One of the biggest challenges facing Manchester’s school system is balancing the increased needs of our students against our community’s desire and ability to fund those needs. As Chairman of the Board of Education, the most common question I hear today is, “why is spending rising, when enrollments are declining?”
The logic that would directly tie spending levels to district enrollment is flawed because it ignores the underlying changes occurring in our schools. Increased attendance at magnet schools by some students, and a broad change in the makeup of the student population, has resulted in added costs just as pressures to decrease spending have peaked.
Since 2000, Manchester has seen an enrollment reduction of approximately 900 students, but most of that reduction (close to 700 students) is due to students attending magnet schools. Magnet schools are a great alternative for some, but that choice comes with a cost. Each year, Manchester must allocate a greater share of its education budget to magnet school tuition. In 2000, Manchester spent less than $2 million on students attending out-of-district magnet schools; in 2009, we spent close to $7 million – and that number continues to climb. The difference between in-district savings in per pupil expenditures (approximately $200 per student) versus the tuition for a magnet school (as much as $5,000 per student) has placed an undue burden on public school budgets across the state. In Manchester, every dollar that goes to magnet school tuition is one less dollar we can spend on students who remain in the district.
Another factor contributing to increasing education costs is that a Manchester student today is more likely to be economically disadvantaged and to require special education services. Many of these additional support services are government mandated, and often unfunded.
In 2000, less than 26% of Manchester students were identified as economically disadvantaged (by qualifying for free or reduced lunch). In 2009, that number had risen to 43%, and continues to climb. (For comparison, during that same period the state average climbed from 24% to just 30%.) In less than a decade, the number of Manchester’s economically disadvantaged students doubled, and by next year, the majority of students in the Manchester Public Schools will qualify for free or reduced lunch.
This is an alarming trend, and one that underscores the dedication and commitment of our school staff. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Despite these increased demands, as well as cuts to staff development funding and an increasing focus on testing strategies, they have worked tirelessly – and successfully – to narrow the achievement gap. They stepped up to the challenge of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and worked to improve education outcomes, so as to achieve Safe Harbor status under NCLB two out of the last three years. Is more work required? Absolutely.
Equally concerning is the more recent increase in special education needs. Since 2005, the percentage of students requiring special education services has almost doubled, up from 13% to 25%, resulting in a commensurate increase in costs. Manchester now spends $10 million more on special education services today than it did in 2005. This increase alone accounts for 60% of the total increase in Manchester’s education budget since 2005. These costs are not optional. Manchester must be committed to creating a supportive environment where all children have the opportunity to learn.
Manchester has never shied away from its responsibility to educate our children. Our community is more than equal to the task of building the kind of school system we want to educate our children in. But let me be clear, this will take time, planning, and money. As the Boards of education and directors work to balance the concerns of the public within the context of the economic realities our town is facing, we all need to work together to ensure the success of all our students, our school system and our community.