The Republican presidential field is beginning to take shape, and candidates and maybe-candidates are figuring out where they stand and what to say. Sooner or later, they will need to say something about education. May we suggest a few talking points? Or, better yet, a potential speech for a GOP candidate?
Folks, you know that our education system is tattered. Some of it is fine, but too much is mediocre or worse. Once the envy of the world, American schools are losing ground to those in Europe and Asia. Today, many countries are out-teaching, out-learning, and out-hustling our schools?????????and doing it for a fraction of the cost.
Meanwhile, failed education systems in our cities worsen the odds that the next generation will climb out of poverty into decent jobs and a shot at the American dream. And as much as many of us prefer not to notice, way too many of our suburban schools are just getting by. They may not be dropout factories, but they're not preparing anywhere near enough of their pupils to revive our economy, strengthen our culture, and lead our future.
Turning this situation around has been the work of education reform for the past two decades. We've spent a lot of money on it. We've had any number of
Stop me when this sounds unfamiliar: You flip through the pages of the latest Economist (or parse through the articles online), looking for interesting material, chuckling to yourself over the risible article titles and amusing photo captions. Then you settle on a number of pieces to read?the majority of which are on topics you know little about. This week, for example, you may have assailed yourself (as I did) of a piece on the cooling of the sun (eerie) or on counterfeit wine (an oddly high-end black market), or of a book review of the chronicles of a Polish dissident (fascinating). About 90 percent of the time, you relish in the magazine's witty and cogent articles that seem to outline complex issues so smartly.
But then the other 10 percent of the time, you read an article about which you actually know something. And in that moment, the magazine's sparkle fades. The article lacks nuance, regurgitates trite ideas, and conflates relevant arguments to string a coherent thought.
This week, one such article appeared on school funding in the States (page 34 for those with a hard copy handy). From Austin, the author explains that ?many cities and states, struggling to make up budget shortfalls, have put schools on the chopping block.? These cuts will add up to billions of dollars and will be ?readily apparent when schools reopen in the autumn?among those that do re-open, that is.?
This melodramatic proclamation?both unjust and only
A few weeks ago, we at Fordham released a short analysis, Shifting Trends in Special Education. We noticed that some states, like Massachusetts and New York, identified almost twice as many students as needing special education as those in other states, like Texas and California. We tried to make sense of these findings but noted that we couldn't find any statistically significant relationship between the demographics of a state and its special ed ID rate. In particular, the poverty rate of a state didn't seem to matter; some poor states have high ID rates, other have low ones, and others are in between. Same with rich states.
Still, I couldn't help but wonder if school spending (adjusted for cost of living) was driving the differences. After all, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to notice that Massachusetts and New York spend a ton of money on their schools and California?similar to them in so many other ways?spends a fraction as much.* Perhaps a sense of scarcity in resource-starved states like California encourages school districts to avoid identifying lots of kids for pricey special education services.
I then asked my friend Marty West, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of
It goes without saying that school officials are doing everything in their power to cope with the quickly dwindling budgets of their districts. But a certain policy enacted by the New York City DOE leaves me scratching my head. The policy in question forces principals who have lived within their means to give back 30 percent of any school-budget surplus to the general coffers of the DOE at the end of the year.
The old system allowed principals to save money for future years; last year a total of $80 million was rolled over. Not surprisingly, this penny-pinching policy is having an inverse effect on school spending. Since enacting the policy, only $32 million was carried over. As the New York Post reported on Sunday, principals are now deciding in favor of year-end shopping sprees rather than forking over a percentage of their savings. Midwood High School's principal just went on a $400,000 bender, picking up high-tech digital pens, four iPads, a $40,000 science lab and a high-powered electron microscope.
We have long been proclaiming the importance of ?doing more with less,' and this policy couldn't be driving principals farther from it. Instead of punishing fiscally conservative principals hoping to use surpluses to prevent a teacher from being laid off or continue to staff after-school programs the next year, the NYCDOE might consider finding their extra funding from the budgets of principals spending recklessly, not responsibly.
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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