MONEY CONTROLS EDUCATION
There are some fundamental problems with the current education system. The biggest is that over 75% of urban educators (including principals, social workers, teachers, etc.) live in the suburbs and not in the communities in which they teach. Nearly 75% of the leadership of these schools live in the suburbs and their children attend suburban schools. This is significant when you review academic performance and financial stability. If over 65% of the professional staff live in the district in which they work, and their kids attend that district, you have a successful district, financially and academically. If less than 20% of the staff live, work, and send their kids to the same district, you have a failing district, financially and academically.
It’s also having an impact on the political landscape. If you look at the important cities in the Midwest (such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Philadelphia), where Hillary Clinton underperformed compared to Obama, they are heavy chartered. Why would the Democratic Party believe that poor families want to attend school districts where the staff will not bring their own children or grandchildren. It’s important to understand the new dynamics in education, that not only are their professional staff taking the financial resources out of the urban area, but they have also gutted the extracurricular activities of the District in favor of maintaining staff salaries. These staff members don’t live in the district where they work and can’t even vote for the elected officials who consistently pick salary maintenance over programs for the families they are elected to represent. These elected officials, most times, are minorities themselves who vote on these misguided budgets. They have defunded middle school athletics to the point where urban high schools don’t have a feeder system. This makes them uncompetitive with the suburban schools where the professional staff take their children and grandchildren.
It is important to review the financial situation that most mid-western states, specifically Michigan, are experiencing and have endured over the past ten years. These challenges have lead to the accountant/business manager playing a pivotal role in school districts over this period. One of the clear problems, in districts that are already in tough financial positions, is that being forced into a deficit management position forces districts to close buildings and cut services to save funding. This causes them to lose more revenue because parents choose more stable school districts or newly opened charter schools, thus taking state supported revenue to other districts.
In my experience in education, every Board Member, Superintendent, teacher, parent, and concerned community member attempts to become the self-appointed expert accountant or business manager. At this point I, the accountant, am going to take this chance to become the self -appointed education expert. With all the focus on MONEY within districts, education has become an afterthought. Since money controls education, I have probably heard thousands of educational theories on how to make students, particularly at-risk students, improve their educational performance if “only we spend MORE MONEY.” If I hear one more educator come to ask for money for adults under the guise that “it’s the best for kids”, I will go crazy. These requests are generally not for books, computers, early analytics or other student success evaluation tools, but are typically for more salary benefits and contracts for new & unproven educational experiments– which is a long way from any direct student benefit. The most interesting thing about education at every level is that everybody is an expert on budgets and financial matters, however few people understand and embrace the delivery system and accountability of education. If you ask the simple question such as, “How do you teach children how to read and write?” You’ll get diluted explanations that are difficult to understand. Not only is the answer difficult to understand, the answer changes every six months. The one thing I never seen during numerous reform efforts is at-risk students or the parents at the table discussing what they need to improve their educational performance. I am not talking about the honor-roll student, rather, I am talking about the at-risk students who are dropping out of school and filling prisons and jails at alarming rates.
I believe it’s the tone at the top. Why is it that high levels of staff and/or community attendance within school district meetings tend to center around the Purchase and Finance Committee or Personnel Committee? Given the educational financial situations described above, interest in these areas are understandable. I have been in education since January, 1996. During this time, interest in these areas remained consistent even in good economic times. In contrast, at Curriculum Committee planning meetings – if such a committee even exists or is engaged in a district – there are very few people who care to participate. To take it further, if you take a glance at a school Board meeting the discussion is primarily about the money. I would go as far to estimate that 80% or more of the meeting is the discussion of budgets, contracts, or personnel issues. The “education/instruction” portion of the Board meeting only deals with a few teachers or administrators talking about some upcoming events at one of the schools. There is never anything about how the children are being educated and evaluated, or if education goals are being met. Well let me be fair, there is one dedicated meeting each year where test scores are discussed along with the question of whether the educational process has been successful. I’m sure you can see where I am going with this notion; if you only spend 20% of your decision-making time on the educational process you’ll get the poor educational results that we currently see. This is especially true in urban and isolated rural areas where the students lack the funds and parental support to overcome the lack of attention given to educational planning by the top levels of the educational institution. If you look at the schools’ websites, most of the data for the public to review is finance related. Boards are being required to review the budget on a continued basis generally every month. While educators can come up with thousands of gimmicks or theories on how to improve education, there are never concrete items that address reporting early warning signs for academic successes or failures that are reported to the Board monthly.
Since, I am being a self-appointed education expert, I am going to suggest some items that can be discussed monthly by Boards:
What % of the students are ACTUALLY in attendance at each building?
What % of students turn in homework?
What was the attendance rate of the teachers in each building?
What is the attendance rate of the other staff in each building?
How much time was spent on reading and math?
What % of students bring books to class?
What is the % of below satisfactory grades at each school per grade?
What was the participation of parents at the parent teacher conferences?
School improvement team attendance and meeting minutes.
Status of school improvement goals and objectives
Note that the School Improvement Plan is developed to improve education and drive spending to needed areas of improvement. In my opinion, this is the document that should be discussed and should have a public hearing with all the bells and whistles of a budget hearing.
Now I am just an accountant/business manager, but even I know that if you have a school where the student attendance is less than 65% and the staff attendance is 75%, coupled with parent teacher conference attendance at 50% or less, there is a high probability that that school is not doing well academically. There are basic discussion items that should be tracked and placed on the school’s website, and reviewed by Boards regularly. There are early warning signs that can identify academic performance. Monitoring and responding to these signs will improve test scores and more importantly lead to the basic skills of how to read and write. Remember, the true common similarity among prisoners isn’t their skin color, geographic location, or family status; it’s their literacy rates. Over 80 percent of inmates can’t read or write – that’s the common denominator.
I will not present a problem without identifying a solution. The hardest part of being in finance within the education system is seeing teachers and other staff work their butts off and have their compensation reduced. Teachers need a pay increase – or should I say, good teachers – need a pay increase. I will take it even further; good staff should be compensated more for performance. The education industry has been privatized, so performance should become a measurement of compensation.
There have been a number of reforms pointed at separating the good teachers from the bad. Eliminating ineffective teachers altogether, for the most part, has been a failure because teacher evaluations are subjective. Moreover, most often the person performing the evaluation is the same person that hired the individual. Unionized educators have a tradition of a “one-size fits all” philosophy. Education is one of the only professions where excellent performance isn’t always rewarded. This is because everybody in a class of employee (i.e. teacher, principal, etc.) are paid the same. The performance of teachers is only 50% of the factors that make students successful. The office staff member who schedules classes, the aide who assists in the classroom and the lunchroom, security guards, janitors, and bus drivers all play a vital role in the development of the student and should be able to be compensated for the students’ performance. At my high school, the only staff member that I remember being recognized on social media when they passed away was the security guard. The security guard was one of the MVPs at our school because he would listen to students’ problems and give them solutions. When he passed there was a lot of love.
Therefore, my primary solution is that bonus and compensation increases (and decreases) should be awarded by building—not by class of employee. There should be clear goals for each school to obtain. Those goals are detailed in the School Improvement Plan. Everybody, in the school would participate in raises based on the students’ success. Also, the responsibility/accountability for failure will also be distributed by building, thus no pay increase and even pay losses in those cases. The principal of the school will have bonus opportunities for meeting the school’s goals but could be fired for missing goals in two years in a row. They could also be fired if they miss their goals by 30% or more. In order to even the playing field, if principals are being asked to risk their careers they should be able to pick their own staff. You would think they would be picking family and friends. I believe that when my career is on the line, I going to pick the best available. This will also stop teacher social promotions; too many times good teachers are promoted to administrator, but lack training and skill set to run a building.
Under this proposed talent management system, the bonus and raise pool size would be based on a percentage basis of free and reduced-lunch students in a building. The higher the free and reduce population is, the higher the possible compensation becomes available. It’s the American way: high-risk, high reward. We have tried everything to separate the best and the brightest from the average and poor. We have tried various avenues, however, I don’t know one that drives people toward success like money. Charter school management companies charge up to 16% of state aide in fees and in most cases, have ownership in the buildings and can collect as much as 20% in state school aide in building rental fees. These fees should be based on performance as well. The amount should be limited & based on meeting the standard goals of performance. I don’t believe people care about paying fees to management companies who provide exceptional education to students, however the ones who are getting compensated based solely on fees for services without meeting the state required educational goals of students should feel a financial bite. These reforms are needed because most charter schools are in urban areas where students are falling behind.
Lastly, I am going to answer the biggest question, because we know MONEY CONTROLS EDUCATION: how do we pay for it? Title I and At-Risk funding are already allocated by free and reduced student count and by building. These funds need to be allocated for performance based education. If you want to stop the School to Prison pipeline, then concentrate the funds on literacy. I will leave you with this thought: “How does one get a job if they can’t read the newspaper or on-line job advertisements?”