May 16, 2011

The Labor Model Must Change with the Education Model

Justin Katz

Both sides in the debate over educational reform at Hope High School in Providence have made reasonable points. Those associated with the school note improved scores and a vitalized environment when reforms were under way. Those associated with the district cite the need to educate all of Providence's students and a need for consistency across the city. One suspects, though, that the final sticking point was money:

... Supt. Tom Brady persuaded the state Department of Education that the Hope academic model was too costly to maintain. While acknowledging that the school had made dramatic gains, he said that the reforms called for an additional 20 to 30 teachers at a cost of approximately $2.5 million annually — an expense he said the district could no longer afford.

Although governing bodies in Rhode Island have long behaved as if it were not true, the tax base is simply not a bottomless well. Even if a particular reform can be proven to improve results dramatically, the cost is not a negligible factor.

And that, to me, illustrates an underlying problem in the way we handle the education system. Insiders like to pretend otherwise, but there's no point of separation between the education model and the labor model, and the latter allows very little room for maneuvering. Even if the employees of Hope decided that the better work environment and the chance to be part of something revolutionary justified financial sacrifice, they could not have offered it, because labor contracts are district-wide documents negotiated through a statewide union that has its eye on trends and power all the way up to the national level.

If the faculty and staff who so believed in the steps that Hope had been taking had offered to meet former Supt. Brady halfway on the increased total cost, perhaps he'd have gone for it. Those employees would have certainly been doubly invested in making the changes pay off

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The thing that's so striking about public education is that it's a very popular government program, and yet at the same time it gets such pitiful results at astronomical costs. This indicates mass ignorance of the underlying problems, nevermind potential solutions, making this a particularly difficult area of public policy. All well-established economic principles indicate that education is one of the worst areas for a universal government system - lots of soft factors, highly individualized needs and experiences, and the difficulty of any kind of meaningful assessment or accountability. In contrast, those are the areas in which the free market really excels because individual actors can make those kinds of personalized assessments on the ground level based on their own needs. Not that I'm advocating for these concepts, but there should be universal clothing, food, and internet run by government before government even thinks about getting involved in education, with the possible exception of a voucher system for the poorest students a la food stamps. The private education model has been a phenomenal success in this country - evidenced by the fact that even poorer families are willing to sacrifice and spend thousands and thousands of dollars on top of their taxes for everyone else's kids to send their own children to private schools. The transition would be relatively painless, evidenced by the lines wrapping around the block three times every time a pseudo-private charter school opens its doors.

Posted by: Dan at May 16, 2011 9:26 AM
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