If you lack the imagination to invent a London-based private eye (with a sharp M.D. sidekick) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did in the late 1800s, you can always ripoff the author's inventiveness by appropriating the fictional characters (mix in a few historical ones), give one of them a heroin addiction and the other a cure and-voila!-you can call your opus "The Seven Percent Solution" and even get the little unoriginal tale turned into a Hollywood movie.
That's what screenwriter-director Nicholas Meyer did back in the mid-1970s. His Holmes/Watson theft left no lasting literary footprint, but his title did (which was even a variation on Conan Doyle's own text); it has since been applied to everything from debt-growth analysis to diabetes management.
Other numbers have been used as well; one is "the two percent solution", a 2005 political treatise by Matthew Miller. It's now a Sierra Club catch-phrase for carbon-footprint reduction.
Not to be outdone, the Vermont Education Department has its own "two percent solution": a pro forma budget-cut suggestion to local school districts.
Since annual K-12 spending is now above $1.4B, two percent works out to all of $23MM.
As I've laid out the basic math in previous columns, this amount could be captured by raising the pupil-teacher ratio from 10-to-1 to 12-to-1, about where it was in the cave-dweller school days of the previous decade.
A recent math exercise by Hugh Kemper demonstrates the political impossibility of any 2 percent solution based on any such primitive behavior as a public-school-teacher Reduction-in-Force: he calculates that going from 10.9 to 11.8 in median class size (approximately the same as p/t ratio) would require the RIFing of 837 teachers, losing their votes and all of their extended families' votes as well.
Going to a class size of an educationally punitive 13 would sidewalk -gasp-1,500. When class sizes, nationwide, were twice that number-mid-1960s-test scores were marginally higher and per-pupil costs were a lot lower, but the present-day educator-vote trumps all such considerations.
Meanwhile, beneath the radar, the state ed department-in adept co-operation with the Golden Domers on the north side of Montpelier's State Street-has been operating a different cost-reduction program, so successful that its statistics are beginning to show up in such places as state census data and school enrollment numbers.
As a 2007 study by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency documented, increasing housing costs has had the desirable effect of reducing school age-child population per house.
Recent federal census data have shown, from 1995 to 200, Golden Domer actions raising an entire range of cost-of-residency items in Vermont have had the salubrious effect of causing a major out-migration of the 25-to-39 age-group (over 2200 in five years) and, thanks to recent research showing that, when young adults leave the state, they actually take their children with them, reducing K-12 enrollment proportionately.
As of 2008 it was at 94K, down from an earlier high of 106K, and even below the VHFA prediction of 95K by mid-decade. The strategy has even successfully reduced the Vermont birth rate, now lowest in the nation at about 10 per 1,000 of population compared to a national 14.
You might call this pursuit of enrollment-reduction the Sarah Lawrence option, after the Bronxville, N.Y., college (1981 S.L. graduate-on campus recently, to give informal instruction in Chicago-style, back-alley Democrat politics, was controverisal White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) management decision in the 1970s to solve a fiscal-deficit-per-student problem by reducing the number of students.
The objective: to achieve, if not profitability, at least income-expense balance. Since Vermont now, like Sarah Lawrence then, finds its per-pupil costs excessive, the solution lies in reducing the enrollment until the necessary savings have been captured. Seen in that light, with a target of $23MM and an annual per-pupil cost of $14.3K (2008) with basic math skills you can see that an enrollment cut of about 1,600 would do the job.
Indeed, such cuts are already underway; they approximate the annual enrollment drop already achieved, by means of prescient and thoughtful Golden Dome policy, recorded for each of the last four years.
The public school establishment has historically taken varied views of the unit-cost question. When enrollments were growing, educrats argued that each new student was a measurable new cost for seating and staffing, but as the 1950s receded and the 1960s proceeded, enrolments stagnated and then, in some states such as Vermont which, with foresight, enabled the trend, began to shrink, the reverse was argued: now, no student number shrinkage ever triggers a spending reduction, Sarah Lawrence to the contrary notwithstanding.
In light of all the above, it's now clear that the SED-proposed two percent solution is already in the works, and is succeeding exactly as planned, although not exactly as publicized.
Longtime Vermont resident Martin Harris now lives in Tennesee.