When children become dollar signs

I am tired of this pretense that competition is a driver of excellence – that if we simply fund choice in education, the competition will generate a better education system for all. The very nature of the word implies that there is going to be a winner and a loser. After all, isn’t the thrill of competition the act of claiming a victory in the end? So how can this be good for education?  Yes, the winners may end up receiving an excellent education. But can we afford to have losers? Shouldn’t we be striving for a system where everyone gets the prize, not just a few at the top?

I know the argument. Supposedly competition drives everyone to get better, but I live in a sports family so I also recognize the reality of competition. Those with the best resources – the best athletes, the best coaches, the best equipment, the best support – win. Sometimes the underdog rallies and overcomes the odds, but always, you have a winner at the top and losers at the bottom.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed a school funding formula that puts a dollar sign on each child. I fear what will happen to our schools and to our children if state legislators accept this proposal. Even before this current formula, competition created problems for our schools and decisions were made that were not in the best interests of our students. For example, in visiting our career tech locals across the state, I hear repeatedly from educators about the problems created by competition between the base school and the career tech school. Because state education dollars are given to the school the student chooses to attend, the base school often discourages student from pursuing the career tech path regardless of the fact that a career tech education might be the best option for that student. By pitting two schools against each other in competition for a child, the child loses. Do you think the needs of the student are the primary driver in this competition? This problem will be exacerbated under the proposed funding model.

I have heard the same concerns from our community colleges that offer post secondary education options (PSEO) classes, but have to compete with high schools to interest their students in these opportunities. PSEO opportunities could expand students’ skills and knowledge and save them some of the cost of higher education by taking college classes for free while in high school. Can we blame a district though for fighting to keep a student if they know that whenever the student leaves, the state cuts the school’s funding?

Charter schools are another source of competition. Charters were originally intended to be the incubation of innovation. The goal was that these schools could help develop best practices that could be shared with other schools and that charters could do it with less money. Ohio’s charter school program has not met these promises. Rather, a lack of accountability has riddled privately operated charters with financial scandal and academic failure. There are a few outstanding charters in Ohio, but for the most part, the only area in which charters outperform traditional schools is in the marketing arena. They know how to sell their schools. As a result, according to a recent Innovation Ohio study entitled “Unfair Funding:  How Charter Schools Win and Traditional Schools Fail” (www.innovationohio.org), more than 90 percent of taxpayer money given to charter schools in 2011-2012 went to those that on average scored significantly lower on the Performance Index than the public schools the students left. More than 40 percent of state funding for charters in 2011-2012 ($326 million) was transferred from traditional public districts that performed better on both the State Report Card and Performance Index. The idea of competition in education is not about sharing. It is about winning. Unfortunately, the competition is not about who can provide the best education, but focused on the how to get the money that is attached to the student.

The proposed funding formula harms our traditional schools even more. According to estimates from the Legislative Service Commission, two of OFT’s largest locals, Cleveland and Toledo, will see a significant drop in their state funding due to money going to privately operated charters. Cleveland’s state funding will drop nearly $5 million and Toledo’s approximately $1.5  million. Our small schools are not immune either. Cleveland Heights’ state funding will drop $127,000, Crooksville’s decrease will be $25,000, New Lexington’s $30,000, Newton Falls’ $24,000, and Jackson Milton’s $18,000 just to name a few of the cuts planned by the governor. 

 Does this competition from charters drive improvement in our traditional schools? Of course not. All it does is drain much-needed resources – your public tax dollars – from students who need more support in Ohio’s public school districts. 

The proposed formula also expands vouchers by allowing students as young as kindergarten, who have never attended a public school, to attend a private school on the taxpayers’ dime. This current expansion of vouchers in Ohio is based solely on income, not on the performance of a school. The public school that child would attend could have earned the highest rating in the state, and his or her parents can still choose to have taxpayers pay for their child to a private school. This voucher is designed to dismantle our neighborhood public schools. Not an ounce of competition in this program. Public schools achieving at the highest level will lose public funding simply because parents can use public dollars to pay for private school tuition. By the way, private schools are not held to accountability standards like our public schools are. The private school may not even be as good as the public school. Is this a choice that is academically best for the student?

One of the biggest problems of all has nothing to do with competition because it is based on the size of the school. In a formula based on population, small schools cannot provide the same opportunities as larger schools. The capacity just is not there. Every student deserves to have the same educational opportunities regardless of where he or she lives. Students attending school in small towns should have access to art, music, Advanced Placement classes, and numerous electives just like their counterparts in larger schools. This is made so much more difficult when funding is based on the number of students. A school simply cannot offer as much. 

We need a funding formula in Ohio that allows every school to be a school that students and parents would be proud to choose.  We need a formula that gives schools the ability to help all children reach their potential.  We need a formula that sees every child as unique individuals with different paths to bright futures not as dollar signs for which to compete. 

When children become dollar signs, we all lose.

 In writing the next chapter on school funding, here is what I would include:

  • A student-focused approach that identifies what every child needs for a well-rounded education and funds to meet those needs. 
  • Recognition that the cost of an education is not the same for all students, so the funding for each student needs to be adequate for ensuring that the student can meet state standards.
  • Weighted funding that puts more emphasis on areas of high importance. For example, in Ohio, we have made it a priority for all students to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade. In order to do this, we need to put more resources into preschool education and K-3 instruction so that we can meet the needs of all children.
  • Elimination of disincentives and creation of incentives for schools to identify and provide the best learning path for each child. This means all schools – public, charter, traditional, career tech, higher ed, etc. – working with each other instead of against each other to make sure the student has the best learning experience possible.
  • An understanding that poverty is a plague that needs to be addressed on it own, as well  as in the context of how it affects student performance. There has to be a more concerted effort toward figuring out how to solve this problem.

  This is part of what I would write in the next chapter. Now we have to work to make it happen.

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