Tuesday, March 07, 2006
THREE WAYS TO SAVE THE CLASS I SCHOOLS
The Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s education bureaucracy may proceed as if Nebraska’s 206 elementary-only country schools were being abolished, even though a statewide vote on that issue is coming up in November 2006. Voters may very well save the Class I schools, but by then, it will be too late, supporters fear.
Class I supporters have vowed to fight the forced consolidation of their schools into larger districts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They say the legislation, LB 126, passed last year would unfairly destroy local control of education, diminish democracy by wiping out more than 206 elected school boards, and disenfranchise voters statewide since any vote to overturn LB 126 this fall would be moot.
But the controversy may have its best solution out of court.
The Class I supporters have made a good case for their cost-effectiveness and academic success. The “extra” cost of maintaining these tiny, rural schools is an infinitesimal drop in the bucket compared to the overall $2.2 billion spent statewide on K-12 education.
It appears that a huge reason for this illogical power grab is to raise the “basis” for teacher salaries elsewhere across Nebraska’s K-12 districts. The Class I teachers “drag down” those salary averages because of the economics: teaching jobs simply pay less in small towns. It’s understandable that urban teachers and their unions are squawking about the discrepancy. But perhaps they’ve lost sight of what’s best for kids. And nobody can argue with the higher test scores and lower dropout rates among kids who’ve come out of country schools.
Ironically, no one is crying out for the abolition of the Omaha Public Schools – which receives significantly more state aid per pupil than most Class I schools and has enormously lower test scores in the early grades.
So it’s not logical that the Class I schools have to go. They don’t. There are better ways to solve this issue. It doesn’t have to be a court battle; it just would take some leadership and some guts. They’ve been missing so far, at least effectively, in the Legislature and other possible political problem-solvers. So it may be up to those outside the system – those not employed by K-12 education or its financial backers – to come forward with a solution that everybody can live with.
Alternatives for Class I schools:
Get out from under onerous state and federal regulations and enjoy the benefits of local control that can only be found these days in homeschools and private schools. You do not need a certified teacher to form a multifamily “group attendance center” homeschool. There’s no reason parents couldn’t “co-op” their money and volunteer time to pay one or more instructors and administer the school on their own. It would be easy to articulate the curriculum to ease the transition into seventh grade in the neighboring K-12 districts when the time comes to finish grade school. The evidence is clear, that going to school closer to home is best all around. If this is the only way, this is the smart thing to do, even though it’s unfair and more work.
Reorganize as charter schools.
It’s outrageous that Nebraska is one of only a handful of states around the country with no charter school enabling legislation. A charter school is simply a loosening of the bureaucracy and regulations to allow a group of parents and teachers to run a school the way THEY think it should be run, with less governmental interference. The Legislature really ought to allow the Class I’s to reorganize as charters if they wish, and receive block-grant funding for each student enrolled in the same amount per pupil that their corresponding K-12 district receives under the state aid formula. Then, if the Class I school can’t manage that money to run a school that continues to match or exceed the academic achievement of the K-12 district, the charter could be revoked.
Cut school spending elsewhere in the K-12 system to come up with the money.
The Legislature has said it believes that forcing the 200-and-some Class I schools into the K-12 districts would save Nebraskans over $12 million. The Class I supporters hotly dispute that. They say the real figure is closer to $4 million. Let’s take the happy medium -- $8 million.
Go to the Nebraska Department of Education website’s financial page:
and you’ll see that, in the most recent school year recorded there, statewide K-12 spending in Nebraska equaled $2.2 billion. That means the Class I controversy is being waged over .0036 of 1 percent of what we’re spending on our K-12 schools in Nebraska.
Come on, now, folks. This is sooooooo ridiculous. Here’s where we could find that $8 million to save the Class I schools, and then some:
-- Reorganize Nebraska’s Educational Service Units, or ESU’s, and complete their functions by interlocal agreements between existing school districts. It’s dumb to have a big bureaucracy, buildings, computers and so forth in each ESU duplicating what the school districts have. It might have made sense over a quarter-century ago, when the ESU’s got started. But not now. Can ‘em. Savings: Could be mega-millions. See:
-- Turn down LB 228, which would mandate all-day kindergarten statewide. All-day kindergarten actually is worse for kids than half-day in the long run. Its benefits “wash out” by third grade, the evidence shows. Savings: $28 million.
-- The evidence is clear that smaller class sizes do not produce better learning achievement, and in fact, may actually contribute to lower test scores because teachers have time to use labor-intensive methods that don’t work – including Whole Language instead of phonics-based reading instruction, and Whole Math with its group projects and “discovery learning” instead of computation-based math instruction. State aid should be reformulated to have nothing to do with demographics, and everything to do with rewarding those schools that use the right teaching methods, even in larger class sizes. Look at the parochial schools: they may have 25 or 30 kids in the classroom, many of them low-income, compared to the 13 or 15 in some of those inner-city schools in the Omaha Public Schools. But the parochial schools’ test scores are significantly higher than in OPS. How come? They’re keeping it simple, stupid – teaching cost-effectively, with tried-and-true methods. The public schools could do that, too. Class-size reductions average $800 extra per pupil. So if normal class sizes were returned to just the 10,000 inner-city pupils within OPS, that would free up – guess how much? -- $8 million. Bingo!
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