The Public Education System Flunks Out

by Beatrice Fowler & Ayn Marie Samuelson (November 2010)

Racing Where?

The Obama administration's  "Race to the Top," at the cost of $4.35 billion, is the latest of a long line of lavishly funded federal education initiatives, joining "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) and others that have failed to reform education. As is typical, there are high hopes for change but a low probability that any significant or lasting reforms will be implemented. 

According to a report in Heritage Press, in April 2006, Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst with the Center for Education Freedom asserted, "Government programs have a troubling way of taking good ideas and ruining them with bureaucracy, unintended consequences and control by special interests."

The NCLB act served to expose the fact that the schools were failing to educate children, as mediocre results were produced over several years, but it also bolstered the educational status quo of special interest groups to the tune of additional billions in taxpayer funding. After the NCLB Act was implemented in 2002, there was an increase from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $22 billion in 2002 for elementary and secondary expenditures, an increase of 26 percent in a single fiscal year.

Students and Taxpayers Lose Out

How many more failed attempts will consume the wealth of the nation before the American public recognizes the resistance of the education power base to change? How much of the nation's wealth will be consumed before we understand that throwing money at the problem, in itself, is not the cure-all to produce increased student achievement?

Acquiring the ability to read well and the desire to read are often missing in our schools today. Students fall far short of the reading levels they need to become successful and engaged citizens. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is known as the nation's report card and is administered to students all across the country. In 2007, scores showed only 29 percent of U.S. 8th graders were proficient at reading. In 2005, NAEP reading scores for 12th grade students showed a decline from 2003 and a proficiency level of only 35 percent. And despite massive federal spending increases in education over those years, those scores failed to improve. In fact scores were lower in 2005 than in 1992. 

Statistics found on the federal education website and state education websites demonstrate that despite the huge run-up in revenues during the boom years - when property values and taxes hit the roof and NCLB pumped billions upon billions into the education system - students who were tested near the end of their tenure in the public school system, underachieved in relation to the amount of funding provided. 

If there is a high correlation or relationship between increased funding and higher student performance, then why does that not materialize during this time period? In Florida, according to Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), only approximately 37% of Florida's 10th grade students can meet proficiency standards in reading, according to statewide testing for the years 2001 to 2009.

Defending the Status Quo

The plaintive demands for more funding is derived from the educational establishment's craving to create additional programs and services, although there is no proof that they directly benefit student learning. Additionally, few of these programs are ever measured or assessed for their effectiveness and efficiency, although they serve to enhance the size, scope, and public cost of the educational bureaucracy. The constant demand for more money fuels the growth of this pervasive bureaucracy.

The current education system with its political-bureaucratic style of school government exerts top-down control through a network consisting of politicians, bureaucrats and numerous interest groups that permeate government all the way up the ladder from local school districts to the national level. They are all interconnected and inextricably linked, supporting and protecting each other while spending funds and enhancing services that augment the entire system.

Education is big government and big business with far reaching impacts into every nook and cranny in our society, as every school age child attends school, whether public, private or home school. Children use textbooks, computers and receive myriad educational services through the publicly funded K-12 program. Thus, there is much to gain to become ingrained as one of the system's cohorts.

Valid and lasting reforms look dim, because those who benefit have proven more powerful at maintaining the system than reformers have been at transforming it. These powerful alliances of teachers unions and professional educators, text book publishers, and others protect and defend the status quo and set up roadblocks against meaningful, system-wide educational improvements.

On the other hand, pseudo-reform is welcomed with open arms because massive sums of money are poured into the system, increasing personnel and power. These faux reforms and fads implemented within the political-bureaucratic education system have this in common: they make no lasting, widespread changes to the education system; they dramatically increase education costs; and they have been unable to significantly improve student performance.

Peripheral changes, such as modifying testing instruments, reinventing curricula and programs, or modifying a grading system, may be instituted, but at a deeper level, the system remains firmly rooted. This inflexible system prohibits genuine change from within and blocks justifiable attempts from the outside.

Dishonesty and Subterfuge

Corruption, with regard to the public schools, is a serious but difficult charge to prove. Facts and evidence are hard to find and document as they can be easily concealed amid reams of paperwork generated by school districts. Likewise, giving the public half-truths and downplaying needed areas of improvement with regard to student performance while never fully answering citizens' questions are deceptive, but common practices.   

The FCC charged the Brevard County (FL) School District with "waste and abuse" for using devious methods to deceive the government in its use of taxpayer, e-Rate funds. Many School districts had distorted the purpose of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that was designed to fund technology for schools with high percentages of poor children.  Instead, districts like Brevard County, Florida, were discovered using this money for other purposes within the central district office.  When caught red-handed, and forced to refund almost a million dollars of government money, the Brevard School District administration fell to its  knees to plead with the government not to "punish the children" by denying the district future technology benefits. 

School construction is another quagmire where public tax money gets sucked into a black hole. Florida's Constitution requires local governments to get voter approval to borrow long term debt, but the Florida Supreme Court allows borrowing if new construction is leased, not owned. Thus, the Brevard County Florida School Board incurs long-term debt and borrows with little restraint, under the legal cover of "Lease-Purchase." The district never actually owns new school buildings; instead, they lease them from The Brevard County School Board, Inc. This corporation sells Certificates of Participation (COPs) by being permitted to bond future tax revenue within the district.

This process is all very legal, but it is also a scheme to give more control to the school district while circumventing the legitimate voice of the citizens who should be able to vote on the debt they are obligated to repay. Further, what happens to the financial stability of a school district when the future revenue is dramatically reduced in a hard recession? 

School board watchers in Florida hailed the state requirement for an independent internal audit, but watched with dismay as professional bureaucrats undermined its effectiveness. In the corporate world, most internal auditors report directly to the governing board. In Brevard County Schools, the auditors reported directly to the Internal Audit Committee, over which the superintendent asserted his control before the audit report found its way to the elected School Board.   

Who sat on this committee? The superintendent, two of his chosen staff, the board chairperson, and one lone member selected by the board all sat on the committee.  How was the independent audit firm selected? The superintendent's guidance and recommendations are pervasive in the selection. What is the probability the firm, who regularly sought to renew its annual contract would thoroughly investigate issues or concerns the superintendent did not wish investigated?  

The Florida legislature, currently in the midst of massive losses in revenue due to the current economic decline, continues to pay out millions of retirement benefits to school personnel who are still employed by the schools, while the recipients simultaneously collect both salary and retirement benefits under the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). Brevard's deputy superintendent has simultaneously collected retirement pay and a generous salary plus benefits for several years. The state DROP program was initially designed to retain experienced personnel, but it became a bureaucratic welfare program that is unrelated to benefiting students. 

Charter schools have shown that they can effectively educate students with less money. However, as long as school districts have control over charters, their natural inclination will be to regulate them out of existence. After all, competition between district schools and charters is growing ever more intense as enrollments decline. Filling the "regular" public school classrooms is a school district priority. 

System Breakdown

Mr. Pariser of recently noted that "the current system doesn't work" when referring to Washington policies and politics. Doesn't that denunciation extend to the vast education political-bureaucracy? Mr. Madden, a Republican strategist, spoke of "reforming a broken system and governing ... with public support." Doesn't that call for legitimate reform also refer to the education system where public involvement should be engendered by encouraging vital public input into the decision-making process, rather than
blocking input from parents and communities outside the system?

When a system isn't working as expected, looking for a fundamentally different approach is simply good sense. Endless requests for more dollars and more of the same political-bureaucratic agenda fail to benefit children or their benefactors.

No one questions the importance of education in our complex modern society. Education is the process by which we pass on values to the next generation, help them develop their ability to think and give them the information they will need to be productive adults and good citizens in their communities. Historically, education has been the great equalizer of American society, holding forth the promise of advancement. But the political process and the public school bureaucracy have proven themselves ineffective in solving critical educational problems to achieve these ends at a reasonable cost to taxpayers.

Beatrice Davis Fowler, M.A. and Ayn Marie Samuelson, M.S., M.P.A. are co-authors of a forthcoming book, Exposing the Public Education System, that defines, analyses and proposes a clear solution to transform education.

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