction of teachers through attrition
- Overuse of long-term subs (at lower salary)
- Delay in hiring for unfilled positions
- Curriculum development
- Athletic budgets
- Use of paraeducators as teachers (at lower salary)
- Excessing of paraeducators
- Using retread tires instead of new tires on buses
- Bus route changes to reduce bus drivers
- Bus capacity based on three to a seat instead of two
- Reduction of assistant principals
- Elimination of seven period day schedule
- Elimination of tech teachers
- Fewer teachers getting reimbursement for advanced degrees
- Reduction of GT classes in elementary schools
- Consolidation of Offices of Library Media Services and Instructional Technology under the Office of Digital Learning
- Paid parent helpers (at lower salary) rather than special education teachers or paraeducators in fulfilling special education service hours on student IEPs
- Reduction in teacher insurance benefits
Think of this list as continuing on for over 300 programs, and you get the impact on the system of paying for STAT.
Third, there is opportunity cost in areas that may not have been part of the previous cuts, but are being neglected due to lack of funding and other resources. Facilities, curriculum, transportation, special education, magnet programs, Gifted & Talented, safety and discipline, teacher and principal retention, support staff, grading, and reducing class sizes, to name a few.
While the below real-life scenarios are not in every classroom, the issues have been brought to my attention by multiple parents and teachers across the county.
Scenario One: To pay for STAT, we sacrificed funding for basic educational needs, such as teachers. As a result, overwhelmed teachers are unable to manage their excessive class sizes and discipline problems take an inordinate amount of their instructional time. At the same time, falling student outcomes have the central office pushing principals to raise their positive numbers like attendance, graduation, suspensions, and grades. So teachers are not getting the support they need with discipline issues from their school level administration who don’t want to suspend students. While teachers deal with growing discipline problems in the classroom, they use the devices as babysitters to occupy kids who would otherwise be learning. These kids are abusing the devices, as there is inadequate supervision, to surf the net inappropriately or play games.
Scenario Two: To pay for STAT, bus routes were rerouted which reduced the number of bus drivers. Drivers’ daily routes were increased, and bus capacity was changed to be based on three students per seat instead of two. The result has been very long bus rides for some kids, including special needs students, up to one-and-a-half hours each way. Some buses are so overcrowded that kids are standing or sitting in the aisle. Students have been made to wait at the bus stop in winter weather for an hour or two after their regular pickup time, or in some cases the bus never shows at all. Factor in that children are waiting at the bus stop in the morning after their parents have left for work carrying a $1200 laptop in their backpacks. These are significant safety issues.
Despite assurances from the superintendent and his staff – the superintendent has stated he “would stake his career on STAT” – I don’t believe that STAT is fiscally sustainable over time. I don’t even think it is sustainable right now when we consider the devastating impact it is having on our system. At the February 7th board meeting, I made a motion for a one-year freeze on further expansion of STAT until it can be thoroughly evaluated for success and justified. The motion was voted down 9-2.
The Baltimore County Board of Education has a legal and moral obligation to provide oversight and direction of our superintendent and school system. At every step of the way, we have had the ability to change direction. Let’s have a reason for moving forward with a technology program before we plow forward blindly at the expense of students who have one shot to get a proper education. We owe it to our students, the taxpayers, our teachers, the parents, and to those who will come after us picking up the pieces of what we leave behind.
I write as an individual, not as a spokesman for the Baltimore County Board of Education.