Friday, August 05, 2005


Why is there so much apathy and ignorance about K-12 education in Nebraska?

Why do only vendors, union representatives and school officials show up at legislative hearings and school board meetings?

Why do so few parents attend Open Houses and parent-teacher conferences in some districts, or limit their “involvement” to fund-raising projects instead of more meaningful, academic-oriented input?

Why do so many others feel powerless to do anything about their own child’s school progress, much less the whole class, the whole district or the whole state?

What’s missing?

Connections between people, that’s what. We’re missing the plumbing and wiring of exchanging ideas, information, suggestions and constructive criticism from subgroup to subgroup, district to district, town to town, person to person.

We all care a great deal about education, from the level of the individual child all the way up to the statewide student body. But we aren’t connected. There’s no flow. The policymakers don’t know what the people are really thinking, the educators have a lot of misconceptions about what parents want, the parents don’t understand a lot of the lingo and how things work, and the union wonks just think we’re trying to take money and power away from teachers when we say we want better resource allocation and evidence-based methodology.

We need to talk . . . much more often, and more productively.

So that’s the last plank of the Go Big Ed platform – to start a statewide, grassroots, public-service organization with no dues, no meetings, no bureaucracy. But here’s hoping it will do lots of good, because the purpose will be to bring people together for service and brainstorming – to bring all voices to the table – to get people to talk -- to make things better for our kids.

To make Nebraska No. 1 in education.

A simple goal and a challenging goal. But as we’ve seen with Husker football, it you bring people together with great coaching and a standard of excellence, it most certainly can be done.

One way of connecting everyday Nebraskans with policymakers will be a questionnaire on the GoBigEd.com website, now under construction. It will allow you to send your views on 10 key issues directly to state and federal lawmakers, school board members, officials in education-related government agencies, and your circle of influence, to get some of these talking points out into the public eye.

Here are the 10 questions I’m thinking of so far. I’d welcome any additional ones you think would be helpful.

Connecting Voters and Policymakers

Q. Education seems to be a closed loop: educators only listen to other educators when it comes to suggesting how to do things better for kids. Elected officials on school boards and state legislatures are supposed to be our voice because they control the pursestrings. How do we get them to listen, so that the educators will listen?

One way is to devise a statewide opinion poll that can be shared with decision-makers to keep them constantly reminded that meeting the needs of the students is the top priority, not meeting the needs of the educators and educrats.

Here are some suggested questions that the public could answer and send to officials to guide their policymaking. These were written for residents of the State of Nebraska, but could easily be adapted for any state:

1. The average spending per pupil in our state’s public schools is now $7,800 per year. Do you believe that is too much, too little, or just about right?

2. Our state allows “school choice” among public-school districts, but does not allow school-choice vouchers to give partial public funding so that disadvantaged students can attend private schools. Nor are there tuition tax credits for the parents of private-school students and homeschoolers. Nor are charter schools allowed. Are you in agreement that Nebraska doesn’t need any of these other programs, or more educational competition in our state?

3. Nebraska teachers are paid by union scale, which is based on seniority. They rank in the middle of the country for teacher pay, adjusted for the cost of living, but with the many small towns in Nebraska with a lower cost of living, average teacher pay shouldn’t be as high as in the big cities anyway. They enjoy the best-in-the-nation retirement program, the “Rule of 85” – at age 55, with 30 years of service, they can fully retire and receive full pensions. They also have an excellent health insurance program that is financially better than most private-sector employees at the same salary level. Do you favor keeping the same, years-of-service based compensation program, or freeing school boards to be able to pay merit pay for teachers who have demonstrated they run “value-added” classrooms, plus hiring bonuses and extra pay for hard-to-find specialties such as special ed, foreign language, math, science and vocational ed?

4. Reading disability is the root cause of many of education’s woes, including the skyrocketing numbers of kids labeled as “learning disabled.” Do you favor a return to phonics-only reading instruction in kindergarten and first grade, leaving schools free to continue to use the Whole Language method after the children have been taught the code of our language, or to switch entirely to phonics-only once they see how good it is?

5. Comprehensive sex education programs, which teach students how to use contraceptives and promote “safe sex” rather than “abstinence only,” have been controversial among Nebraska parents. Do you think parents should be able to choose which kind of sex ed their child will have, the way you can choose which foreign language to study, and opt their child in to comprehensive sex ed, or an abstinence-only program?

6. Right now, state aid to education is paid to school districts based on their school enrollment, not how many students actually were in school on a given day. But school success is tied to school attendance. You can’t learn if you’re not there. Some districts have far more absenteeism than others. Would you favor a change to paying state aid based on “average daily attendance,” with help for districts who need improvement in building their attendance rates?

7. There is no evidence that all-day kindergarten pays off in the long run for most children in terms of academic achievement, although it can be a help to disadvantaged kids from homes where education is not a top priority. For most kids, though, it’s just free child care at taxpayer expense. Would you favor a change to “tuitioning” for the second half of the kindergarten day, requiring parents who can afford it to pay for that service, and offer all-day k free for parents whose incomes qualify them for free or reduced lunch?

8. The presence of gay-rights clubs and speakers on controversial topics, such as gun control, in public schools has been controversial. Would you favor a state law that requires school officials to grant equal time for the “other point of view” when these controversial topics are addressed in tax-funded classrooms and assemblies?

9. The achievement gap between rich and poor, and black and white students persists in our inner-city school districts. It has been widening, not narrowing, with unacceptably high dropout rates and disproportional placement in special ed and alternative schools for low-income and minority students. Rather than allocating more money for this to go on, would you favor enabling legislation for “corporate scholarships” that would give tax credits to corporations for providing private scholarships for low-income and minority students if they would like to attend private schools that have better track records and test scores?

10. School officials are not allowed, by law, to report illegal aliens to the authorities. Yet their children are placed in public schools at taxpayer expense in growing numbers, inflating costs and increasing the pressure on school facilities to the detriment of the children of law-abiding American citizens. School employees can’t turn them in, but private citizens can. Would you favor a citizens’ effort along these lines?

Homework: See
www.chalkboardproject.org for results of their exciting and unique opinion polling effort. Their survey results, posted on the website, are now fueling a new set of policy initiatives in the State of Oregon.

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