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Fix schools with ideas, not money

President Obama is apparently about to tell the nation he wants to freeze federal spending for three years in several areas, including education. I like the idea. I would also support cutting back entitlement payments for financially secure geezers like me, and find ways for everyone to make some sacrifices for our country.

I can hear the objections. We can't fix our economy by shortchanging our kids. They are our future. True, but we don't have much evidence that spending more money on their schooling has had much effect on what they have learned. The most exciting and productive schools I have studied are driven by ideas, not bucks. If they need money for special projects, they find it. But the power of their teaching comes from the freedom they are allowed to help with their students, as a team, in ways that make the most sense to them.

More money often prevents that from happening. It has strings that force teachers to do stuff, and spend time on paperwork, that doesn't work for them. The recent history of the stimulus funds used for education makes this clear.

Here is my must-read article of the month: "Toothless Reform?" by Andy Smarick, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, writing for the journal Education Next.

Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from that piece, describing how the states promised to follow the Obama administration's desire that the money be used to not just save jobs, but make schools better, and why that didn't happen:

"Yes, governors signed the ARRA’s [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] reform assurances but states didn’t use SFSF [State Fiscal Stabilization Fund] dollars for reform. Yes, states developed standards and assessments as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required, but many adopted weak standards and set low cut scores. Yes, districts developed policies for NCLB public school choice and supplemental education services, but they cleverly thwarted the full implementation of these programs, evidenced by the shockingly low student participation rates. As others have noted, the federal government can make states and districts do what they don’t want to, but it can’t make them do it well."

With that federal education fund flow running drive, what can we do to help educators be creative with less money? We could allow more charter schools. In fact, Smarick sets up a perfect test of the Obama administration's courage in handing out its Race to the Top money, supposed to make schools more creative. Tennessee lifted its cap on charters, as the administration asked, but in two days two of its cities denied all 24 charter applications before them. Will Tennessee still get the big bucks? Stay tuned.

Local districts could give principals more power over what their schools spend their limited dollars on. The unions could pursue good ideas like Randi Weingarten's fund for reform measures. What ideas do you have? There are lots of things we can do with just a little money, and for the forseeable future, that is all we are likely to get.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 27, 2010; 5:03 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Obama state of the union, federal education spending, giving principals budgeting power, opening more charter schools, school reform, spending freeze  
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Local districts could give principals more power over what their schools spend their limited dollars on?

Jay, there are already school "districts" that do exactly that.

Matter of fact these school districts let the principal decide how to spend *all* the funds and don't interfere at all in the day to day running of the school. Those "districts" are called charter schools and you'll notice that, by and large, they get along just fine without the benefit of all those legions of district employees.

The great airplane designer, Burt Rutan, once said "to improve performance add lightness". It's a point of view that could easily apply to the public education system.

Posted by: allenm1 | January 27, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Ideas - Creativity can solve a lot of things; I had a life-long career in the creativity business and often made do with less. However, there are several areas in teaching you really don't want to cut back on, and some that still need more bucks.

My basic list:

1. classes with young children and
special needs: no amount of big
ideas substitute for the huge amount
of attention these students need.
I think classes of K-3 and those
with special needs should have
no more than 8-10 students AND have
a teacher assistant. Education
would be able to really deliver the
diagnostics, services, communicate
with families, give the warmth and
understanding that every young human
being needs to feel secure,cared for
and open to instruction.

2. You want creative ideas? Get your
ARTS teachers on staff; they offer
all kinds of alternative thinking
styles, love to collaborate, are
used to skinny budgets, and most
important, they will bring joy and
enthusiasm to students so that they
will want to stay in school.

3. Provide staff retreats so that
people can put their heads together
meaningfully in a pleasant environ-
ment, build collegiality,and retain
their enthusiasm for teaching so
that they can come up with the big

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 27, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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