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More money isn't the answer for schools

Key reforms, including giving principals more control, will improve education

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By Liv Finne
Published:
Despite receiving generous funding from taxpayers, public school officials in Everett are failing too many of the students whose parents have entrusted them with their education. Nearly one-quarter of Everett public school students drop out, so they don't even receive the education they've been promised, and one third graduate without the knowledge and skills needed for college or the workplace. In contrast, the graduation rate in private schools is typically 90 percent, often at lower per-student cost.
Eight of Everett's 29 schools rank near the bottom of the State Board of Education's Public School Accountability Index, with only five schools receiving the best rating. An average of 24 percent of third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders fail the state reading test, with an average of 32 percent of students failing the state math test. Thirty percent of 10th graders fail the math test.
Despite frequent claims that funding has been "cut," the Everett school budget has increased by more than $5 million, rising from $185.7 million in 2010-11 to $190.9 million in 2011-12. The cost of local levies has reached an all-time high of $45.5 million. Per-student spending in Everett is higher than ever, at $10,745 per pupil, and school officials have more resources than in the past to educate a given number of students.
Average teacher pay in Everett is more than $90,000 a year, including benefits, and the Everett School District employs 65 administrators making more than $100,000 a year. The superintendent is paid over $200,000, plus benefits. Everett has some of the most modern school buildings in the state. More than two-thirds of school facilities have been built new or fully renovated in the last 20 years, and in 2006, Everett voters approved another $198.9 million school renovation and technology bond measure.
These facts show taxpayers are generous in supporting public education and that Everett public schools receive ample funding. Yet only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. The problems that plague the public education system require fundamental changes to the way schools are organized and how public money is spent. Today, schools are not set up in a way that holds teachers, principals and superintendents accountable for making sure students are learning. Our experience shows that simply pouring more dollars into the current entrenched and dysfunctional system, no matter how carefully targeted or lavishly spent, will not improve student learning.
So how can we help students learn? Based on independent research, Washington Policy Center analysts have developed the following practical recommendations for improving Everett's schools.
1. Put the principal in charge
Under the current system, Everett school principals have almost no influence over the budget, staffing or daily management of their own schools. Principals control less than 5 percent of the money allocated to their schools. Central office administrators and pre-set regulations exercise full control over local spending, hiring and staff assignments.
Local principals should be freed to act as instructional leaders, rather than just paper shufflers and building managers.
Principals should be granted control over funds for purchasing school books and learning materials, so individual principals and teachers, not central administrators, are allowed to evaluate and select the best lesson plans available.
Principals should be allowed to hire the best person to teach in the classroom, especially if the teacher assigned by the central office is not the best one available. Research shows that placing an effective teacher in the classroom is more important than any other factor, including smaller class size, in raising student academic achievement. A good teacher can make as much as a full year's difference in the learning growth of students. Students taught by a high-quality teacher three years in a row score 50 percentile points higher on standardized tests than students of a bad teacher, and students taught by bad teachers two years in a row may never catch up.
Principals should be allowed to fire bad teachers who are unwilling or unfit to do the important work of educating children. It is unfair and demoralizing to other teachers when poor-performing teachers are kept on staff, often with the same or higher level of pay and benefits.
Top-down mandates -- such as restrictive class size requirements, work rules, staffing formulas and limits on school hours -- prevent flexibility and innovation in spending education dollars. To become education leaders, local principals should be allowed to implement the learning program that works best for their students.
If a principal feels longer school days, home visits or Saturday sessions are needed to help educate children, state mandates and union work rules should not prevent students from learning. Principals should be able to pay teachers more for working longer hours to help struggling students. Principals should also be allowed to hire one-on-one tutors to help students at risk of falling behind.
2. Allow parents to choose schools, including public charter schools
Parental involvement is critical to the success of children in schools, yet new public school parents often discover their opinions are not really respected by administrators. Parents soon find the most important decisions are made by central administrators who have never even met their child.
Still, parents invariably find they are asked to "get involved" whenever the local school levy is up for a vote, or when the district's budget is politically threatened in Olympia. The result is parental involvement often means supporting policy position set by others, rather than truly directing the day-to-day education of their children.
For parents to be involved in a real way, they must be given control over how and when their children receive an education. To achieve true parental involvement, Washington policymakers should adopt a policy of open enrollment among public schools, and require districts to offer parents the option to enroll in a public charter school. Parents would choose the public school that best fits the needs of their children. The money Everett taxpayers provide would follow the child, approximately $10,746 per student, to the public school of the parents' choice.
To attract families, and the funding they bring, school officials would engage in healthy competition for student enrollment. Satisfying parents would become the central value of every teacher, principal and school district administrator, thus fostering a culture of excellence in public education.
Accountability is built in. Low enrollment would provide an early warning to the school board that the principal of a failing school needs to change direction or be replaced.
Funding for each child should include a dollar multiplier to help disabled children, children with limited English proficiency and poor children. A disabled child, for example, could receive $25,000 to meet his unique education needs. Principals would use these extra dollars to provide services for special needs children.
3. Let teachers teach
Too often central administrators micromanage what happens in the classroom. Teachers are often required to follow a curriculum chosen by administrators, and prevented from using one that works for their students. Centralized mandates stifle the talent of teachers and should be eliminated. Every child's education is hand-crafted. It cannot be mechanized, industrialized or centralized. A child learns when a caring adult speaks to him directly, calls him by name, and conveys knowledge from one mind to another. Teachers should be supported, not undermined, in their efforts to teach.
Summary
The reason Washington Policy Center recommends the principal be put in charge and then be held accountable is because then the principal will have an incentive to hire teachers who can fulfill the educational vision of ensuring that every child learns. With greater authority comes increased responsibility. Principals should know that if they do not give teachers and students effective leadership and support they will be replaced by ones who will.
Allowing parents to choose among public schools is the only effective way to provide principals with the parental involvement they need to create "no excuses" schools; schools where the education of children is placed above every other consideration, including the agendas of adult interest groups.
While the Legislature has provided ample funds -- per-student spending is at record highs -- and a range of programs for schools, it should now transfer key decisions over spending, hiring and classroom instruction from centralized bureaucracies to the local principal. Adopting this policy, not more money, would revolutionize learning and dramatically improve Everett's public schools.

About the author

Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, an independent think tank that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions. For more information, see Washington Policy Center's “Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public School,” at www.washingtonpolicy.org/educationreformplan

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