November 9, 2009

Talkin' Education Blues

Justin Katz

If I were a legislator of the "there oughtta be a law" sort, I think I'd put forward a law dictating that public meetings seeking citizen participation can't start before 6:30 p.m.

I'm at the Education Commissioner's event in Warren (PDF), and in typical non-Rhode Islander fashion, I came to an intersection with no signs in the wilds of Warren and followed the path that all the cars were taking. That was the wrong way.

Not that I hurt the attendance, though, the place is pretty well packed. Commissioner Gist's staff sat me at a small-group discussion table consisting mainly (as far as I can tell) of teachers and school committee members.

6:58 p.m.

The small groups are now sharing their key points with the room. This is all well and good, and I suppose some ideas might come out of it, although I have a hard time believing that the folks at the Department of Education couldn't come up with most of this stuff on their own.

Functionally, what is the purpose of these things? Is it the business/organizer thing... essentially just to keep moving?

7:33 p.m.

Two thoughts:

1. Bristol/Warren people like the idea of regionalization. My response is: great, from district to district, but it should be bottom up, not top down.
2. These forums are, well, dangerous. Everybody's talking about what programs are needed — all day kindergarten, universal pre-K, programs to involve parents, technology — the "then what" is the issue. You can see how the people in this room tend to go out into the communities with the notion just to "get more resources." They're not really addressing the core problem, which is the continual bleeding of limited resources into one component of the school budget: teacher remuneration.

7:52 p.m.

Yay! My table finally brought up the contract requirements.

Of course, the event's just about over, so we're not going to get to move on to why regionalization etc. will hurt that cause.

After thought:

One point that came up among school committee members opposing charter schools was that the charters receive from the district the average student cost, but they don't have to take the children who typically cost the most. To throw some arbitrary numbers out as examples: If a town's average per-student cost is $15,000, it might be that a general ed student only costs $10,000, but a special ed student costs $20,000. If the first student goes to a charter school, he brings that extra $5,000 with him.

It seems to me that this is an argument for shifting school policies to attract the lower-cost students. As I tried to express at the table, there's an underlying demand, among parents, for alternatives to public schools. That's why private schools are so popular, in this state. (And why there's political will to force districts to provide busing and textbooks to students who attend them, which was another complaint of some school committee members at my table.)

Of course, getting administrators and school committee members to begin thinking in terms of the services that they provide as a means of attracting, essentially, customers is just another way of bringing them toward the proper perspective to begin attacking the fundamental problem: the labor unions that force districts into inappropriate models, undermine innovation, and manipulate the political system for reasons other than education.