Will We Still Do Right By Kids When The Money Runs Out?

Over the last couple of decades we have seen a parade of federal education reforms—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Every Student Succeeds Act, among others—followed by a circuitous parade of state laws and regulations tackling everything from curriculum enhancements to standardized testing to teacher training. Most have jiggled various combinations of carrot-and-stick approaches to doling out stupendous amounts of cash to drive reform efforts.

Unfortunately, it will be increasingly difficult for federal and state governments to use financial inducements to obtain “buy-in” from school districts because the dollars will simply not be there, and the disappearance of money from the school reform equation is responsible for at least some of the recent fervent pushback from educators and parents regarding the testing mandates associated with the Common Core standards.

It is a lot easier to convince people to be responsible and accountable when you’re handing them a wad of cash.

Therefore, it might be worth asking a simple question: Will cheap “bottom-up” reforms be the drivers of improvements in our public schools during the decade ahead—or will cuts to funding mean we will slide backwards and continue to leave the majority of our high school graduates unprepared for college and careers?

Let’s face facts: Unless a bundle of cash is dropped on the table, much of what is decided in Washington or a distant state capitol is petty irritation that means little when it reaches a local school system scratching to replace the bleachers in the gym, find reasonably competent teachers to plunk in front of a classroom, or keep an accurate count of the scotch-taped paperback copies of “Romeo and Juliet” in the book room.

Mandates for teacher training and standardized testing or an extra immunization for admission to kindergarten become just another onerous burden on a long list to check off. When the list is done, or close to done, it starts anew in August—with a few new items to puzzle over—when the next school year arrives.

It is perhaps time to ask whether all this “top-down” effort to improve our schools is sustainable in a tightening budget environment—and whether we might have more success with “bottom-up” initiatives that empower students and parents by simply changing daily school culture and practices.

Watching the recent one-day teacher strike in Chicago, which was primarily driven by a variety of budgetary crises both old and new, it is not difficult to envision a future when we are consumed by arguments about money—and our children’s needs are pushed aside by the imperatives of accounting.

The local politics of education—and public education is nothing if not deeply political—are unfortunately the greatest impediments to bottom-up reforms. The educational mission of our neighborhood public schools is now often tangential to doling out patronage and paychecks in the form of jobs and contracts that may be important to the local economy but have little to do with whether Johnny can read and Janie can write.

Every day our public schools are keeping local building contractors employed, providing health insurance, paying retirement benefits, taking bids for cleaning services, servicing school buses, spending on athletic equipment, and purchasing copier paper; the battle for these dollars is, to be brutally honest, more important to most in a local community than whether the scores on this year’s round of fourth-grade reading tests ticked up 1.2 percent.

However, we need to start to think now about high-impact, low-cost initiatives that focus on educational quality and accountability. Some of these might involve changes to federal and state laws, and some of these might involve changes in our public school leadership and hierarchy.

If we fail to plan now for the day the dollars start to run out, we will see all the hard and difficult work of the last few decades go by the wayside as everyone retreats to protect their little bit of turf and influence.

I believe that all of us who care passionately about the importance of school reform need to work together on a dialogue that will move us into the next round of reform—one where sense and not dollars makes all the difference.

Also published on Education Post (educationpost.org) April 11, 2016

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