Friday, February 09, 2007

I love stories like this, LXXXVII

In a column for the Pioneer Press in Minnesota, Jay Haugen, Superintendent of School District 197 (West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan), makes a case for more public school spending:
Public schools support success for every child, but it will take more money

To help understand why public education funding is failing in Minnesota, consider this parable.

An employee is asked to help his boss prepare for an office celebration. He is given a list of things to buy and the money to buy them. He cheerfully sets out to purchase everything on the boss' list. Soon, he realizes there is not enough money. When he tells this to his boss, he is told to try harder. He continues searching for the best prices and even uses experienced shoppers to identify creative ways to get everything on the list. Unfortunately, the items and quantities on the list simply cannot be obtained with the resources supplied.

When the employee reports this, he expects the boss to allocate more re-sources or reduce the number of items on the list. The boss instead calls his efforts into question and labels him "failing." He sends him out with an even longer list of things to buy with the same money.

Our schools do not receive funding adequate to meet what is required of them, but like the boss in the parable, we have decided to label them as failing and to demand more.

Critics of public education say money won't solve the problem: "No matter how much they get, schools always want more." We have no choice but to want more because, for many years now, our state and federal governments have kept adding to our list of mandates without providing the resources to accomplish what they have mandated.

Mr. Haugen has a point. However, I detect the wail of a bureaucrat. Yes, what the public demands of public schools is unreasonable given the amount the public is willing to spend. But doesn't that imply that the concept of public schooling is flawed? The tragedy of the commons and all?

I have to wonder how it is that we continue to hear about some schools (admitedly a small number) that seem to exceed expectations in the most adverse circumstances. What generally happens? The bureaucracy in those districts eventually flows in and muffles the school or the teachers that have made that school a shining light. One interesting example is that of Jaime Escalante's AP calculus course in Los Angeles. The bureaucracy persists while individuals move on.
As in the parable, there are only two real choices: Increase investment or decrease standards. Labeling underfunded schools as failing is not an answer. Hope is a powerful thing, but hoping and wishing are not strategies. A strategy for success starts with a plan to rationally link funding to standards.

There are other routes. School choice (vouchers) and incentives for home schooling are a couple. Another would be to remove the compulsory attendance requirements in most (if not all) state statutes. I've always considered it curious that government exhibits a clear preference for T. H. White's ant colony formulation: Everything not prohibited is compulsory.

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