Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stop bailing out government schools

Across the country, politicians are responding to the inability of a population devastated by government-induced recession to support governments’ spending at levels they have grown accustomed to by threatening the closure of schools, firehouses, and other high-profile, highly-valued government “services.”

I have opined elsewhere on the reasons that such high-profile programs—rather than the thousands of highly-paid bureaucrats whose functions are absolutely inessential—are identified first for cutting as the means to cut spending. Suffice it to repeat that such extortion has worked before and politicians can only hope it will continue to allow them to line their pockets at the expense of people who actually earn their money.

Tomorrow California is holding a special election with various propositions on the ballot promising budget fixes “for the schools.” Like every tax and borrowing provision before them, these tax increases won’t fix the schools. In fact, despite widely disparate policy recommendations, virtually every non-government education researcher, from Stanford University to the Heritage Foundation, agrees that money is not the problem: in sum, government education is Just Plain Dysfunctional.

So why does the idea of a “public school” education, so clearly oxymoronic, remain such a sacred cow? Every argument used throughout history for the establishment of State-sponsored education has been rooted in ideology: the utopian ideal of creating the good citizen, from Francis Bacon:
And it is without all controversy that learning doth make the minds of men gentle, generous, malleable and pliant to government; whereas, ignorance makes them churlish, thwart, and mutinous.

To Karl Marx:
The communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the characteristic of that intervention and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.

None, historically, was based in an actual or perceived lack of educational opportunities in the absence of government-provided schools. Yet today it is widely assumed that if the government didn’t provide schools the poor wouldn’t have any, and that government schools are bad because they don’t have enough money.

In fact, government spending on K–12 public education in America is at an all-time high. The national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418. Real spending per student has increased by 23.5 percent over the past decade and by 49 percent over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, test scores and graduation rates have remained low and flat, and the gap between whites and non-whites has remained wide and essentially unchanged.

If the government can’t teach reading and writing and ‘rithmetic for $10,000 per year per student, why would anyone want them to have more? Isn’t it time to just cut off government funding of education, eliminate the taxes supposedly collected for education altogether, and let the resources freed up be deployed far more effectively and creatively? Teachers and/or parents could privatize their schools (see our “Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?”), and the market and private associations could and would otherwise create myriad alternatives just as phone companies freed from the Ma Bell monopoly have put a cell phone with functionality unimaginable 20 years ago into the hands of every 13 year old in the country.

As Adam Smith knew, freed from a public school monopoly, people “would soon find better teachers for themselves than any the state could find for them.”


Dept. of Education offers performance award

Indiana high schools that achieve the biggest graduation rate increases between now and next spring could receive up to $20,000. The money would be split among each principal and some staff members.

The principals and teachers would benefit financially, state superintendent Tony Bennett said.

The Department of Education said it will be the first time the agency has offered "performance awards" to reward school staffs and the State Teachers Association said it has "numerous concerns" about the plan.

Last year, nearly 23,000 students failed to graduate from Indiana's high schools.


Big talk achieves nothing in troubled Los Angeles schools

No improvement since Villaraigosa took control of the school along with nine other campuses he promised to rescue. 'We basically switched one bureaucracy for another one,' one teacher says.

"Judge me by what we do in these schools," Villaraigosa said in September. Three weeks ago, teachers at Roosevelt did just that, taking a poll on how things are going. With 199 teachers casting a ballot, 184 expressed no confidence in the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS). Is "rebuke" a strong enough word? How about "revolt"?

"We basically switched one bureaucracy for another one," said English teacher Esteban Lopez, who sees no improvement over the way things were when Roosevelt was controlled by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Lopez was one of seven teachers I met with Monday night, all of whom had gripes. Four of the seven had voted to support the mayor's initiative in 2007, when it won by a 152-62 tally. But now they're giving PLAS a big thumbs down.

Decision-making by PLAS administrators is irritatingly haphazard and confusing, said English teacher Rebecca Lizardi. Can a student in one of the seven small academies take a class available only in another academy? One day yes, the next day no. "Why don't they just use a Ouija board?" Lizardi cracked.

Not that special ed teachers Yolanda Rivera and Graciela Lopez or social studies teacher Chris Berru expected miracles when they threw their support behind the mayor two years ago. "It was the lesser of two evils," Berru said. He and others knew the mayor's team was appallingly short on details as to how things would get better. There were vague references to giving teachers more say in running Roosevelt, but Berru insisted that hasn't happened. Nor have teachers seen the infusion of money the mayor promised, and they're unclear on how the transition to smaller schools will be executed. "We're not against small schools," Berru said, "but they don't seem to know what they're doing."

The teachers told me many of their colleagues at other PLAS schools are equally lathered up. "They're furious," Lizardi said.

When I checked Mayor Villaraigosa's daily schedule to see whether he might be available to talk about all this, I saw that he was on tap to address "the nation's leading education reformers, funders and scholars" at a summit Tuesday in Pasadena. I saw the schedule too late, unfortunately. I would have loved to have heard what wisdom the mayor passed on to the assembled scholars. I did get a hold of PLAS officials Marshall Tuck and Angela Bass, and they were rather cooperative, I have to say. Yes, they admitted, there are grievances of varying degrees at PLAS schools, and they did indeed take a whomping from the teachers at Roosevelt with that landslide vote of no confidence. "They're unhappy with the work of the partnership, and they told it to us loud and clear," Tuck said.

He added that he and Bass went to campus to let teachers have their say, and now they intend to make many of the adjustments and improvements the teachers are demanding. I have a summary of that meeting, by the way, including complaints from teachers. They blast PLAS administrators for "top-down" decision-making "with little involvement of or respect for the teachers, community, students." They tell bosses: "Your role is not clearly defined and it is not known by most teachers." They decry a lack of communication and transparency, complaining of closed-door decision-making. "I haven't seen any real changes or differences from the year before other than more meetings, a mug and a shirt," one teacher said.

"What happened to all the money?" another asked in reference to the $50 million raised by the mayor to support the transformation of PLAS schools. Tuck said $290,000 of that money has been directed to Roosevelt so far for transitional expenses, but some of it is being held in reserve to save jobs when the budget cuts hit. He and Bass didn't sound terribly optimistic that Roosevelt would meet the mayor's goal of a 30-point improvement on the state's Academic Performance Index, but they said the long-term objective is to get far more students into college-prep courses.

PLAS took on some of the lowest-performing schools, Tuck said. At Roosevelt, only 3% of the 4,700 students were proficient in math last year and 18% in English. "We're trying to transform schools that have been broken for a long time," Bass said.

Understood. Villaraigosa was anything but modest, though, in his criticism of the LAUSD and in boasting that he could do a much better job. He's not exactly acing any tests thus far. Is he even showing up for class? Tuck said the mayor visits schools "at least once a week." But at Roosevelt, teachers said they haven't seen much of him since he sold them on the partnership in 2007.

On that occasion, Esteban Lopez said, a mouse ran in front of the mayor as he spoke, and Villaraigosa said that was one of the problems he was going to fix. "The mouse is still there," Lopez said, "but [the mayor] has never come back."


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