Play Ball!

Photo by Joe Penniston, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Joe Penniston, used under Creative Commons license

Every April, when the ivy is just beginning to show at Wrigley Field, lifelong Chicago Cubs fans, like myself, have a renewed hope that this is our year.

Each of us believes that after more than 100 years, the Chicago Cubs will finally win the World Series again… But my sense of optimism is typically crushed when I consider the off-season activities of our competition. The Yankees picked up who? They are spending how much!? That’s not fair!

Yes, the New York Yankees may spend a record $230.4 million this season, but does that really mean anything?

Despite outrageous spending, the New York Post admits that the Yankees are not even favored to win this season. They’ve spent more than any other team on player salaries over the last ten years, but have only won the World Series once during that time.

Last season’s World Series Champs, the San Francisco Giants are projected to spend a mere $142 million this year, perhaps $10 million more than they spent in 2012.  That’s not all that much more than the Cub’s $104 million this year.

In baseball, as in life, it would be foolish to suggest that money isn’t important.  Yes, the Yankees are always competitive. Yes, Major League Baseball should try to rectify the fact that teams like the Houston Astros are only spending $24 million this year.  But it’s also true that adding more expensive players to the payroll is no guarantee of success. How much a team spends is not as important as what they do on the field, using the players they’ve got.

This economic concept of spending efficiency also applies to school finances. In 2011, the Center for American Progress (CAP) did a great study that found many school districts are inefficient with their spending. For example, only 17 percent of Florida districts in the top third of spending were also in the top third of student achievement.

Many school districts could boost student achievement simply by using money more productively, according to CAP. But how can districts increase productivity?

State policies that incentivize innovation, require spending transparency, and give flexibility to schools and districts in how they spend their money are key, but great leadership is just as important.

A great leader can make a little bit of money go a long way. For example, under the leadership of general manager Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s only spent $55 million last year but still won the American League West. Made famous by the movie Moneyball, Beane is a leader who is willing to think differently about how to use his resources to get the best possible results.

School districts, like baseball teams, need the kind of leaders that can make a dollar go a long way. Only then will schools produce the kind of results that reflect the full potential of their students.

This post was originally written for StudentsFirst, where I was Fiscal Policy Manager. 

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