More Money in the Classrooms vs. More Accountability in the Classrooms

Right From the Start

Right From the Start

On Monday, the Oregonian reported that Gov. John Kitzhaber had set his priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

“Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber presented “dollars in the classroom” as the great driving force of his 2013 legislative agenda in his  State of the State speech to lawmakers on Monday.” 

The Oregonian quoted from Mr. Kitzhaber’s State of the State:

“It is clear to me that the entire enterprise of public education is underfunded at all levels,” said Kitzhaber, adding that Oregon can’t build a well-trained workforce “without a significant reinvestment of resources into the classroom.”

Mr. Kitzhaber went on at great length about tough choices to be made regarding the funding of schools and, to his credit, leveled criticism at the bloated cost of public employee union benefits – PERS and healthcare. But it was all about money and spending and nothing about performance, accountability or structural failure. At least there was nothing in that regard reported by the Oregonian.

Oregon’s schools are failing. The schools, particularly in the metropolitan areas, continue to decline in test score achievement when compared to other schools in the nation and even more so when compared to school performance in other industrialized nations – particularly those with rapidly expanding economies. There may be the occasional blip in test score achievement but the long-term trend – at least for more than a decade – has been on the decline. And in the meantime spending on public schools continues to increase annually.

Business Insider reported that for 2007 the United States was fourth in per student spending for primary and secondary education in the world – exceeded only by Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway. (This is the latest comparative information available on an international level.) According the latest data available from the United States Census Bureau, the United States spent approximately $10,905 per student while Oregon spent approximately $11,500 per student. There are places where more is spent per student than Oregon and the results are even worse – places like Washington, D.C. which spends the most and achieves the least. There is absolutely no correlation between spending on education and academic achievement.

Be that as it may, Mr. Kitzhaber continues to focus singularly on money. And no one should be surprised. For Democrats it’s always about the money. Failure in government controlled programs is never about incompetence, it’s always about money. “If we would have just spent more money on this or that program we would have had success.” It doesn’t make any difference whether it is a stimulus package, the War on Poverty, MedicAid, public schools, or a host of other government programs at the state or national level. The answer is always the same – spend more money. And those who suggest alternatives, including institutional changes and accountability are met with derision and dismissed as “reckless.”

But here is a simple question. How do you improve Oregon’s educational system by paying the existing teachers more money? A couple of sessions ago, when the Democrats were in control of both houses of the legislature, they appropriated a supplemental $650 Million dollars to improve education – hire more teachers, buy new books, etc. The entire amount was absorbed by increased costs to fund the gold-plated PERS system for the existing teachers and support staff. But it was the same teachers, the same administrators, and the same system that produced the same declining performance just at a significantly greater cost. Spending more money on a broken system simply results in a more expensive broken system.

On the same day that Mr. Kitzhaber was giving his State of the State speech, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona was doing likewise with the Arizona legislature. During the course of her speech, Ms. Brewer stated:

“Together, let’s stop simply funding the system we have and start funding the student achievement we want.”

I have no idea what specific proposals Ms. Brewer intends to propose but the focus, if followed, is a significant departure from what is being pursued by Mr. Kitzhaber. So let me provide both Mr. Kitzhaber and Ms. Brewer a list of things that will significantly change the “system we have” and set both states on the road towards establishing the “student achievement we want.”

Choice. This simply means that educational dollars follow the student not the school. It is a form of competition – much like the private marketplace – that forces schools to perform in order to attract funding. It is not a new concept. It has worked where it has been tried. But it is one that the teachers’unions and the Democrats resist categorically because it removes their monopolistic control of the educational institutions. Here, Ms. Brewer may have a leg up on Mr. Kitzhaber because Arizona has a unique tax credit system which allows taxpayers a tax credit up to $2000 annually for donations made to qualified educational institutions – public or private. It doesn’t fully realize the concept of school choice but it puts Arizona way ahead of Oregon on that path.

Accountability. No organization large or small will be productive without accountability and only in government will such organizations survive without accountability. In this instance, accountability requires:

    • Elimination of tenure so that poor performing teachers can be removed.
    • Merit pay that ensures those who work harder and perform better are paid commensurate with their efforts.
    • Performance reviews including parent/student evaluations.
    • Elimination of payment to teachers who spend their workday pursuing union activities – they are not teaching and the students are not benefiting from their work.
    • Elimination of “step increases” which rewards teachers for longevity instead of performance.

Curriculum Reform. While it may gladden the hearts of America’s left that every student is prepared to enter college, it is both foolish and myopic and an exercise in noblesse oblige induction. First, if that is a legitimate goal, the public school system is failing in monumental terms because not only are all students not going to college, somewhere over twenty-five percent of students starting high school do not finish.  Second, we are not all created equal. Some are smarter than others, some are better athletes than others, and some are mechanically more proficient than others. The idea that one size fits all, one academic plan is appropriate for all, or that one goal (college) is right for all reeks more of social engineering that regard for the children. In Oregon, over twenty-five percent of the students who start high school fail to graduate. And even those who do graduate do not necessarily go to or graduate from college. The “one size fits all” of the public education lobby (read teachers’ unions) deprives many of the students the opportunity to purse vocational training that will equip them to enter the workplace upon graduation. The “one size fits all” philosophy also deprives those who are academically gifted the opportunity to excel because the curriculum has been dumbed down to the point that “all” can achieve – even though they don’t. (Fortunately some schools have teamed with colleges and community colleges to offer advanced classes for those who are academically gifted so as to not permanently dampen their enthusiasm for learning.)

Individually and collectively these are goals worth pursuing. By their very nature they will contribute to an improved educational system and product. But don’t hold your breath that any of these will occur in Oregon. The educational system in Oregon is run by the teachers’ unions and their near endless supply of campaign contributions. The teachers unions, with the assistance of SEIU, fund and elect Democrats and the Democrats ensure that the status quo remains and that the unions remain in control of the education system. The result is just as you have seen, and the results will continue just as they have. Oregonians will continue to spend more money for a declining educational system.