The following editorial is written by John Garen, Ph.D., BB&T Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Kentucky and Bluegrass Institute Fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].
Kudos to ReNewport for their recent report on the Newport Independent School District.
ReNewport – a non-profit organization focused on community development in Newport – recently released its second report on Newport Public Schools.
The report is a clear, factual assessment – an important achievement given the excitement and turmoil surrounding public schools today.
But that paints a decidedly bad picture.
It shows that Newport’s independent schools performed very poorly with, for example, low percentages of students proficient in reading and math—well below, in fact, state averages—and low ACT scores.
In addition, he finds high levels of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover as well as high levels of administrative expenditure. Still, Newport has one of the highest funding levels of any district in the state, at over $20,000 per student.
Unfortunately, this pattern often repeats itself in many public school districts in Kentucky, resulting in long-term stagnation in overall student performance across the state, while per-student funding has increased almost continuously. (See my article “Kentucky K-12 Performance and Funding Facts and Trends”, published in December 2020.)
The ReNewport study argues that “incremental or ‘continuous’ improvement cannot produce the step change needed to elevate the culture and performance of Newport schools.”
It recommends raising academic standards, retaining and recruiting good teachers and improving their salaries and working conditions, training school leaders to implement change, and improving accountability.
All are sensible recommendations. But a key to achieving them is to ensure that the system does not continue to fund school failures; rather, it should finance academic success. This is the very essence of responsibility.
Reformers often rely entirely on political accountability for change, that is, political pressure on state and local government organizations. While worth it, too much reliance on political “solutions” to public school problems has led to the current disappointing results.
A much higher form of liability is built into the demands of the marketplace: poorly performing organizations lose customers and revenue. Applying this to schools means:
- The funding “follows” the student and the family chooses the school the child attends. An important complement to this is to encourage the opening of new schools so that parents have a wider range of schools to choose from.
- Poorly performing schools lose students (and income) to better performing schools; more of the latter can open and the former must reform or close.
- Schools are held accountable (and incentivized) for their good performance.
- Good performance requires characteristics recommended by the report, including recruitment/retention of better teachers, high standards, healthy school culture and good leadership.
The best way to achieve market-like accountability is through the adoption of education savings accounts or bonds, where each family receives funds to spend on their children’s schooling, whether public or private. Another good option is a healthy set of independent and innovative public charter schools that parents can choose from.
In this context, there is little reliance on parents who have to “play politics” by courting school officials to obtain the type of schooling they want for their children. Instead, if their child is suffering in an unsuitable or underperforming school, they simply move them.
Some commentators argue that parents cannot be trusted to make good school decisions for their children, especially low-income and poorly educated parents. I dispute this assertion. New York’s top charter schools have tens of thousands of applicants for whom there is no room. These applicants belong to the low-income, low-education demographic mentioned above, but they know which schools are best for their children.
It should be noted that Newport Independent and all other school districts in Kentucky could provide more choice for parents and encourage innovation in education by allowing a wide range of charter schools to open in their districts. . Unfortunately, I doubt many districts do.
Unfortunately, it looks like the state government will have to take steps to establish a voucher type option or a broader charter school program to provide more choice, accountability, and better performing schools.