The Center for Public School Renewal

Two worthy additions to our recommended readings appeared in 2006.

"The Agony of American Education: How per-student funding can revolutionize schools," by Lisa Snell in Reason Magazine (April, 2006)

Fund The Child: Tackling Inequity and Antiquity in School Finance, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (June, 2006)

The Snell article relates a story of change and improvement in the San Francisco, California school district. The main changes are (1) the introduction of weighted student funding that follows the student to the school, (2) site-based budgeting that allows the school to determine how to spend that money, and (3) a "true open enrollment student assignment system" that gives parents the right to choose their school. Ms. Snell describes a number of positive improvements that result from this devolution of decision-making authority to individual schools – described broadly as "decentralization."

She notes that decentralization has spread to several large urban districts in the U.S. and identifies some differences in specific applications. For example, she says that Oakland, California has taken decentralization further than any other U.S. district by charging schools for the actual cost of employees rather than using average teacher salaries (which usually disguises funding inequities between schools in a district). Also mentioned is the Edmonton, Alberta, Canada district – where the combination of weighted student funding, school-level control of finances, and parental choice seems to have started – and William Ouchi, the UCLA management researcher who has (to our knowledge) done the most to promote the virtues of this particular kind of decentralization.

Ms. Snell's most interesting remarks come at the end of her article. In a section called "The Constraints of Public School Choice" she says that "public school choice is at best a weak substitute for true school choice" where excessive regulations don't exist and direct financing to parents through vouchers or other means empowers parents. While, on another occasion, we might engage in a friendly debate with Ms. Snell over some of her views on "true school choice," we can only compliment her subsequent view that

"... the better alternative [i.e., true school choice] is not always the politically feasible alternative. School decentralization offers a compelling model for restructuring school financing, giving principals and parents true control over their schools, and offering real school choice to all students within the constraints of a public school system. It also gets parents used to the idea that schools need not be linked to real estate. And it demonstrates that even within a limited pseudo-market, when families become consumers of education services with the right of exit, schools quickly improve to attract them."

Here at CPSR we welcome views that move the "school-improvement-via-school-choice" debate toward the political center, where responsible individuals on the right and left can engage in rational debate about how to provide the best education for the children in this country. It may not be as much fun as "doing the dozens" on our political adversaries, but it can lead to changes that will benefit all children, regardless of social class, ethnicity, or race.

* * *

Similarly, the Fordham proposal, Fund The Child, stakes out a moderate position in the "school-improvement-via-school-choice" controversy. In a recent Education Week report on the proposal (7/12/06) Chester E. Finn Jr, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute says "This is something that appeals to both the reasonable left and the reasonable right."

We would go further and say that the Fordham proposal is a clear effort on the part of the right-of-center Fordham Institute to generate arguments that will appeal primarily to those individuals on the left side of the political spectrum who want to preserve public schools, and who can acknowledge the truth that much improvement is needed. Forty years ago, leftists were outraged at the findings of the Coleman Report showing the impact of social class on school achievement. Today, those remaining elder reform warriors and their younger philosophical heirs need to take a good, hard, fair-minded look at the Fordham proposal.

CPSR sees Fordham's recommendation to create school-level budgets and give the people working in public schools the authority to spend those budgets as the way to implement the Center's third freedom – the freedom of teachers to teach. We applaud the Fordham Institute for making this proposal, as well as for their continuing support of parental choice and transparent accountability. Taken together, these three recommendations represent the trifecta for school improvement.

If Fordham's view of decentralization spreads, the likely result will be to strengthen public schools. With meaningful public school decentralization – where schools have authority to spend 95% of their budget as they see fit – public school educators will have no reason to fear competition with charter schools, and for that matter, no reason to fear accountability systems like NCLB.

Overall, we see decentralization of public education as the key to empowering public schools to provide – given the meeting of certain accountability safeguards – the kind of education that will satisfy parents and most other citizens who pay the taxes that support public education.

We have an additional perspective on Fund the Child here. [Click here for PDF version ]


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