Post 5.2 - Education Funding

This post was inspired by a rather interesting exchange that took place on Facebook this week. It began with a link to a story with the headline, Texas Teacher Pension Needs 21% Return to Keep 80% Funded Ratio. As the person who posted this link correctly pointed out, there were errors made in how this was initially set up, but that the end result was going to be layoffs for teachers and that teachers were going to be denied their pensions.

We have all seen the drama coming from Wisconsin regarding collective bargaining for unions, with specific emphasis there on teachers. It is happening in other states (with Republican governors, I might add), and worse, there are states accepting federal education monies and using these funds as an excuse to cut state-level education funding.

And now, the Republican/conservative position is that education standards and funding should be handled by the states, rather than by federal funding and standards set by Washington. The logic being that local-level administrators know best what their districts need.

I'll admit, they have a point, from a particular perspective. Some schools need more support than others, from teachers to buildings themselves, and a local official would be better able to make this determination on-site.

But this is about where you lose me. Without federal standards, a student in South Carolina is going to get a different education than a student in Massachusetts. And this already happens, as states have different standards outside of what the Department of Education may require. I remember a student in high school who transferred from a school in Arkansas to our school in New Jersey, and she ended up a year behind where she would have been had she gone to school in New Jersey all along.

That shouldn't happen. And is the expectation that she would have made up any missing material in the years she had left before graduation, so her Arkansas high school diploma would represent the same knowledge as a New Jersey high school diploma? There is obviously a disconnect here. While an admirable aspiration, the No Child Left Behind Act did not solve this issue, forcing teachers to teach to a test rather than just teach, and adding greater confusion and uncertainty to a flawed overall system.

The other problem, which no one seems to be addressing with any seriousness, is that local boards of education and superintendents and the like are grossly overpaid. These educational funding increases are not funneled to students or even teachers as much as they are to administrators, who might not even work a full week and golf on Wednesdays.

But education is a tricky financial situation. Birth rates change, altering the number of students present in any given year. My mother's high school graduating class was 1,000, while mine was about 275. And teachers - the good ones - have a right to expect their salaries to increase over time, pegged to inflation or not, even though it is an institution with no income. Our schools are not-for-profit, they are simply a hopeful investment and essentially a money pit. Ironically, colleges and universities - which we consciously and actively pay, even go into debt to attend - reach out to their alumni for financial support for new buildings, scholarships, and other projects, but our public schools rely completely on government sources - part of residential property taxes in many cases, as well as state and federal funding. And they get what they get and have to make do, trying to satisfy increasing salary needs dictated by the economy and retaining good, experienced teachers, regardless of the number of students present or projected. I am completely sympathetic to these very real challenges, and understand why some programs are cut - it really can't be avoided sometimes.

But the system is broken. The US is falling behind in all major academic areas, and the chance for any higher education opportunities is continuing to be a difficult prospect except for the most wealthy among us. The only way to fix the problem is to look at everything at get serious about it, and then learn to spend wisely.

So this is what I think.

First, standards in education need to be set at the federal level. What a student learns and by what grade level should be non-negotiable. All school districts nationally should be expected to present the same information so that all students are at the same learning level if they should change districts or not. Even setting a specific student-teacher ratio would make a difference.

Second, as a big fan of the Montessori style of teaching, I would like to see a thorough and thoughtful examination of how we teach and see what we can do to improve. Different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and as such, learn effectively in a variety of different ways. I think this is more to blame for falling test scores than anything else - a teacher can present information and the kid may just not get it in the way it is being presented. This isn't the teacher's fault, and I don't think it's the teacher's responsibility to have to teach every lesson in multiple ways, but there has to be a better way to reach the same goal. Charter schools in some regions have had excellent results.

Third, remove politics and religion from the discussion. The actions of the Texas and Louisiana Boards of Education in the last year show exactly how dangerous it can be to let politics rule such decisions. Our children need to be armed with best factual and scientific knowledge available if they are going to be expected to compete in our increasingly global business climate. Save religion for a social studies or philosophy lesson, and politics for a history or civics lesson.

Fourth, overall, we have too many school districts, and we need to see what we can do about combining and eliminating some of them. This would immediately cut costs, except for possible busing, but it would more effectively use resources and reduce the number of administrators required. This would not necessarily result in a loss of teachers, as they could be combined into the new schools, if that even became necessary. As one example, I spent the latter part of my K-8 existence in a town with three public schools in their district; as of 2007-2008, they had 1,127 students and 63 teachers (student-teacher ratio 17.9). The next town over also has just three schools and about the same number of students, but more than 20 additional teachers (student teacher ratio 12.6). By comparison, the other district where I lived for K-8 has seven schools with over 5,000 students and 430 teachers (student-teacher ratio 13.1). So it seems to me, the first two districts in this example could easily be combined into one, saving the cost of the extra board of education in its entirety, without sacrificing anything else - not one teacher's job. Using publicly available figures, the elimination of the smallest school district in this list - for four board employees - would result in a savings of $541,925, which includes "post-contractual benefits". New Jersey has 605 school districts; if this figure is representative, consolidating them down to just 500 - a reduction of 12.5% or so - would be a savings of over $54,000,000.

And finally, let's allow states to control the money - provisionally. Assign the money in a block grant, and if a state cannot improve results to a specific level or improve by a specific percentage in two years, it goes back to federal control and standard. As long as they show improvement or stability at high levels, the state keeps control of the money assignments. If not, they follow a working approach defined and determined by the DoE, perhaps using a neighboring, successful state as an example.

It just seems to me that there are a lot of ways we can improve the overall system and do right by our children, the taxpayer investment, and the future. Instead, we're fighting over a lot of nonsense.

Have a question or a suggestion for a future topic? E-mail me at facetsblog@gmail.com.


School district data as reported by Wikipedia and the New Jersey Department of Education.

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