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Bad (and Good) Budget Cutting

January 26, 2012 by James W. Guthrie

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have projected public sector revenue shortfalls for fiscal year 2012 totaling $103 billion.  They will have to reduce their planned spending. It will not be easy but if state officials are smart, they can get more from less.  There is one thing, however, they should not do: follow the lead of California and Washington. California and Washington serve ten percent of America’s school children.  Because of revenue shortages, each is cutting the number of days pupils attend school and reducing student home to school transportation. They are jeopardizing children and ignoring budget preferences of local decision.

That public officials look to schools as a way of balancing state budgets is understandable.  Schools account for at least half of annual state spending.  However. If schools are to be cut, then states at least should go about this process in a wise manner and, where possible, honor local values. Instead, California and Washington are ignoring powerful learning principles, pandering to partisan political allies, punishing parents and poverty impacted pupils, exploiting public schools for purposes of adult employment rather than pupil performance, ignoring the fact that they have and are irrationally protecting ineffective teachers, and riding roughshod over local decision makers. Here is what we know from solid research and useful experience about student learning that is relevant to school budget cutting.  This is what should guide California, Washington, and other states.
  • The more time a student spends on learning tasks, the higher the likelihood of lasting learning.
This is particularly true for low-income students. By shortening the school year, California and Washington are hurting the children who most need formal schooling, those from poverty-impacted households. Middle-income parents will likely compensate for a shortened school year by added dinner table conversation, more help with homework, and more frequent trips to libraries, historic sites, museums, and zoos.  Parents of low-income children will have fewer of these avenues available to them. Unusually successful charter schools, such as KIPP Academies, stretch dollars to ensure low-income students, with which they are dramatically successful, go to school a great deal.  They extend the school year and the school day.  Less schooling is known to result in lowered learning.
  • An effective teacher is the most powerful schooling instrument.  Conversely, an ineffective teacher actually damages a child’s chance for academic success.  California and Washington are making no statewide effort to weed out ineffective teachers.  Doing so not only could balance the budget, but also promote added student learning
Washington and California do not have the surfeit of classroom teachers that characterizes many other states.. Nevertheless, they currently employ tens of thousands of teachers. It is difficult to imagine that all of these instructors and administrators are effective.  Yet, the number of dismissals for incompetence is in the tens.
  • Secondary school class size is unrelated to student learning.  Small high school classes are nice and are more comfortable for teachers.  However, it is difficult to find legitimate research that links secondary class size to student learning.
California and Washington could preserve the length of the school year by abolishing secondary class size minima and dismissing ineffective teachers, thereby helping students even if somewhat inconveniencing adults.
  • Parents are being asked to pay too.  Children get short changed on learning but parents have to scramble for and pay out of pocket costs of added and unexpected childcare.  In addition, in some instances, parents are being forced to arrange school transportation.
  • Learning from the Past.  A decade ago, California raced furiously into one of the nation’s most ill conceived of education policy blunders.  It mandated dramatic primary grade class size reductions and then spent billions in hiring additional teachers.  The fact that school facilities were stretched to the breaking point by the newly created class size maxima was not initially considered.  Also, a shortage of well-qualified teachers only emerged later.
Portable school facilities were purchased, teachers of low promise were employed, and state school spending increased. California did not realize much of a return on its dramatic class size investment.  Now, it is incurring an even more painful penalty, it is reducing the school year in order to pay for what has already been shown as a policy failure. There are lessons here.  Follow what works.  Students learn from school.  Poor students learn the most from school.  Effective teachers matter a great deal.  Keep and reward effective ones, and dismiss those who are ineffective.  If budget cuts are needed, reduce the teacher workforce starting with the least effective, not the last hired.  Do not be concerned about class size in the secondary grades.  Listen to the preferences of local officials. First, do what is right for students and learning.  After that, it is all right to consider adults and political allies. This post written by James W. Guthrie, Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute. 


James W. Guthrie
James W. Guthrie

Dr. Guthrie is the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Nevada and is a professor at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Before joining the Bush Institute, Dr. Guthrie served as director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Guthrie earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a doctorate from Stanford University.

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