Shock Therapy, Done Right: Emergency Measures for Reforming Public Education

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As everyone knows by now, Duval County Public Schools is facing massive budget shortfalls heading into the epochal 2011-2012 school year. With Governor Rick Scott handing down between $48-$62 million in funding cuts, and an unavoidable $32 million in fixed cost increases, minus a paltry $5 million in reserves applied against it, DCPS is expecting a budget gap next year ranging from $75-$89 million on a budget that ran to nearly $1.8 billion this year, and they have no ideas.

Well, there are ideas, but no good ones. We’re getting mostly more of the same dangerous bullshit we’ve been hearing from Tallahassee and Washington for years now, the kind of “hard choices” and “painful” cuts that just end up undermining our ability to actually generate revenue, necessitating still-worse cuts down the road. The staggering array of possible cuts across the board looks almost satirical, like some sick Swiftian immodest proposal hatched in the deepest, darkest recesses of some hardcore libertarian think-tank and then swiftly tabled, the author forever silenced with a fellowship. Unfortunately, policymakers are not joking at all, and people around this city are angry. But all is not lost. None of these draconian cuts have been executed yet, so there still remain some weeks or months to hold them off. The shortfall will not go away, and there will be more in the years just ahead.

As in other areas of the public sector, changing times necessitate fresh thinking, and that just happens to be my specialty. Having issued more than my share of really good ideas in countless columns and commentaries over the past decade of writing about our school system, I can say pretty reliably that had even some of those ideas actually been implemented, our public education system be in much better shape right now. But that’s all water under the bridge, and the bridge is now on fire.

Of course, nominal “realists” in the media will assert that such cuts just have to be done to service government debt, while omitting the fundamentally fraudulent nature of that debt, a majority of which could possibly be done away with by the stroke of a Presidential pen. The large amounts of ridiculous debt driven up by the political leadership in Washington over the last 20 years, through unfunded liabilities and the long-term consequences of deregulatory zeal run amok, has become like a lead weight dragging down the dreams of generations. We should not sacrifice the future to service the ghosts of bad deals from bygone times.

This is being written with an eye specifically on the situation in Duval County, which is one of the larger school districts in Florida. But the fundamentals apply about equally to all 67 counties, at least as far as the research indicates. Obviously, issues of geography, topography and demography all factor into devising workable concepts to move our education system forward. One thing we can all agree on is that the massive and pervasive influence of Tallahassee and Washington, DC is of no particular use to anyone but the contractors affiliated with lawmakers, and that the tax dollars citizens have plowed into this system were by and large wasted. Regardless of the financial situation faced in Duval County and elsewhere, the current model just doesn’t work, and it needs massive revision straightaway. This is an easy start.

1.) Don’t touch art and music funding: Of course, there are always ways to utilize these precious funds more effectively, if we’re willing to think outside the box. For example, allowing local artists and musicians to volunteer their skills to supplement the actual teachers, creating more opportunities for the children to have access to skills that can generate millions in the long-term for themselves and the city. Perhaps there are ways to partner further with UNF, JU and FSCJ. Education is one area in which the private sector has to step up, and the arts are an obvious place to start.

2.) Don’t touch athletics funding: There’s no way to know how much money our amateur athletics programs have generated for the region, but anyone who argues that its role falls short of indispensable is peddling snake oil. We probably make a couple million a year just from various people who come through to scout talent, and millions more from what locals kick back into the community after finding success in their own fields. We’ve surely made millions just off selling Tebow-related stuff, not to mention ancillary buzz from Google hits and such, and he hasn’t played regular ball in this city in over five years. And what kind of dollar-figure can you really put on the investment made in a man like Rashean Mathis? The cuts being proposed will adversely affect out ability to do that kind of business.

Northeast Florida must remain a major feeder system for NCAA Division I and II-A programs in countless athletic fields, including our own outstanding state university system. It should remain a key draw for new families, and an outlet for dispersing the often misspent energies of youth. Canceling sports means more crime—young men will fall directly into the hands of criminal syndicates of all types that are already recruiting kids up and down this state.

3.) Disengage from the FCAT model: The FCAT doesn’t work; it’s just another standardized test boondoggle that wastes valuable teaching time and taxpayer dollars with no appreciable benefit. It may also constitute another unfunded mandate, which is reason enough to dump it. The only standardized test that really matters is the SAT, because it’s the only one (if any) college recruiters care about.

4.) Cancel all textbook contracts; rebuild the curriculum from within the private sector: According to the DCPS budget summary for 2010-2011, $54.8 million was spent on “Instruction & Curriculum Services; another $14.5 million is spent on “Instructional Media Services”. What are the taxpayers actually getting from that? Not enough. For years, the county’s paid excessive sums for substandard books and teaching materials, when any teacher or administrator can just make a list of books available commercially, in consultation with their colleagues, buy the stuff in bulk and have them all shipped to the school for a fraction of the price.

As with the failed FCAT situation, a lot of it is about the calcified thinking of boomer pedagogues and their too-cozy collaborations with colleagues in those industries. It’s the same kind of collusion we see in almost every aspect of our political system, and the results are almost always the same. The specifics of our local system exist within a larger organizational structure that has already regressed aggressively, and the graduation rates, test scores and college placement figures speak for themselves, nationwide. This city is lucky because it still has the tools it needs to move forward.

5.) End forced busing once and for all: The 2010-2011 budget summary includes nearly $52 million for “Pupil Transportation Services”. If some schools weren’t better than others, busing would be unnecessary. Children are not totems of social policy. The free market has led to great racial diversity in many neighborhoods that were once more, but a widening of the achievement gap between extremes of student performance, so the integrationist value of busing has also been rendered moot. It’s really a competitive disadvantage for the kids who get up earlier and spend hours each week riding to school to compete against peers who walked there, and almost all of them would avoid it if that were possible. It should be. The central problem is improving performance in inner-city schools, but that is the central problem of the whole system. If we can raise GPAs and college placement stats, we’ll know our money is being better-spent.

There’s usually no special reason to attend a school all that far outside your area until you reach the middle-school level and above, and there’s absolutely no reason for children to be riding in school buses without seat belts and safer designs in the year 2011. It’s a stop-gap for government’s inability to standardize what works, as opposed to what doesn’t—the political equivalent of a comb-over. Academics and politicians often invoke issues of race or poverty in a way that implies that some places just have to suck.

 The Magnet school model works, and kids who want to attend specific schools will have options, like public transportation, private services and in-house operations. Some schools may choose to own and run its own fleet, and government is always there to help. DCPS has low debt, many excellent schools and tremendous upside.

It would represent a major investment in public transportation and provide an opportunity to evolve the market itself by using smaller, faster, greener vehicles like trolleys and shuttle-buses that would surely be useful for all kinds of things. Bonus: some of the money saved on bus contracts can be put back into the schools, and it immediately increases business and customers for JTA. In fact, their expertise is crucial.

Reorganize bus schedules to accommodate the needs of students, and issue each student a free all-year bus pass so they can ride free anytime, anywhere. We’ll need more bus stops, and a serious emphasis on safety at the Rosa Parks station and on the buses themselves; the drivers will have to be extra-alert, in ways a school bus driver wouldn’t have to. (Although, the way the JSO budget is going, it might be worth considering putting a cop on every bus, for safety’s sake, and also to save on cars.) In any event, parents, teachers and students will ride public transportation together, just like in every major city inAmerica.

6.) Keep merit pay, but encourage individualism in teachers: Teachers should be paid well, consistently with other public servants, and some respect should be given to seniority and a record of good performance. Merit pay is often touted as an alternative to treating the teachers as well as they should. It should be used, instead, to supplement the pay of teachers who are doing extra-well. It’s one thing to pay a teacher whose students are performing well, by whatever standard, but how does one recognize a teacher who can stimulate rapid growth and development in traditionally underperforming kids? That is something well-worth a cash reward. Now, the converse is that in so raising the stakes for teachers, we are asking more of them, and they need the freedom to execute their own vision in the classroom. Again, this is why the curriculum needs scrapping and the standardized tests need shredding, immediately.

7.) Embrace vouchers, but apply sparingly: Schools that fail need to be fixed or shut down, and kids should not be forced to attend underperforming schools. Public schools, like their private-sector counterparts, should have to compete for the high-performing teachers and students that will increase their own bottom line, and those with talents to offer should be able to get the best possible deal. The voucher concept should be re-imagined, with an eye toward the changing needs of the kids regarding not only the rising cost of higher education, but their own financial needs. (And those of you considering a ludicrous “pay to play” model for amateur sports, be prepared to abandon all pretense of morals and ethics as those sports become even more mercenary.)

8.) Pension reform: Public-sector employees around the country are being awakened en masse to the shocking reality that their long-term future is now tied into a system that is largely fictitious. The free market has rendered its judgment on the current methods of securing the financial security of working families in all fields, and the next generation of leaders has no choice but to devise alternative methods that work. The fact that Florida has no state income tax remains a huge draw for the high-value relocation dollars that will drive growth in the years ahead—and that includes teachers, and parents of big-time athletes, artists and musicians. Competing for these people will remain a major challenge for the region over the next decade-plus, because we can’t grow the tax base without more growth in population.

This is one area where Washington can actually lead the way: President Obama should exempt all teachers from taxation on income earned at work. Younger workers should be allowed to opt out of the system entirely and take their chances; the average worker is just as smart as the average stockbroker, or at least a bit less corrupt. And while Obamacare has its merits, adults should be free to opt out of that, as well. Some people (especially single men) might take their health-care money and put it into personal savings. Most people will remain in the system, while others will save that money and hopefully find ways to flip it in socially-beneficial ways.

9.) Cash payouts to high-performing students: Raising the level of performance in our K-12 system, especially our high schools, is critical to stabilizing the school system’s finances. Again, art, music and athletics are crucial to projecting an image of success that will appeal to the families looking to move here in the next decade—many of whom will be teachers, themselves. When high-school athletes sign with big-name programs, it’s all over the news, and rightly so, but similar attention should be paid to academics. In a kid’s mind, perception is reality, and a big reason students underperform is because they are weighed down by the negative perceptions of the adults around them. It’s not a handout, any more than a tax cut would be; it’s their money, too.

10.) Increase opt-out options for students: In a nutshell, mechanisms need to be worked out wherein a student of exceptional intelligence, capability or mere work ethic can get themselves out of the public school system as soon as they’re able to. If we can raise the level of education to where kids are actually learning as fast as they’re capable of, they can graduate sooner, start college sooner, and we save money. There’s no reason a smart kid can be out of high-school when they’re 16. Besides, with the collapse of the American family proceeding apace, legal emancipation of minors is the wave of the future. One more area in which Florida can lead.

11.) Refuse to send property tax revenues up to Tallahassee: The nuclear option, yes, but nukes were built for a reason, and if there was ever a time to force the issue, it’s now. The tax money kicked up from Florida’s 67 counties would, if retained, meet the needs for public safety and vital infrastructure such as education, but somehow by the time they’re done skimming off the top—and the bottom, and the sides—there’s barely enough to pay our teachers non-competitive wages and give the city’s children an education that is more than a joke within a national system that is itself a catastrophic failure. These cuts, if pushed through, will rightfully destroy what little respect and value today’s youth still have in a system that has never done right by them.

12.) Mass resignation or recall of the School Board, the Superintendant and the State Secretary of Education, etc.: If we are now facing the bitter reality that government must impose such brutal austerity measures on our youngest, most innocent and defenseless citizens, the ones who have no recourse whatsoever and whose fates will ultimately be our own, then the so-called “leaders” whose failed policies brought us to this point should just fall on their swords and walk away. And when they’re gone, they should not be replaced; retain the staffers, but disperse the board’s duties to the relevant council-folk; that may even inspire among the teacher’s union an interest in council races that clearly did not exist this year. This, also, will save a lot of money.

13.) Every school in the county should have a system by which anonymous tips can be forwarded directly to the principal and the authorities, if need be, will full digital media applications: This is crucial for cracking down on the serious epidemic of bullying, harassment and stalking that has been exacerbated as a side-effect of social media. It also can help find kids in abusive homes or relationships, who have drug or alcohol problems, who may be suicidal or are in some other form of trouble but can’t or won’t talk about it. Such a service, perhaps, could be run as an offshoot of the also-threatened Crimestoppers program. These techniques will cost almost nothing, but save potentially millions in the long-run. Further, JSO should use their community service officers more like PR flacks, besides the obvious public safety function, and try a bit harder to counter young people’s almost instinctive of all forms of public authority, especially the police. Hell, the cops are getting jacked around by the politicians just like these kids are!

14.) Politicians mentoring members of student governments: The kids themselves must be empowered to express their own views on these matters, and be instructed in how to act affirmatively toward their own goals. The Boys State model is very effective (heck, I was part of it, so there you go), and should be duplicated on local levels. City Council members and School Board members should reach out to high schools in their zone of influence and recruit kids to shadow them in some functions of the job, while soliciting their input on the schools. The Mayor should host a meeting of student-body presidents and vice-presidents from all the high schools every semester, no adults allowed; council members can do this more regularly within their districts. And the kids should feel obliged to stage walk-outs as they see fit, which will probably be often.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 11, 2011

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