Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Some alternative ideas

"Absent some extraordinary about-face, Nashville will soon be debating a tax-increase proposal to fund public education. Everywhere you turn these days, city leaders are enumerating the needs of our schools. Likewise, all involved are pointing to the anemic revenue side of the Metro ledger, where money is scarce. Because education is the single most important endeavor of an organized society and because our school funding is so topsy-turvy, it's hard to resist the urge just to give in. If the schools need more money, then why not give it to them? Isn't this the right, decent thing to do? That's how the question has been framed thus far. But I would pose an additional question: If we put more money into this particular educational model, will the children be better educated?

If recent history is any guide, the answer is no, and I have a sneaking suspicion why. Between 2000 and 2004, the annual operating budget of Metro schools increased from $407 million to $503 million. Another $230 million was spent on bricks and mortar. We haven't just been dropping nickels and dimes into the system. We've shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into it. What do we have to show for it? Answer: Student performance has nearly flatlined. What makes the situation troublesome, if not utterly confounding, is that in addition to the money piece, a number of other parts of the puzzle are quite good. The schools chief is nationally respected, the elected board is at last a good one, parental involvement has increased, and principals have been spit-shined, polished and returned to the front lines.

Then there's the teachers' union. Let's say you are a new principal at a school. You know some of your teachers are not up to snuff, and you want to replace them. What you really want is your own team - nothing but top-notch teachers, all working together, all pulling the oars at the same time. Can you do this? Not really. A principal in Nashville has fairly restricted personnel authority. In fact, once a teacher works for three years in a Metro school, he can only be fired with difficulty. It's tenure. Thank the union. In the real world of accountability where most people live, it's normal to report to an employer who sets performance goals. You do well, and you advance. You do poorly, and you are fired. In this city's public schools, a badly performing teacher often doesn't leave. Instead, he lingers. Or, if a principal is lucky, the bad teacher is transferred to another school, then he's somebody else's headache. In the private sector, how would a manager be expected to perform if he were handicapped in hiring and firing and putting together his own team? Basically, he'd go out of business.

The point is not to blame a teacher. But do feel free to blame the union, and do by all means blame your political leaders who have countenanced the union. And do realize that pouring money into this system is akin to loading cargo onto a ship filled with holes. The tragedy is that our schools really do need the cargo. But until the holes are patched and until we allow principals to act with autonomy and freedom, only then can the system move with speed and determination and efficiency.

So, what to do with our public schools? Here's a plan. It involves raising money without raising taxes, and it is predicated on dealing the union a new hand.

1. Ask businesswoman Martha Ingram to chair a campaign to raise a $1 billion public schools endowment that would exist outside of Metro government. All private educational institutions rely on endowments. It's time public schools took the hint. Ingram raised tens of millions for a new symphony hall. Wouldn't the broader appeal of public education raise even more? Wouldn't the act of giving be preferable to the act of being taxed? The goal is ambitious, but doable.

2. Add to that $1 billion by selling two Metro-owned utilities - Nashville Electrical Service and Metro Water and Sewer Department to private buyers. Given the option of being in the business of flushing toilets or educating minds, shouldn't a 21st century city focus on educating minds? My rough guess is the sale of these two entities might bring in another half billion.

3. This $1.5 billion would spin off $75 million a year. With this money, Metro could offer a massive pay increase to school teachers. But to get this pay increase, the teachers would have to give up tenure. In other words, teacher pay would go up by a magnitude large enough for them to agree to work at will. The point is that our leaders are now focused on traditional remedies to a hogtied system that will likely result in sustained mediocrity. Only with citizen pressure and gobs of money to back it up can any long-lasting good result. I will be against a tax increase because I hate to see good money go after bad. But at the first spark of meaningful revolution, understand this: I'll happily pay."


Public high school grads unprepared for college, work: "Whether they went right to work or into college, large percentages of recent public high school graduates do not believe they were adequately prepared for the challenges they faced after graduation, according to a new report from Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan group created by the nation's governors and corporate leaders to help states prepare young people for post-secondary education, work, and citizenship. Employers and professors agree with that assessment, according to the study, published as Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Grdauates Prepared for College and Work? in February 2005."


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

Comments? Email me here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here


No comments: