Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Come to www.GoBigEd.com and click on the "Goals" icon at the upper right:

GoBigEd focuses on three goals:
better reading,
school choice,
and cutting school spending.
Here’s how:

1. Go Big Read.

The focus needs to be on effective reading instruction. That’s how to increase standardized test scores, reduce the outrageous percentage of minority and low-income students who drop out of school, reverse the explosion in unnecessary special education costs, cut property taxes and sales/income taxes, and improve overall learning performance in all subjects statewide.

We need to reform school funding and accreditation rules so that phonics-only reading instruction is the primary method of choice in K-3 classrooms. All it takes is 20 minutes a day, but almost no Nebraska grade schools are teaching this time-tested, classic methodology at present. That’s because very few educators have been taught it themselves.

Once a child can decode fluently, he or she is ready for all the other language activities, and shouldn’t be held back and grouped with struggling or beginning decoders. That can be achieved in class with “testing out” opportunities, followed by ability grouping and differentiated instruction very similar to what’s now going on in early primary classrooms.

It would take about one week and $200 apiece for every K-3 teacher in the state to learn systematic, intensive, explicit phonics. It would be the best investment in staff development any district has ever made, because it would produce an immediate, striking improvement in reading and writing ability in our students.

An important component of this plan is a public education campaign to equip parents and child-care providers to carry out successful pre-reading activities with preschoolers at home and in child-care settings, and then effectively support teachers once the children get into formal reading instruction at school.

Another key to reading achievement is to reduce class sizes. We can obtain the money for this from judicious non-classroom cuts, such as in #3, below.

Also needed are incentives for good teachers: through the grades, give financial rewards to teachers whose students perform better on reading tests than the year before – “value-added assessment.”

Set a goal for Nebraska students to test 1st in the nation on the reading portion of the ACT among states with at least 50% participation by 2012. This year, Nebraska ranks behind Iowa, Minnesota, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Utah in that measurement. With phonics, we could be No. 1.

2. Go Big Choice.

Where it is available, private education is better and cheaper than public education in Nebraska. Dropout rates are much lower in private schools, attendance is much higher, and the rate of college admissions is nearly 100% from the state’s private high schools. Private schools would provide much-needed competition for the public schools if they could gain a level playing field, financially. The public schools would have to improve to compete for students. And that would help everybody.

Almost all private schools in the state charge tuition of less than $3,500, while the average public school district has costs in excess of $8,000 per pupil, and that’s just for operating expenses – not counting debt service and so on, which can drive the actual tax dollars spent per pupil sky-high.

But even though private schools are so much cheaper, and demonstrably better, low-income students, and those in our most rural areas, have no access to private school. Either their families can’t afford the tuition, or the economics are too tough for private schools to form.

School choice is long overdue in Nebraska, and it can be offered to Nebraskans without hurting public schools. In fact, it can help them. Citizens are already hard at work on a school choice plan that would go a long way toward equalizing educational opportunity in this state, putting the K-12 purchasing power in the hands of parents, protecting our multi-billion dollar investment in our public schools, and providing tax cuts as well.

In addition, we should be offering corporations and wealthy individuals dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to tuition assistance funds such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Keep those dollars circulating in Nebraska’s economy and give our state’s extraordinarily generous philanthropists and retirees a chance to help our most vulnerable citizens grow up to have “The Good Life” because of their great educations.

Another innovation is “school choice for school boards.” They should be allowed to hire whoever they want in top administrative jobs such as superintendents and principals. Our elected officials need more freedom to open up school management responsibility to the many outstanding candidates who just don’t happen to have teaching certificates, in order to bring innovation and cost-efficiency to schools.

3. Go Big Tax Cuts.

School choice in Nebraska would go a long way toward reducing school spending and cutting taxes, since the average cost per pupil in a public school in Nebraska is $8,000 for operating expenses alone. Most of that wouldn’t be necessary if the child is being educated in a private school under the school choice system, since the voucher would be for only a fraction of the $8,000.

However, we need to dig much deeper. School spending has been increasing at such an alarming rate, and test scores of inner-city and minority children have been so much worse than suburban white children for so many years, that a grand-jury investigation is in order. The racial achievement gap makes it appear that we have systemic civil-rights violations in this state that have persisted for decades. We need data to understand how Nebraska’s school systems could have been delivering such an apparently unequal education for so long. The only way to get to the bottom of this, and ensure improvement, appears to be through the court system, perhaps the federal courts. Yes, it’s time to “make a federal case out of it.” Our kids and our future are that important.

Such an investigation would naturally look carefully at sources and uses of funds and would no doubt expose a myriad of cost-cutting opportunities that would in turn provide room for significant tax cuts.

Nebraska also should create the position of Inspector General for Education in the State Auditor’s Office to direct performance and forensic audits over the more than $2 billion in state aid that is distributed annually and, as of now, is audited only on a pro forma basis. These more in-depth audits are an important tool for uncovering waste, fraud, mismanagement, embezzlement, nepotism, no-bid contracts, and many other ways that tax dollars are abused in school systems.

We really need to dissolve the Educational Service Units; reform educator retirement and other benefit plans and compensation programs; encourage school boards to appoint citizen audit committees to help them set policies with tighter fiscal controls; require districts to publish their check registers online; shrink bureaucracy with privatization incentives in non-classroom school budget areas such as transportation; and withdraw from federal funding altogether, so that Nebraska has the most high-achieving, cost-effective, accountable, locally-controlled, performance-driven, and taxpayer-friendly educational system in the country.

Susan, this is fantastic work. Is there any way to put on your blog who to get in touch with for those of us who would like to help?
Yes! You can use www.GoBigEd.com as a networking starting point. I'm going to add a bulletin board to the website soon. In the meantime, please email me at swilliams1@cox.net if you would like to come to an organizational meeting about school choice early next week in Lincoln. I would love to talk with you further and hope you can get some friends involved, too. Thanks for writing.
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