Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Neither Black nor White

Neither Black nor White

There is a big push now to try yet again to integrate schools.  Evidently integration in public schools has been on the decline since the late 1990’s.   School systems are once again trying to re-address the issue.
I am confused.
So, my African-American child gets to sit next to a white kid in school and somehow he gets smarter, learns better and my property values go up.  On the other hand, the otherwise high achieving white kid next to mine starts to fall behind in her learning and her family’s property values go down.  How does this happen?  And as an African-American parent, I am really annoyed that my kid needs to go to school with white kids to get smarter.
Yet research tells us that when schools are racially integrated black kids do better in school.  BUT, as any statistics 101 student will tell you correlation does not equal causation.
What are the independent and dependent variables in this equation?  In the research race has been the independent variable.   But the real question is what are the key factors in what makes a good school.   I refuse to believe that it is simply racial composition.   If that were true, all black schools would be bad and all white schools good and we know that is not true.
Good schools have some common components:
Safe and secure.   Children who go to schools that are safe, both physically and emotionally, are open to learning because they are not putting energy into self-protection.  The first human need is to be safe.  Along with that need goes the need for food. 
Clean and well stocked physical environment.  Good schools are clean.  Walls are free of graffiti, holes and visible patches.   Classrooms have paper, books, writing tools and appropriate technology for all the kids.
Experienced, skilled and caring teachers.  It is not enough for teachers to love the children.  If a person does not love kids, he or she should leave the profession.  Enough said on that point.  But love won’t get you a job or into college.   Teachers need multiple skills to teach kids with different learning styles to read, do math and engage in academic inquiry.  They need experience to get these skills and good in-service training.  Unfortunately, the way the unions have set up the system, once teachers get the experience they need to be good teachers, the union agreement allows folks with seniority to move to other “better” schools.  How are the weaker schools going to get better with only the weaker less experienced teachers.
Support services and Activities.  Counselors, art and music teachers and after school activities all make schools places that kids want to be and to help them find success whatever their interests.

And finally good schools have pushy parents.   The fact is that public schools are ultimately funded, or not, by politicians.  In a democracy politicians respond to getting re-elected.  Pushy parents make demands.  Politicians ignore those demands at their peril.

You will notice that none of the variables of what makes a good school is the race of the students.  What is true is that many schools with mostly minority students lack most, or all, of the above variables.  And perhaps, most importantly they lack pushy parents.   So what to do.
 If school officials really wanted to integrate schools, they would pour the first four ingredients into the mostly minority schools, even if there were no pushy parents.  If they had the stomach for it, they could work to make a level playing field so that with the exception of pushy parents, all schools had a similar level of the first four variables, including experienced teachers.  

I am betting that a well-kept school with good, experienced, caring teachers (and perhaps pushy teachers in the absence of pushy parents) would be every bit as attractive to the parents of minority kids as it is to the parents of currently majority white kids. 

I can tell you one thing.   If my kid, regardless of race, had a school with the traits described above, I wouldn’t care what color the other kids were.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

The City that Cried Wolf

The City that Cried Wolf

It is that time of year again.   Baltimore City Public Schools are whining about not having enough money to fund the schools for the next school year.   As is per usual, they trot out the number of teachers who will be cut from employment, the increase in class sizes and all the special activities that will be cut.   This year the City is short a mere 130 million dollars.  The school system is asking the State to come up with a big chunk of that money.   The per pupil cost to educate a child in Baltimore City Public Schools is already one of the highest in the State at over $15,500 per child, and that is the average cost.  In spite of the investment, outcomes are terrible.
A reasonable question is why the shortfall yet again.   Didn’t anyone see this coming?   There are two primary reasons for the reduction in State funding.  The first reason is that the funding formula from the State is based on real estate taxing base (the primary funding source for schools) and on the number of children enrolled in the system.   Baltimore City has bargained away a large portion of its real estate tax base in order to attract or keep big businesses in the city for the jobs they provide.   So, that action has lowered the real estate tax base for the City.
Secondly, families have been leaving City schools in droves so the number of students attending public schools continues to drop.
There are other reasons the City is in fiscal distress but these are reasons that are not so easily acknowledged or changed.   Baltimore City itself does not contribute the amount of money to its own school system that other districts in the State contribute.  Yet each year the City comes to the State legislature and asks for more money.  This year will probably be no exception and out of a magnitude of guilt, the State will come up with some more money just as it does every year. 
Another reason is the teachers’ salary scale.   The average teacher’s salary in Baltimore City is the highest in the state.  Throwing money at this problem for the last 40 years has not changed anything.
Come this fall, Baltimore City will have terminated very few teachers.  It will have a reserve of a few hundred teachers who do not have assignments but are paid to show up “just in case”.   Bad teachers being paid more money does not improve teaching performance.  Nor do bad teachers improve outcomes for kids.
There needs to come a time when crying wolf needs to stop working.  The City needs to contribute more of its own money AND it needs to stop paying more money to use the same failed approaches that have not worked all these many years. No one denies that the challenges for the City schools are huge.  Then stop doing the same things and expecting different results. Maybe if the State did not come to the rescue this year, the new CEO would have the leverage to do something dramatically different.  Shouldn’t be much worse and at least we could stop the insanity.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Free and Appropriate Choice

Free and Appropriate Choice
As many people know the new U.S. Secretary for Education is not a big fan of public schools and is a huge fan of school choice.  She has never attended a public school of any kind; she just doesn't like them.
Now the issue of whether families of children with disabilities should have vouchers that presumably would allow them to attend the school of their parents’ choice is being debated.
First some background.  At the present time federal funds pay for approximately 16% of the cost of educating children with disabilities.  Back in 1975 when the Education of all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed, the law authorized a federal contribution up to 40%.   The federal contribution has only been appropriated at about 16%.
This is how the system currently works.  The feds dole out the funds based on the number of children in a state who are of school age.  That is ALL children in the state, not just the ones with disabilities.  There is a differential for states with a large number of children in poverty.  Special education is more expensive than general education.  So, it stands to fiscal policy that states with fewer kids identified as having special needs and needing special education will be able to pocket more of the money that is distributed based on the total number of students.  Some states, Texas for one, have capped the percentage of children who can be identified as disabled.  That issue is presently in the courts.
The IDEA money (IDEA is the successor to EHA) works out to about $1,800 per child with disabilities in the various states.
It has been suggested that the feds would provide that amount of money to the states based on a child count of children with disabilities.  In that scenario, states that identified more kids with disabilities would get more money.  BUT, once the child is identified as having a disability and needing special education, the states would need to provide that education.  The cost to do that would greatly exceed the additional $1,800.
From the point-of-view of the new Secretary of Education, families would be given that money to use to buy a program for their child at any place of their choosing.  There are several problems with this approach.  First of all, $1,800 is simply not enough money to buy any program, let alone one that meets the needs of a child with disabilities.  If it were enough, the public schools would be all over it.  So, what you really have is a subsidy to parents who can already afford the private placement.
Another issue is what kind of program will parents buy.  If they buy a plain private school, one that does not offer special programming, they will be giving up their child’s right to due process, an IEP and all the special services provided in the law.  If parents have the funds to buy a private special ed program, $1,800 will barely scratch the surface.
This approach has the potential to be a lose-lose situation.  Public schools will lose the value of the confluence of funds that together can do more than one $1,800 payment. They will lose significant resources.  There is no guarantee that children will be better served.   Many will give up their rights under IDEA.  Other kids who live in rural areas won’t even have a private school option.  Most likely more children with disabilities will be short-changed on the guarantee of a free, appropriate public education.  Who gains in all this?   Wealthy parents who were going to send their kids to a special education private school anyway, will have a coupon (voucher) to reduce the cost.

For the majority of families this is no choice at all.  Under which cup did the street corner barker hide the ball?   Keep focused because the trick is to deflect your attention elsewhere while you are fooled into thinking you are a winner.