Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Education Funding Silliness

Former Education Commissioner of Colorado William Maloney published an op-ed in the Denver Post in which he called for a review and change in the way public education is funded. As evidence he argued that parochial schools educate their students for 2/3 the cost of public schools and Asian schools cost about 80% of what American schools do. The following is my response, a shortened version of which was also published in the Post:

While William Maloney correctly asserts that Colorado needs to re-think the way it funds education, his reasoning behind the need for change is fundamentally flawed, and his naïve comparisons to private and foreign systems will produce no practical solutions. Certainly, there has been incredible growth in funding and staff in the past thirty years. Yet that mostly reveals expanded mandates and an increased efficiency in reaching under-served populations that were long neglected.

Mahoney notes that parochial systems operate on 2/3 of public school funding. However, he fails to mention that they do not provide any special education or English to non-native speakers. In fact, they use the public system to meet those needs, and the public schools are mandated to provide the services. Private schools don’t struggle with the same discipline and security needs as public schools, and they don’t require the cost-heavy administration that comes with meeting requirements under NCLB legislation. Additionally, parochial schools aren’t mandated to accept all students regardless of ability. Thus, you won’t find any Catholic schools educating many, or any, autistic children or mentally/physically disabled students. Parochial schools also aren’t required to assign caseworkers and establish specialized education programs for students of special needs. Thus, while Catholic schools are successful with the students they admit, there is much they don’t do.

Additionally, Maloney’s praise for the lower costs in Asia ignores the fact that foreign systems don’t compare to America’s in many areas. They do not have large immigrant populations, and thus do not have to provide any native language instruction. They do not provide special education on the level of the United States, and they are not under mandates to provide fair and equal access to all students. They do not optimistically seek to educate all students for college, and thus a considerable majority of their students are graduating and entering trades or vocational schools by the age of sixteen. Maloney also seems to target PERA pensions as a conflict for funding. Yet, he ignores the high taxes and retirement systems that are prevalent through the foreign systems he praises. Clearly, those systems provide more benefits, national health care among them, not less.

Most education researchers are acutely aware of the flaws of comparing the U.S. to foreign systems, and I would have expected Maloney’s tenure as education commissioner to provide him with a wider and more credible understanding of the problems. Perhaps having such misinformed people in charge is indicative of America’s problems. Yet, Maloney is correct in a need to review funding. Colorado should follow the lead of education reforming states like New Hampshire and Louisiana by allowing students to graduate at sixteen and enter vocational training or associate degree programs. In a state that has large numbers of students successfully completing college-level classes – AP and IB programs – state schools should expand dual credit courses to allow advanced students to begin college early and complete bachelor degrees in less than four years.

Clearly, the system has a considerable degree of cost inefficiency, and the reason is the public’s unrealistic and fragmented understanding of the goals of public education. We need to re-think our obsessive focus on “seat time” and a K-16 system that seeks bachelor degrees for all students regardless of interest or ability. Mandates for individual and specialized education and expensive accountability testing are not going to change. But Colorado can change its preconceived notions of what education means, and that can lead to a more cost-efficient, productive, and high quality system.

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