Here’s My Idea: Education (Part 3)

The issue of Education seems to bring out as much frustration as any issue that we have discussed with the parents and taxpayers of this region.  My feelings on the topic could be summarized in a pretty straightforward fashion:

  1. Local control yields the best outcomes
  2. Synergy by consolidation is a myth
  3. Out funding mechanisms are broken
  4. There are a lot of ways to be smart

Let me elaborate on these points through specific proposals.

Return to Local Control – You would be hard pressed to find a study on educational outcomes that doesn’t come to the conclusion that local commitment and accountability is necessary for a successful school system.  The idea that we send taxes to Washington and Lansing, only for them to return a portion of them (and earmarked on how they should be spent) is a dumbfounding concept.

I would suggest that parents, teachers, local employers, local higher educational institutions and students can figure out what we need to know to make it in today’s economy.  After a brief increase in spending at the Federal level for educational infrastructure, the Federal and State Departments of Education should begin to be scaled back, taking with them failed policies “No Child Left Behind,”  standardized tests like the MEAP and enormous overheads and central staffs.

Smaller schools simply work better.  This isn’t a fact that is specific to school.  Organizational theory indicates that when a population tops 300 members, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep them on mission.  Massive schools or larger school districts will no improve quality.

Synergy is a Myth – When I was in industry, I did a lot of work in the area of Mergers and Acquisitions.  Most of the businesses cases included a good deal of cost savings through “synergy,” or reduction of duplicate costs or economy of scale by simply being bigger.  I have about the same opinion of synergy savings as I do when I hear a late night TV ad say “But wait, there’s more!”  The synergies rarely materialize in execution, either because they were exaggerated or impossible to extract from employees, vendors or stakeholders who experience no benefit by helping to make themselves smaller or obsolete.

I do not believe that consolidation would yield significant savings in education.  In fact, my experience with increased centralization is a decrease in the common sense exhibited by the budget holders.  They become distant from the reality of the frontlines.  Anything can make sense on a spreadsheet.

Cracked Funding Foundations – Michigan is a poster child from broken school funding mechanisms.  We have been sold one plan after another, from the lottery, to sales taxes to changing property taxes and none of them have worked.  In fact, school funding seems to be such a variable for school administrators that it looks like the whole thing was cooked up in the casinos that were supposed to help bridge the funding gap.

The first issue is one of equality.  The separation of capital and operating budget responsibilities means that mechanisms to provide equal funding for faculty and instructional costs are rendered less effective in districts were it is nearly impossible to raise bonds for infrastructure improvements.  Schools should be beacons of hope in our poorest communities, not symbols of our failing system.

Even with no additional money in the system, we must give administrators more lead time on their funding.  Currently, they might not find out their final funding numbers until a school year is well underway.  There is no reason we can’t make these commitments 18 months in advance.

In Michigan, we need to unlink educational funding from the lottery and other games of chance.  We can’t have budget certainty by linking ourselves to such an uncertain enterprise.  Give Education a guaranteed funding slot and give something purely discretionary the connection to vice taxes.

Support for All Educational Needs – As an instructor in a technical training program, I say all the time that there are a lot of ways to be smart.  Some students are gifted in mathematical intelligence; others are really good with a wrench.  Both have value in the new economy.

Over the last 15 years, we have changed our basic approach in education.  With tests like the MEAP as a standard, we have apparently made the decision that we will put all students on a “college prep” track K-12.  Pushed aside are other areas of interest, like vocational training or the arts.  And the result of all of this is that employers say a high school diploma is no longer a sufficient credential for most jobs.

To rekindle our educational systems, and the skilled trades that also support a robust manufacturing sector, we need to return to a system that accommodates the needs of a wider variety of students.  There are no reasons why some students shouldn’t pursue their interests in the trades or the arts as a legitimate path to graduation.  With a couple of years under their belt, perhaps with the help of courses at the local community college or in an apprenticeship, a young graduate might find that they have skills that have value in the marketplace.  All you have to visualize is a 50 year old accountant spending $150 an hour on a 22 year old plumber when his hot water heater blows on Super Bowl Sunday.  Tangible skills have value.  We can do a better job of supporting the students with these natural abilities as a part of their public education.