Thursday, January 23, 2003
BY POPULAR DEMAND:
TAKING NEBRASKA'S SCHOOLS PRIVATE: A 10-YEAR PLAN
By Susan Darst Williams
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Nebraska should become the first state in the nation to go back to the original American model of privately provided education.
Over a 10-year period, Nebraska’s K-12 public schools and educational infrastructure should be weaned off federal sources of funding entirely, and state sources in large part, and redirected to local control and funding.
What we now know as public school districts would be transformed into private, nonprofit corporations. They would contract for local property tax dollars as their key source of funding on an enrollment basis, as they do now. But they would in large part be free of two other layers of regulation by the significant reduction of federal and state funding.
It is believed that the system transformation, though massive, could be effected through changes in state law and would not require a change in the Nebraska Constitution.
It is also believed that the reduction or elimination of nonproductive and counterproductive regulations, mandates and bureaucracy would significantly improve conditions leading to academic excellence and significantly reduce spending per pupil across the state.
The purpose is to make Nebraska’s educational system the best in the country by giving schools the structures and strengths of private enterprise while avoiding the political and logistical problems of school-choice voucher systems.
In addition, the plan is geared toward reducing nonessential costs, eliminating a significant amount of regulation and paperwork, and freeing up funding for higher salaries for educational personnel.
State aid to education would be reduced by 10 percent per year until it reaches a level of funding to provide an acceptable level of statewide monitoring and regulatory infrastructure, but no more. It would likely stabilize at about 10 percent of existing levels.
The State Board of Education would be eliminated since there would be no more statewide control of curriculum, instruction or other K-12 educational pursuits.
The State Commissioner of Education would become an elected, rather than an appointed, position, reflecting the nature of the job and the constituency as provided in state law.
Accreditation and teacher certification regulations and processes would be streamlined into pro forma protections that focus on children’s basic safety and statutory academic requirements. The State Education Department’s rules and regulations would be similarly streamlined. This would minimize government interference in, and definitions of, educational goals and objectives, leaving that crucial responsibility to the private sector.
Nebraskans would not be subjected to federal education regulations beyond the general protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. This would be the only way to avoid many of the onerous restrictions and requirements of the federal education legislation, No Child Left Behind, particularly the assured creation of a nationalized curriculum through the legislation’s provisions.
By withdrawing from federal and most state funding, then Nebraska’s controversial statewide learning standards, assessments and regulatory personnel would become moot and would be repealed.
Educators and taxpayers in each district would be free to set their own standards, choose their own methods of measurement of academic quality, and be subject to a sharply-reduced degree of governmental oversight. They would experience a lot less interference with curriculum and instruction, but basic health, safety and statutory compliance mechanisms would remain in place.
K-12 education would remain free of charge as long as the private, nonprofit school continued to accept property taxes, under the state constitution. However, it would be permissible for the school to charge tuition reimbursement for offerings that exceed the statutory minimum requirements in academics.
Local taxes would resume their status as the main funding source, although the private, nonprofit corporations would be free to seek private-sector grants and charge supplementary tuition for those programs and offerings, such as sports and extracurricular activities, that exceed statutory minimums. New and existing children’s scholarship funds could subsidize low-income families whose children wish to participate in those extra activities.
As another example, to make up for the loss of federal subsidies in the school breakfast and lunch programs, schools could charge parents the full price for those meals, and would be free to seek donations and grants to help cover food costs for low-income families that truly need it. Charges could be assessed for sports participation, field trips, debate competitions and all other non-core activities that enhance a student’s educational experience but are not minimal requirements thereto.
Nebraska would end the procedure of “option enrollment” which allows students whose parents live and pay property taxes in one district to “opt in” and attend another district, requiring those property taxpayers to subsidize that student. This system is unfair, un-American and has damaged parental control of schools and unity within the student body. Students who live within the boundaries of a school district should be free to attend any school within that district, but not to attend a school in another district without paying full tuition reimbursement.
Doesn’t that mean that students in low-income districts are “stuck” in substandard schools? No more than they are now. But the privatized system does give those children a better chance at obtaining the educational basics that they need, with the social engineering and political correctness stripped away for lack of federal and state funding. It is hoped that private children’s scholarship funds will continue to grow in donations and influence, making it possible to send more and more students to the truly private schools, such as parochial schools, and if the inner-city schools can’t deliver academically or economically, then they shouldn’t be operating in the first place.
It should not be assumed that the entire K-12 system in Nebraska would be forced to change to the new design. The changeover would be made a matter of local choice. Voters in each Nebraska school district would be given the option to keep their district the way it is or to undertake a 10-year plan of transforming the district into a private, nonprofit corporation. If they vote for the former, then state aid would continue in its present form, only it would be collected solely from the residents of that district. Those residents of districts that have voted to “go private” would no longer be subject to the full degree of statewide taxes bound for educational regulation, but merely a fraction of the former amount of state taxes they used to pay, to be reserved to provide continuing infrastructure monitoring and regulation of all Nebraska schools as needed.
If a district’s residents vote to “go private,” however, then the assets of that district would be transferred from government accounting funds to the newly-formed corporation. Fiduciary responsibility would be vested in the elected school board.
The plan would require a funding structure that would require a continued flow of state dollars to cover existing long-term costs of the districts, including debt service and pension obligations. But beyond that, each private, nonprofit corporation would be funded with equity in the form of existing school lands, buildings and contents to be “gifted” from the public trust.
What’s envisioned is the collateralization of the more than $3.7 billion worth of public-school buildings and contents that Nebraska taxpayers have invested in the schools, as recorded on
Part of the enabling legislation would require a significant increase in public accountability with regard to sources and uses of funds, and educational performance as measured by objective data, which are not now readily obtainable by voters and taxpayers. Each district would be required to be subject to a performance audit each year, with the costs borne by the State Lottery Fund.
Examples for expanded publication of facts and figures to ensure better accountability to the public for expenditures of the public schools: spending per pupil, staff-to-child ratio, ratio of full-time classroom instructors to total staff, administrative spending per pupil, vehicle and computer allocation, the percentage of children who are not reading at grade level, the percentage of dropouts, the percentage of that district’s graduates who have to take remedial courses in college, and the percentage who eventually graduate from college.
Districts could take advantage of economies of scale with buying co-ops, training co-ops, and other consortia. Educational personnel would be free to accept or reject union representation, and school leaders would have significantly more freedom and flexibility to offer employment packages that combine salaries, benefits and working conditions as they see fit.
As far as higher education is concerned, two provisions of the plan would help in the preparation of new teachers: (1) collapse the University of Nebraska’s College of Education into the College of Arts and Sciences and make education a major within that college, but an education degree would no longer be a prerequisite to be hired in any Nebraska school, and (2) require a semester course in teaching reading with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics for any education major.
Three special student groups would especially benefit from the changeover, although it may seem paradoxical that receiving less funding -- no federal or state tax dollars – would actually be beneficial for these groups. They are: low-income children, special education children, and non-English speaking children. Ironically, it would be in the best interest of these student groups to withdraw from federal funding and, because of the incentives within it to perpetuate mediocrity, state funding as well:
-- It has been demonstrated that Title I, the chief governmental aid source for disadvantaged children in our schools, has actually been counterproductive. The achievement gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years largely because federally-funded Title I programs use remedial strategies that have been shown countless times by empirical research not to work. Disadvantaged children need the same academic foundation that all children need: learning to read with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics in a traditional, teacher-directed, orderly classroom in the early grades. By continuing Title I funding in our grade schools, we are perpetuating the whole language, constructivist, chaotic, child-centered system that has obviously failed and has delivered neither academic nor social benefit to any children, and especially has hurt our disadvantaged children, whose homes can’t begin to compensate for the skills they are no longer receiving in schools the way middle- and upper-class homes can. There is nothing wrong with disadvantaged children that the proper methods of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic won’t fix. That doesn’t require extra funding and it doesn’t justify accepting all the strings attached to federal funding.
-- Special education students in Nebraska fall into two camps: the legitimate, medically-diagnosable special-needs child with demonstrable medical conditions such as mental retardation, physical handicaps, or speech and language difficulties. Facilities and programs are already in place in schools to serve their needs, although there is contention over whether these services are adequate. The reason funding for legitimate special education may indeed be inadequate is the explosive growth in the largest special-education category –- “specific learning disability” –- which didn’t even exist a few years ago. The public knows them as Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity, Dyslexia, Behavior Disability, Oppositional Defiance Disability, Conduct Disorder, and so on. These so-called learning disabilities, both cognitive and behavioral, are ironically caused, provoked and exacerbated by failed methods –- whole language, whole math, constructivism, child-centered education, and others -- and are not “caused” by children having anything wrong with their brains or coming from troubled homes. That explains why students used to be able to read, write and figure so much better in the past despite much greater levels of poverty in the past. It’s because the right methods were being used in their classrooms. It’s true that there have always been problem homes, but at least there used to be good schools. Now, many kids have problem homes AND problem schools. Ths is largely because of the “bounty system” of special education, in which districts are “rewarded” with more federal funding for diagnosing more and more students with “learning disabilities.” As a result, the “learning disabilities” category is threatening to collapse the whole system. A child said to have “dyslexia” may cost the system tens of thousands of extra dollars, K-12 . . . but the cure for dyslexia is systematic, intensive phonics -- which the child didn’t get because the schools aren’t teaching with it. So many boys are said to have “learning disabilities” and get into behavioral problems simply because of the frustration and dissonance of not being able to keep up academically. But there is nothing wrong with those boys – they just were denied the skills they need, in early grade school. There is nothing wrong with SLD students that proper teaching methods and disciplinary techniques won’t fix. Local districts are much more able to come up with strategies for handling students with serious behavioral difficulties on their own, including development of their own in-house alternative learning settings and contracting with regional schools set up for this purpose; these schools may indeed be federally- or state-funded, and by sending problem students to them the problem of inflicting expensive solutions on all just to serve the needs of a few can be solved. Proper academic and disciplinary methods do not require extra funding. Therefore, we can end federal funding for SLD without harm or damage to any student, and ironically improving the educational opportunities for all. The needs of the legitimate special-education categories can continue to be met in their individual schools, and part of the 10-year plan is to transfer administrative and regulatory control over special ed in Nebraska to the Educational Service Units for specialized expertise.
-- One of the biggest new expenses in Nebraska’s K-12 schools is service provided to students whose main language is not English, or who don’t speak English at all. These immigrant children bring in federal grants for English as a Second Language program. But ESL funding carries with it enormous extra local expense, mandates and adjustments. Provision of extra staff and space can be onerous and intrusive of the educational needs of the children of American citizens and taxpayers. The ESL programs generally are on a “bounty” system which discourages the quick, efficient delivery of language proficiency, but instead rewards schools for keeping more students in the language programs for longer periods of time. Ironically, ESL programs appear to violate the Nebraska Constitution, which mandates that English shall be the language of our public schools. It is time to separate that function from the K-12 schools, and the funding that goes with it. It is not unreasonable to require a minimum level of English proficiency before enrolling a child in a public school, the way we require a minimum level of health protection in the form of vaccinations before we will allow enrollment. Those special schools could continue to receive the federal funding for language proficiency purposes, but the general public schools would not have to deal with the regulations and problems caused by that federal funding. Again, special schools could be set up to receive federal and state funding for bringing immigrant children up to speed so that they can participate in the general education classroom, but those schools should not be part of the K-12 structure.
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