Monday, September 17, 2007

Reforming Our Schools

My “school philosophy” is grounded in two principles. First, the school’s mission is to develop the student into a productive member of society. Secondly, we have limited resources. Our objective is to provide the best practical education within reasonable budget constraints.

Some of the suggestions are common sense while others are radical. Some can be enforced unilaterally by the school board while others require statutory changes. All of the propositions will encounter resistance, both political and judicial. I also recognize the challenges posed by the unions and other special interests. However, if we’re ever to reform our schools, we must first be willing to discuss all reasonable ideas.

I've tried to adopt the best practices of businesses and universities. The proposals below specifically target the high school. They are in no particular order.
  1. Form a Corporation – Owners (i.e. shareholders) have far more rights, and control, than voters. Create a private company to manage the schools. The company would be jointly owned by local residents over the age of eighteen. Shareholders would be able to pool their votes through a proxy system and force change. All disputes between the shareholders and the school board would be resolved by a local arbitration panel elected by the shareholders. New residents would be issued new shares while former residents would be required to surrender theirs.
  2. Have Partisan Elections – Candidates should be able to identify with parties and run on shared platforms. Then, both the candidates and the parties can be held accountable at the next election.
  3. Make the President Responsible – Presently, no one person is responsible for the ballooning budget or the dismal test scores. The President should be the sole person to submit budgets and present candidates for office (such as superintendent). The school board would have the power to approve or deny. In the event of an impasse, both the president and the school board could present their budgets/nominees to the electorate at the first scheduled election.
  4. Generate Commercial Sponsorships – Pursue corporate sponsorships wherever appropriate, from the athletics department, to vending machines, to computer equipment.
  5. Develop an Alumni Association – Develop an active alumni association along the lines of the university system. Incorporate online systems such as Facebook.
  6. Create Opportunities for Giving – Like the universities, enable donors to dedicate a room, endow a chair, or fund a program.
  7. Create Endowment Fund – Adopt the university model for the creation and management of an endowment fund.
  8. Pursue Grants – Hire a full-time lobbyist to pursue educational and research grants from the government, charitable foundations, and private corporations.
  9. Develop an Emergency Staffing Plan – Contract negotiations should never take place under the threat of a walkout. Be prepared with an emergency staffing plan by pre-certifying temporary workers in the event of a walkout.
  10. Change Teacher Benefits – The school system has enormous pension liabilities and healthcare costs. All new teachers must be given a 401(k) and a healthcare plan in line with private industry. Existing teachers should be offered a financial incentive to move from a defined benefits plan to a 401(k).
  11. End “Use It or Lose It” – The current system forces all departments to use their entire budget or risk having their budgets reduced the following year. Each department should be allowed to save money in special “pet project” accounts and have those accounts be “hidden” from the budget process. While these “pet project” accounts won’t reduce costs, they should curb spending growth.
  12. Create a Bidding System – Work with the local Chamber of Commerce to create an online bidding system that allows the public to comment on preliminary purchasing proposals and encourages businesses to submit competing bids. Outsource when feasible.
  13. Streamline Operations – Officers and directors should share secretaries. All full-time director positions should be converted to part-time positions and offered to existing faculty.
  14. Publicize Lesson Plans – All lesson plans should be available online and available for comment.
  15. Cut Faculty, Hire Tutors – Cut the faculty in half, double class sizes, extend the class day by three hours, and hire two hundred certified tutors to provide individual instruction during the extended hours. At twenty dollars an hour (twice what Shoprite pays), we could hire semi-retired people and top-tiered students to provide individualized tutoring. The students would get a better education, parents would be relieved from doing their children’s homework, and the town would save over $2 million annually.
  16. Measure Performance – Teachers should be ranked by the following criteria – Students’ Overall Performance, Students’ Performance Change from prior year, Student Ranking of Teacher, Parent Ranking of Teacher.
  17. Reward Performance – Teachers should be rewarded according to performance criteria. For example, a teacher might earn a larger bonus turning a C student into a B student than having an A student remain an A student.
  18. Regular Audits – In addition to the financial audit, there should be an annual educational audit. An educational audit should measure the cost of a teacher or administrator against his performance and ranked against the others. A capital audit would review maintenance of school facilities and equipment.
  19. Publicize Financial Reports – All financial reports should be made available online in a regular and timely basis. The financial reports should include all expenditures and the purpose of such expenditures.
  20. Require Minimum Class Enrollment – Any class projected to have fewer than five students should be canceled.
  21. Increase Physical Education – Studies show that students who exercise and eat well also do better at school. It would cost the school half a million dollars annually to have every student enroll in a local gym and participate in an exercise program. Buses could pick up the children at the gyms. Those children who opt out would still be required to exercise at the school.
  22. Create Apprentice Programs – Working with local businesses and colleges, the school should create apprentice programs enabling students to work with professors, mechanics, computer programmers, etc.
  23. Close Extraneous Classes – Just as the school doesn’t teach paleontology, astronomy, or Hebrew, the school could eliminate classes that have little practical benefit, such as Latin.
  24. Alternative Income Strategies – The school building is only used part of the day. During the evening and weekend, the school could offer adult education courses, show recent movies in the auditorium, or create a simple food delivery business from the cafeteria.
  25. Alternative Energy - Use state funds to finance the construction of quiet wind turbines. Estimated annual energy cost savings: Over $250,000
  26. Special Ed - Special education programs normally cost $30,000 - $50,000 per pupil. Limit these programs to legal residents.

I hope these proposals will provoke discussions and lead to action. As for our critics, I have only one response – What are your ideas for improving education and reducing costs?

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