In School Reform, Part I, a new model changed the school board's role to that of hiring principals to run schools in an independent fashion, within broad school board guidelines and state and federal statutes. The school board would supervise and evaluate a school's progress based on outcome -- not micromanaging. This article is in response to a number of questions and comments from readers.
Comment: The admonition that politicians need to "take the pledge" to leave our schools alone will never happen. This huge bureaucracy, the leading employer in the United States, is too much of a "golden goose" not to be targeted by politicians.
Response: The same was said of "pork barrel" policies where legislators garnered "pork" for their congressional districts (and won votes from grateful constituents.) When criticized for unnecessary spending, the politicians stated: "If we don't take the money some other state will, so let's grab it while we can." Politicians will probably use a similar rationale to continue to tinker with our public schools. But the economic crisis may change this "business as usual" attitude and this will hopefully carry over to school reform as well.
Question: Is a school board capable of hiring inspired, successful school principals? After all, school board members are often educators, sometimes elementary school teachers who've been sponsored by the teachers unions and elected in races with marginal voter turn out.
Response: Yes, voter turnout for school board elections is notoriously low and this is because discouraged voters realize that school boards are neither effective nor able to make sustentative changes. When school board members become effective and influential through this new process of hiring top notch principals and measuring outcome, better qualified people will run for office.
Everyone wants successful schools. And these new school board members will be open to help from volunteers and paid consultants from education, business and management to assist them in the selection and supervision process.
Comment: We are already trying what you recommend. The charter school is public but operates with private management. Research shows that most charter schools do not produce higher achievement scores than district public schools, and some charters have had to close because of poor fiscal management.
Response: Most rigorous research shows charter and voucher schools outperforming traditional public schools, but even if they perform at only an equivalent level, they do so at a much lower cost. Public schools, including capital outlays, spend between $15,000 and $25,000 per student per year. Charter and vouchers schools function with fees of $6,000 to $12,000 per year.
In addition, parents are interested in other issues such as safety, security and their child's happiness. As for closing non-performing schools, this is a good thing. But now we need to make sure that non-performing public schools close, as well.
Also, comparing the average public school student with those in the voucher or charter school is often unfair because public schools are happy to unload low achieving and troublesome children, and these students often find their way into charter and voucher schools, especially those set up for children with learning disabilities and behavioral difficulties. In addition, vouchers and charters serve a higher percentage of minority students.
In addition, research shows that regular public schools perform better when there is competition nearby in the form of a charter or voucher school. But with this recommendation for a private-public model, we will have true competition between schools within the public school system.
In regard to financial failures, it is important to note that the only authorizing source for charter schools is the local school board. Most school boards see charter schools as competition and as a potential drain on their financial sources. The result is often minimal cooperation. There are many ways to make trouble for charters, including delays in payments leading to cash flow problems and resulting accusations of fiscal irresponsibility.
Red tape further handicaps small start-up schools. The school system may have a dozen people working full time on new programs such as "Race to the Top," while small vouchers and charters may have only the principal available to insure compliance with these ever changing requirements.
Comment: The best and most creative principals will draw brighter children to their schools, as well as better teachers. This will leave some schools without top-notch teachers and favor wealthy parents.
Response: Under the proposed system, the principal and staff in poorer neighborhoods will have the same professional and monetary incentives found in wealthy neighborhoods. A myth that needs to be dispelled is that the school system is presently uniform. This is not the case. The Supreme Court of the State of Florida used this erroneous thinking to rule against vouchers. They believed vouchers would create inequalities within the system and thus violate the Florida constitution.
Significant inequalities exist at the present time within the public school system. There are actually three school systems within the public sector: The first is comprised of public schools in wealthy neighborhoods. They get more than their share of good teachers and equipment. Then a middle sector, and finally, a sector for schools with the least experienced teachers and materials. This new model would level the playing field and make all schools "public-private".
Comment: You should not compare franchises with public schools because public institutions cannot be privately owned. They can be privately managed, as with charter schools, but not privately owned.
Response: You are correct. The term franchise is used to help explain the concept, but it is not a perfect analogy for another reason, as well. The purpose of a franchise is to make money, although other beneficial results may motivate franchise owners, such as tutoring centers to help poor readers. The purpose of public schools, as well as private, not-for-profit schools, is to educate, not maximize profit.
Question: It's not possible to reduce litigation. How else can we protect students from abuse and exploitation?
Response: Sometimes litigation is appropriate, but in most cases an appeal process within the schools can safeguard individual rights. Behavior guidelines can help teachers, staff and principals handle chronic disruption quickly and refer unmanageable children to centers where they can receive guidance and help.
Comment: Vocational panels were set up some 25 years ago, but their efforts failed because some believed minorities would be funneled into vocational programs while upper-middle-class white students would be directed to college-bound programs.
Response: Safeguards can be instituted to prevent this type of discrimination: Those entering vocational programs must desire to succeed vocationally and have some aptitude for a particular vocation. Another myth is that vocational training is easy and academic education is difficult. Just because someone can't spell does not ensure that he or she will have the ability to work on an assembly line or become an electrician.
Blue-collar jobs are now becoming "gray collar" jobs because of technology. Training programs would be directed toward responsible positions, not menial jobs. It's ironic, but in some school districts it is difficult to get into vocational programs because high academic grades are a prerequisite. This represents another example of a cumbersome school system that is at times not child-friendly.
Comment: We are all striving for equality in this country, but your plan implies that some children have an innate advantage over other children.
Response: They do. In fact, no two students are equal in terms of personality, creativity, parental support, intellectual endowment, or financial status. And the goal to make all children equal is harmful and unrealistic. We must face facts and find ways for all children to maximize their talents and have the opportunity for success whether that involves academic or vocational courses or some mixture of the two.
Comment: School districts will never implement such a plan because of federal laws and mandates.
Response: Many school reforms come from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. Most states are proceeding with innovative reforms at the present time.
Comment: You indicate that this program does not exclude teacher's unions, but the principal and his/her staff make all employment and training decisions. Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such.
Response: Teachers are professionals and professionals do not necessarily organize unions. In the past, public school teachers weren't given the freedom to look after their own best interests. As a result, they felt the need for collective bargaining. Under this plan, we will have a cadre of highly motivated and very well-paid educators who may move from school to school, although most principals and teachers will require a contract to protect both the school and the teacher. Teachers could still organize a union if they are willing to give up individualized pay and freedom of movement within the system.
Comment: Vouchers and charter schools handle only a fraction of the student population. They may be good for experimentation but will never replace the unified school system.
Response: Charter schools, vouchers, homeschooling and distance learning reforms are gaining traction across our country. The "cat is out of the bag" and there is no way to stop this surge toward school improvement and parent choice. Citizens are reluctant to spend tax money on marginally effective institutions.