Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a sustainable education funding policy


This post was submitted as a response to Teachers’ Letters to Obama:

It’s the depths of the Depression, and participants in a dance marathon are pitted against each other in a desperate race for prize money that is eventually revealed to be largely illusional. On realizing the hopelessness of both the contest, and her life, the main character, Gloria, tells her partner, Robert, that she’d be better off dead, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don’t they? – Synopsis of “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”

Americans love competition.  It appeals to our basic natures and intuitively fits in with many of our national myths about equality of opportunity and bootstrapping. But, forcing low-performing schools in our poorest neighborhoods for “fight” each other for money we know they need is wrong. It’s wrong morally. It’s wrong ethically. It’s also bad policy.

We know underperforming schools have not gotten the money they need. ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) in the Bush/NCLB (No Child Left Behind) era was never fully funded.  There are those that will pretend that money is not needed for significant reform, but let’s look at the facts. Successful charter schools get donations, and reform efforts like those in New York City  cost money. It has ever been so that because we all want something for nothing, schools seldom get what they need, let alone what they want.

Money under NCLB was not enough, but was spread around “evenly” through formulas, etc. RttT (Race to the Top) changes a critical part of the old system by forcing states to compete with each other. Given the desperate straits most states are in financially, this has not been pretty. States have rapidly, and with little investigation, adopted new standards (creating “national” standards, something that used to be seen as both politically and legally impossible). They have thrown out teacher tenure, and tied teacher pay to their students’ performance on tests. They’ve subverted existing federal grant programs in a desperate attempt to make themselves more “attractive” to the grant readers. The whole thing has the desperate air of that dance marathon in the depths of the Depression referenced above. Is Delaware really any more in need of extra funding for its schools than Mississippi? Does Rhode Island have a more compelling need than Colorado? How bad will it get? Let me share my story.

As part of RttT, the US Department of Education has expanded and changed the SIG, or School Improvement Grant program. Those funds are critical in states like mine, California, where “local district officials have “signed onto” RttT, by implementing legislation to meet with the grant application requirements, but have not been awarded SIG monies administered by the state.. States can use the SIG funds to help pay for the “reform” of schools designated as “persistently failing” under RttT rules (rules that states have to follow, even if they don’t win the RttT grants). The most famous example of this was Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, which was a single school district, which resulted in all the teachers being “fired” by the superintendent when they couldn’t get an agreement about the reform with the union. The school I have worked at for the last three years, Oak Ridge Elementary, was designated as such this spring. Once you have that designation, the school district can then apply for SIG funds for their Persistently Failing schools (Tier 1) and other schools designated as failing (Tier 2 and Tier 3). My district’s grant was disqualified by the state. LAUSD “lost” because their application included only Tier 1 schools.

So, we now have the prospect of doing a whole school reform at six district schools (3 elementary, 2 middle, and 1 high school) with no additional monies from the state and the feds. The state has not just expectations but requirements for our reform; requirements (like changing curriculum and instructions models, increasing the school day, etc.) that don’t come for free, but they aren’t willing to pay for it. Just like with RttT, the state will “offer” another round of SIG grants next June to apply for. But, you have to wonder why we need to make the case for a reform the state says is not just necessary, but required? This is NOT the place for competition, this is the place for sober planning and execution, and a solid funding-base to carry reforms out.

It’s becoming clearer that there may be among the supporters of this scheme would would like schools like mine to be put out of their misery, and shut down or turned over to charter organizations, but if that is the answer to the question of low-performing, low-income schools, you have to wonder about not just the qualifications but the basic intelligence of the person giving that answer. The feds are holding states hostage, and forcing them to change decades of labor law that aren’t just about “protecting” teachers, but made teaching a profession.  The reforms being proposed have a poor track record of improving student achievement, but do a great job of undermining teachers, disrupting communities, and leaving kids high and dry. It’s time to say “no” to this type of fake reform, and man-up and fully fund public education. It’s the right thing to do.

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