Money Concerns Come First

Have you noticed that every time a legislative body, or a politician, or a think-tank thinker gets around to looking at schools, the emphasis is on money first, and education, if at all, a distant second?

Several state legislatures have been considering bills to consolidate small school districts and schools. The reason: they cost money. If you combine two or three small districts, you need fewer administrators. You might also be able to save some space or avoid some facility duplication. So, let’s consolidate districts and save money, right?

Well, right if money is what concerns you most. But how about education? Every recent study has emphasized the value of smaller learning environments for children. This would take kids who are now in small schools and thrust them into larger ones. Would that be good for education?

How are children helped if bus trips are doubled and tripled to bring them to a single“more efficient” school building? If bus trips are longer, how does that gibe with the concept that every child should get outside and play and exercise for at least an hour a day in order to stay healthy and avoid childhood obesity? So yes, consolidation might save some money, but at the expense of good education.

Speaking of busing, in New York City, on the coldest day of the year, the city school system changed bus routes leaving thousands of students standing in the cold, forcing seven-year-olds to take public transportation, and scheduling others to arrive long after school had started. The disruption to the educational process was significant. The purpose — the district could save $12 million, a drop in the city’s education budget. Money, not education, was what drove the city’s action.

Think Tank

Recently a think-tank thinker, Marguerite Roza of Education Sector, determined that school districts nationwide could save as much as $77 billion annually by changing provisions in teacher contracts.

Ms. Roza cited class size limitations, professional development, paying for teacher education, and the use of teacher aides, among other targets. Small class size has been shown over and over to make it possible for teachers to work more closely with individual students, but many teachers, given small classes, teach in exactly the same way they did with larger classes. That’s where professional development and teacher education come into play. They go hand-in-hand.

Ms. Roza also focuses on“above average health and insurance benefits, retirement benefits, and paid sick and personal days.” There are abuses in these areas, but one of our problems as a nation is that we are not attracting the best and the brightest to work in our classrooms teaching, among other things, advanced science, math, and research skills that are going to be needed if our children are going to compete with children from other nations around the world. School districts can’t offer high salaries. What they can offer is “above average health and insurance benefits, retirement, and paid sick and personal days.” If we truly want to get and keep the best talents in our classrooms, why would we take away the things that attract them?

On the Bright Side

Last month in this column, I wrote about two incidents where locks had been used to solve problems with teen-agers. I suggested there were better ways to solve the problems than locking students in or out.

You may remember the situation in Maplewood, NJ. The library was across the street from a middle school and every afternoon students came streaming across the street to use the library until parents picked them up, often running around, making noise, disrupting, and otherwise acting inappropriately.

Rather than closing the library, which was proposed, township officials, school officials and community leaders came together to seek alternative things for teen-agers to do after school. A once-a-week program at a church was expanded to three days. The school gymnasium and cafeteria were opened for supervised student use the other two days. A nonprofit organization invited students to a recreational and life-skills program, and students were asked to help develop after-school programs in which they would be interested.

In other words, instead of locking middle students out, the community analyzed the situation, identified the problem (nothing for young teens to do after school), opened up the schools and other venues and established attractive programs.

These were politicians, school administrators, and community leaders who didn’t stop to ask first, “what will it cost?” Instead they asked, “How can we solve a problem?” and then they found the money to do the job. They put the children first. What an extraordinary idea.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."