Solving America’s Education Problems Overnight in Three Easy Steps

Insomnia can be a terrible/wonderful thing. I woke up last night around 2AM and tried to fix our nation’s educational system overnight. What has remained this morning is this narrative on breaking the tie between property taxes and education funding, increasing our education spending dramatically and look to a strong national model with high standards.

We have a system of education that ties education spending to property taxes, and this is the single greatest cause of educational disparities in the country. In fact, it’s also the single greatest cause of modern education segregation. Which, naturally, is related to disparities, because we are still saddled with our shameful and ongoing legacy of not providing students of color with education that is on par with that of white students.

Currently, our educational system provides Federal money to the states, based on a formula and specific legislation, such as Title I for low-income schools, Title IX for gender equity, etc. The states distribute it to the counties/school districts, typically also based on a formula. The states add their own money to the pot, but this varies widely from state to state. The remainder of education funding comes from local sources, which means counties in some places, school districts or townships in others. To overgeneralize, Federal funding is about 10%, and state funding is 45% and local funding is 45%.

The result of a highly localized education funding system is massive disparities. Richer states and districts can spend more on education. Bluer states also tend to spend more on education. Local spending is largely dependent on property tax revenues, which means richer areas have more money to spend on their schools. More spending equals better schools, which means property taxes rise, which means:

  • It is expensive to live in an area with good schools, so low-income students are unlikely to live there; and
  • Low-income areas a highly unlikely ever to be able to bring their schools up to the spending levels of richer areas.

It is a vicious cycle that is every year widening the divide further.

The single greatest thing we can do to renew our democracy is to break the tie between property taxes and education spending. We need to increase education spending, but we also need to create a system that equalizes the spending per student yet takes into account the local cost of living.

The way we fund schools needs to change. I don’t have all the answers here, but I do feel strongly that we need to ensure we are spending same per student (in relative terms) everywhere. This leads me to conclude that 100% of funding should come from one source, probably the Federal government, with state and local taxes supporting a national pool of education dollars but not going directly to local schools. The Federal redistribution of money should be based on cost of living, number of students, etc. like funding formulas that states use now, only spread across the country. Blue states, who tend to spend more on education anyway, will hate putting in more money than they’re getting back, so we may have to set a minimum threshold, as a percentage of state budget, for states to contribute to the national system.

Teacher pay should be on par with the median professional salary, based on experience, for positions requiring similar education. Accountants, maybe. If an accountant with a Masters’ degree and 10 years of experience makes $60,000 in Topeka, then a 10-year veteran teacher with a Masters’ degree should also make $60,000. In Los Angeles, that number will be significantly higher, but the buying power would be the same. Better yet, use the Federal government’s own employment classification system, which also calculates experience, education and cost of living in a particular Metropolitan Statistical Area.

I do believe in setting learning standards. Standards ensure that students in low-income or rural areas don’t miss out. Standards ensure continuity and completeness of education when a family moves from one state or community to another. Standards should be set high, and not dumbed down. We should examine what other competitive countries are teaching their students. The other side of standards is usually testing, but what we are doing in this country is beyond madness. We pay too much for tests that provide little value, provide results too slowly to help improve instruction and change so drastically every 2-5 years as to be essentially meaningless. We need to use the standards but give teachers back control of their classrooms to reach them. Testing should be at the classroom level and provide immediate results, so the teacher can adapt instruction to meet students’ needs. We need to provide ideas and support for teachers who want them. We need to stop the endless drilling and “teaching to the test” in favor of more project-based learning. To allow for more project-based learning, we need smaller classes and, therefore, more teachers.

We need to change the way teachers are educated. Undergraduate and graduate programs should be competitive and less abstract. New teachers are essentially thrown into the classroom and asked to do the same thing as a veteran teacher. New teachers should complete a multi-year “residency,” like medical students, during which time they work alongside veteran teachers for a few years. They could provide classroom support to veteran teachers, to make more project-based learning possible. You might have noticed that I have not mentioned Education Support Professionals. I have not forgotten them, I just don’t have the bandwidth to go into that level of detail. We should pay them better and give them better training.

I think I’m in favor of doing away completely with state and local education departments. Those levels, in my experience, don’t add much to the outcomes, just the bureaucracy and expense. I’m not saying there should be nobody on the ground at the local level. I’m saying the local administrators can be Federal employees. Actually, the debate lately has focused almost exclusively on eliminating the education department at the Federal level. So why do I suggest eliminating the lower levels? Because that where the greatest risk for disparities lies. But feel free to help me change my mind, if you’ve got better ideas.

What I propose is expensive—where will the money come from?

For starters, let me just put this out there: we spend 16% of our budget on defense and only 3% on education. When Trump complained about most NATO countries spending less than 2% on defense, that number stuck in my head. I knew our defense figure was much, much higher, and indeed it is. Overfunding defense and continuing to expand the infamous “military-industrial complex,” mostly through scare tactics to the common people, is a classic, historical cause of the fall of great republics, empires, etc. We can learn from the USSR, the Romans, the British Empire and many other historical events.

Spending on public education, on the other hand, has been proven, over and over again, dollar for dollar, to be a good investment. We could raise our education spending to 5% and lower our defense spending to 14% and even that small adjustment would make a huge difference, with little or no appreciable detriment to the safety of our country. Think what could happen if we spent 8% on education and 11% on defense!

(For clarification on defense spending: we need to continue paying our troops. They are actually a smallish part of the defense budget. I’m speaking of the massive amounts of wasteful spending in defense. The $640 toilet seats purchased by the Pentagon are legendary, but the real money sink is planes, where we purchase ridiculously expensive planes that never get flown.)

Okay, I do see one major problem with my idea to centralize education: we have a terrible national education department.

Aside from the “Title” programs, ensuring disabled students get what they need, and girls have equal sports, and the like, the US Department of Education has failed spectacularly and repeatedly at improving student outcomes. Remember No Child Left Behind? Common Core? Race to the Top? They were decent ideas in theory, but very, very poorly implemented. Indeed, Race to the Top practically didn’t happen. We need to scrap what we have, fire Betsy DeVos and blatantly steal whatever system is working in Poland. Why Poland? I was inspired by a book I read a few years ago called “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” by Amanda Ripley. It provided an in-depth look at the three school systems leading the world in educational attainment: Finland, Poland and South Korea.

Let me be clear: the South Korean model is insane. Further, that system promotes disparity by essentially forcing students to pay for tutoring in order to compete for limited slots in an absurdly (and artificially) competitive higher education system. The system in Finland is terrific. Teachers there are literally treated like rock stars (or, at least, doctors). However, Finland is a rich and homogenous country, and not very like our own nation. We can, and should, borrow ideas on curriculum and instruction from the Finns, but I don’t think we could emulate their powerful system. Poland is another matter. Poland is making huge strides in equalizing their educational opportunities even for low- and moderate-income students. Theirs is a source of national pride and a viable model to emulate. What all three models have in common is a strong national system that also gives freedom to well-trained professionals in the classroom.

In proposing a more centralized national system, and eliminating the state and local education departments, I know that the States’ Rights-ers will argue. Largely, they will be the states that want to teach our children Creationism in science class, and we just need to let that shit go. Pardon my French: Merde. Which brings me to one more suggestion for improving our educational system—teach foreign languages early and often.

This is what I think about at 2 AM. Feel free to share your thoughts on these ideas, particularly if you are an educator. However, if you’re a Creationist, or a Flat Earth Believer, or a Climate Change Denier, understand that I refuse to lose sleep over that nonsense.

students learning science

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