How to Cut a School's Budget? Online Game Lets You Give it a Shot

article | December 12, 2011

    Maggie Severns

Budget cuts are never easy. If they were, they wouldn’t be the subject of perennial struggle in state and federal legislatures, as well as heartache for advocates of government programs such as state-funded preschool that see their programs get cut during tight fiscal years.

Recently, Early Ed Watch stumbled upon an online game that lets the players try to figure out how they would invest and cut funding to a school, if they were in charge. Like the budget deficit calculators that allow players to try to stabilize the federal debt, the game—called “School Budget Hold ‘Em”—is an exercise in how to make tough budget decisions. The player selects the size of the budget cut or increase, ranging from -10 percent to +10 percent, and decides on changes from lists of “Investments” and “Savings.”  Pay freezes, increases to class size and, yes, slashing pre-K funding are among the options the player may choose from.

Try playing a round of the game. Even setting the “budget target” at a relatively small 2 percent cut is difficult. You could, for example, choose to start by cutting .4 percent of the school budget by deciding to “Make teacher layoff decisions based on performance instead of seniority.” The game has an explanation for how this creates savings:

“Collective bargaining often requires layoffs of the most junior, lowest paid teachers first, resulting in the elimination of more teaching positions and sometimes high-potential individuals. Laying off based on teacher performance spreads the impact more evenly across the entire salary range.”

This makes sense. But if you choose to make teacher layoff decisions based on performance, the game will also remind you that this decision is best if not made in isolation:

If you plan to lay off teachers based on performance,” a pop-up window says, “also consider: ‘Invest to implement and build capacity for a teacher evaluation and data system.’

The teacher evaluation system, listed in the “Investment” column, is a one-time investment that will help you evaluate teachers fairly. But you need to make a .5 percent investment in order to create a good system for making those cost savings in the first place, meaning that building a system to evaluate teachers will cost more than the savings made during the first year of the new layoff system. Quickly, a simple decision got a lot more complicated.

Granted, those of us at Early Ed Watch are clearly interested in school budget issues, making this “game” right up our alley, but we thought it was an interesting exercise and worth sharing. Perhaps inadvertently, the game also serves as a showcase for one of the problems with envisioning pre-K as something separate from basic public education. Too often, pre-K programs are easily chopped because they appear to be “add-ons” in the budget, which is how pre-K programs fit into the budget in this game. When formula funding for public education is provided by a state or locality across the full PreK-12 spectrum, instead of just for the K-12 or 1-12 grades, it is less likely that early education will be cut.

School Budget Hold ‘Em was created by non-profit called Education Resource Strategies. According to ERS’s website, the organization works with urban school districts and advocates for reform and better efficiency in public schools.


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    Maggie Severns