Monday, April 09, 2012

You wouldn’t like a restaurant run like schools are

California's public schools continue to lay off teachers, in a process that is as convoluted and illogical as one would expect in a bureaucratic system in which the needs of the students falls fairly low on the list of priorities. That's my takeaway from a new report by the state's Legislative Analyst's Office detailing the teacher layoff process as districts struggle with declining revenue in the face of shrinking budgets.

The big issue, however, isn't the arcane process for shedding teachers, but what the process says about the inefficient way that most Americans have decided to educate their kids. As the LAO reports, decisions about who stays and who goes are based on which teachers have showed up to work for the most years – i.e., seniority – rather than which ones are most effective and energetic. The hearing and appeals process, by which every laid-off teacher gets an automatic hearing, adds enormous costs to a system that always claims to lack enough resources.

The LAO report only looked at one small, technical aspect of the public-school behemoth, and it was meant to offer a little advice for tweaking the layoff process. It wasn't meant to provide a thorough analysis of school systems. But in some ways, that's what is so frightening about the report. Americans don't think twice about the way schools are designed. Few things are more important than educating children, yet we accept this current system the way Soviet citizens accepted long bread lines. No doubt, auditors in that system issued reports discussing ways to shorten the lines.

Don't include me in the chorus of those who claim that the schools are somehow "underfunded," even as K-14 education consumes more than 40 percent of California's general-fund budget – not to mention all the local bond measures and federal funding. School-district budget "cuts" usually refer to a reduced rate of spending growth, not actual cuts.

One of the nation's worst-performing systems, Los Angeles Unified School District, yearly spends more than $29,000 per student, when all funding sources are included, according to a Cato Institute report. Its graduation rate of 40 percent is appalling.

LAUSD is particularly bad, but it isn't run that differently than your average suburban district.

Consider the LAO's chart of a declining teacher workforce over the past few years against this report in the Los Angeles Daily News from 2008: "[A] Daily News review of salaries and staffing shows LAUSD's bureaucracy ballooned by nearly 20 percent from 2001 to 2007. Over the same period, 500 teaching positions were cut and enrollment dropped by 6 percent. The district has approximately 4,000 administrators, managers and other nonschool-based employees – not including clerks and office workers – whose average annual salary is about $95,000."

Now consider this tidbit in June from the Sacramento Bee: "The number of educators receiving $100,000-plus annual pensions jumped 650 percent from 2005-11, going from 700 to 5,400, according to a Bee review of data from the California State Teachers' Retirement System."

Here's a Los Angeles Times headline from October: "California teachers lack the resources and time to teach science."

Is this an issue of money or spending priorities?

Instead of focusing on the little things, Californians ought to be thinking big thoughts about education. We can start by asking: Is the public education system one that best serves the students? The answer, even for people whose kids attend decent schools is, "Obviously not."

There's an endless call for reform. Some ideas are useful. For instance, tuition vouchers – which let people take a portion of their school tax dollars and spend them at the school of their choice – or charter schools, which are government-controlled schools freed from some of the government-imposed red tape, offer some hope because they provide some level of competition.

I'm not calling for specific reforms here but arguing, instead, for readers to conduct a thought experiment.

If we were tasked with providing an important service, how would we provide it? If, say, we were asked to create the best-possible chain of restaurants to serve hungry customers, would we buy a huge building, hire scores of extremely well-paid administrators and then impose a tax on local residents to fund the chain? Would we let a board of directors, elected from the community, choose the décor, the menu and the locations?

Would we empower a union to make hiring decisions and allow it to grant tenure to waiters and kitchen help, so that we could not fire them even if they were lazy and incompetent? Would we pay the most money to people who worked there the longest rather than to those who were the best workers?

When customers complained that we served too much meat and not enough pizza, would we shrug and ask them to elect board members who preferred pepperoni to cheeseburgers?

Would we pass laws mandating that people who live in neighborhoods near our restaurants eat only there – allowing them to eat elsewhere only if they spend additional money or move to the neighborhood where the restaurant more closely meets their taste? Would we ignore the pleas of people who live near filthy restaurants that serve lousy food just because we live near one that at least keeps a clean kitchen and offers adequate meal choices?

Other observers have made similar analogies, and school officials always claim that schooling somehow is different. But it isn't.

Instead of tinkering around the edges and endlessly fighting for reforms that offer little hope of transforming the system, we need to redesign it from the ground up. Perhaps we should, in the words of the late reformer Marshall Fritz, "separate school and state" and allow the market to provide schools just as we allow it to provide food and other vital services.


Baa Baa Little Sheep: How British private school abandoned nursery rhyme's lyrics for Easter show sparking political correctness accusations

Quite what the little boy who lives down the lane would make of it is open to conjecture.

But parents at one school made their feelings plain when they heard their children reciting ‘Baa Baa Little Sheep’.

They accused the £2,700-a-term Park Hill primary school of changing the words from ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ for the sake of political correctness.

The school, in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, insists this was not the reason, and that the change was merely a way of teaching children to read by adding different words. Adults who attended its Easter concert, however, were unconvinced.

Andrea Craig, a councillor whose son sang in the show, tweeted: ‘At my son’s Easter concert I saw a song called Baa Baa Little Sheep which I assumed was new. Not so – not allowed black. Really?’

She said most parents in the audience were concerned about the change of wording.

‘It’s good they want children to think about what different words mean. But this is one nursery rhyme I personally don’t think should be used because it could be so easily misconstrued as political correctness gone mad. They have got to be a bit smarter about it.’

The school uses the phonic learning system  to teach children aged three to seven word meanings through well-known songs and rhymes. Its marketing manager Holly Christie said Baa Baa Black Sheep had been changed ‘because it fitted in with the theme of what we were doing. It was about baby sheep.

‘We have always had adjustments to Baa Baa Black Sheep just because the children like to sing different variations of that. It’s a way of teaching phonics so that children understand these words that they are using and then reading.’

This is far from the first time the rhyme has been amended. In 2006, children at two nurseries in Oxfordshire were taught ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’ to promote ‘equal opportunities’. Some children in London have been taught ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’.

And in 1999, Birmingham City Council said the rhyme should not be taught at all because it was racially negative.


Australia: Parents feel the pinch as childcare squeezed by new federal laws

But it's "for their own good", of course.   One size fits all, don't you know?

This will just lead to more  informal childcare  -- e.g. where some lady looks after a few neighbourhood kids in her own home -- with none of the safeguards of the formal sector

That happened in Britain so they passed draconian laws about informal childcare -- but they had to back down because it criminalized friends looking after another friend's kids

PARENTS face a tougher fight for childcare places - and a bigger bill when they find a centre - as tough new federal laws squeeze 8400 places from the system.  The cost of child care will rise by up to $13 a day per child as rules requiring an increased staff-to-child ratio are enforced.

Federal Government figures show a quarter of Queensland children are in childcare, with more than 155,000 children from 120,000 families in long day care at childcare centres.

Childcare Queensland says centres across Queensland will close as increased staff ratios, soaring power bills and fears of a massive 30 per cent wage claim force an already stressed sector close to the brink.

Childcare Queensland says the new regulations alone, the first phase of which started in January, will cost the state 8400 places.

President Peter Price said the average price of long day care in Queensland was between $60 and $80 a day, but that would go up under the new laws that require more staff to children and university degrees for some positions. [How absurd!  Will you have to have a degree to become a mother soon?]

While changes to ratios that were causing massive spikes in fees down south would not affect Queensland for another two years, he said centres were already having to put on extra staff to cover paperwork and training.

Mr Price said the industry had no problem with raising standards but said the contradiction with existing minimum room sizes and the required floor space per child means fewer places will be available in existing centres.

Industry research tips childcare costs will rise by $13 a child per day, which will create an exodus of families from already struggling centres in areas like the Sunshine and Gold coasts, as well as in Brisbane's eastern suburbs.

Mr Price said a survey of centres shows those around Caboolture, Wide Bay and Cairns are already at risk of falling through the 70 per cent occupancy level, which is break-even, and could dip in to the red under any other stress.

He said some centres on the Sunshine Coast were already half empty and parents would soon start feeling the pinch as more tried to organise their childcare after the school holidays. "It's happening now but there's still a lot more to come," Mr Price said of the cost increases.  "For the average parent looking for a place, there are going to be less places  available."

But C&K chief executive officer Barrie Elvish, whose community group operates centres across the state, said he did not expect any massive price rise.  He said C&K centres had raised prices by $4 or $5 a day at the beginning of the year to cover rising bills but the ratio changes would not affect them.

Federal Child Care Minister Kate Ellis said children deserved the best start in life.  "All of the research shows us that the first five years of a child's life are critical to shaping future outcomes and will play a major role in their long-term health, education and development," she said.

"With record numbers of families using childcare in Queensland and across the country, it is essential that we ensure that children in care are getting the quality early educational opportunities that they need.

"That is why the rest of the world is acting and it is why the Commonwealth and every state and territory  government, of all political persuasions, have agreed that the National Quality Framework is the best way forward for Australian families.

"These reforms are being introduced gradually, over a number of years so that the sector has time to adjust.  "The only changes that have come into effect in 2012 are a ratio requirement of one staff member for every four children aged under two  as is already the case in Queensland  and a harmonisation of national regulations....

Tewantin Early Learning Centre owner John Keast said private operators were under pressure from rising utilities and red tape.

He said he would like to be able to provide healthy fruit as a snack to his kids, but he can't without complicated and expensive licensing.  "We can't supply fruit to our children, but if they bring it in, we can cut it up and serve it to them," he said. "It's ridiculous."

He said his two Sunshine Coast centres turned a profit but there were plenty of others that were badly stretched and at risk of folding.


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