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

Milk, Bread and General Operating Funds

I’ve lived long enough to have weathered a few snow storms. It feels like the panic and hype escalate with every passing year, to the point where, just at the hint of a big snow, the shelves of the grocery stores are cleared of milk, bread, and (according to my friends’ Facebook posts) junk food and liquor. It’s true, blizzards do pose a substantial risk, particularly for those who are unsheltered, those with tenuous health and those who live in vulnerable, isolated areas. But for the most part, we are not in danger, and we just need to get back to shoveling.

I was thinking about this today as I was working from home–no snow days for the self-employed, I’m afraid–when I read yet another foundation’s guidelines stating that funds may not be used for general operating support. In my 20+ years of applying for grants, I’ve seen that hundreds of times, and I still grit my teeth every time I see it.

For those who don’t work in nonprofits, you may not realize how very tight nonprofits’ budgets generally are. My friends who have “crossed over” from corporate to nonprofit usually lament at some point the loss of perks and the ability just to purchase whatever they need to do their jobs.

Plenty of smart people have noted that donors’ expectations that nonprofits keep their overhead costs at 10% or less is unreasonable. No successful business would operate that lean, because they know they need to hire talented people to work for them, and pay them a competitive wage. They know that they need a working computer network in order to stay connected. They need decent furniture and office space. Yet, of all the dozens of nonprofits I’ve worked for over my career, I have yet to find one that is adequately staffed, operates in a reasonably serviceable office space AND has a fully functional network. They might have one of these things, but never all three.

So why won’t foundations fund general operating expenses? Do they feel like they can only make a difference if they fund targeted programs? Okay, but someone has to run those programs, and they need a desk and a computer to do that. Do they feel like they don’t want to “waste” their money on boring things like executive directors and light bills? Every executive director I’ve met has been anything but boring. Passionate, yes, Dedicated, certainly. Boring, never. And all of these executive directors worry daily about how they are going to pay the light bill.

Nonprofits operate every day like a blizzard is going to hit tomorrow. Because, let’s face it, that might just happen. They might lose a key grant, or they might be hit with an unexpected expense they don’t know how to pay for, and then they might have to lay off staff or cut back services. Meanwhile, the people who rely on nonprofits, such as the homeless, students, Veterans, animals, or the hungry, are left out in the cold when nonprofits can’t afford to fund their mission.

Foundations, corporations and individual donors need to understand that nonprofits aren’t wasting your money. They’re doing important work. If you want to be sure of that, just go visit them and see them in action. I guarantee, you will be convinced.

It’s time for all of us to help nonprofits put the proverbial bread and milk in their fridge to stave off crises by providing them with general operating funds.

snow Union Bridge HPIM3112

View from the Galaida Creative Services home office, blizzard of 2016 in progress.

Big Bucks

big bucksHas this ever happened to you? A large, young male deer jumped over the 7-foot fence in our backyard and startled me when I went to let the dog out. Startled the dog, too, by the looks of it.

The funny thing is, I live in a downtown area, not particularly close to the woods. Our house is on the corner, bordered by two streets and an alley on three sides. That deer was the biggest animal our yard has ever seen, much bigger than the usual cats, rabbits, squirrels and birds. To put it mildly, he was magnificent.

Every now and then someone will make what he considers an ordinary gift to a small nonprofit and find out suddenly that he is a “major donor.” The organization is surprised and excited.

The donor’s initial reaction might be panic: why am I getting so much attention? My donation was not so big, was it? Oh geez, do they expect me to sustain this organization, or bring it out of a hole? Do I have to go to all the fancy galas now?

The truth is, what would be a small or moderate donation to some will seem rather large to others, particularly in the absence of other donors of similar amounts. It can make a donor uncomfortable to find himself the big buck in the small backyard.

If this happens, then you should do what you would normally do for every donor, regardless of the amount: thank him, ask him how many and what kinds of communications he would like from you, and keep him informed of the impact your organization has on the community. In other words, treat a big donor like any other donor, and treat any other donor like a big donor. Respect people for whatever contribution they choose to make and develop personal relationships based on meeting the donor’s needs as well as the organization’s needs. It’s really that simple.

Having a large animal like that deer in my backyard was fun while it lasted, but clearly he was uncomfortable there among the squirrels. In the end, I walked away and let the deer jump back over the fence, and I haven’t seen him again. Maybe he didn’t like all the attention.

Who are the bucks in your backyard? For more information on major donor campaigns and how to raise funds in small organizations, contact me.

Is Your Database an Old Jalopy?

HPIM2518

So. This morning, just before I was to wake up, I heard a crash. And then a bunch of beeping. My car had just been hit by a school bus.

The driver’s side door is smashed in. The side mirror is hanging by a wire. The front fender has a razor-sharp crease in it with funny little curls of paint sticking up from it.

Let’s be honest: it won’t take much to total my car. It’s seven years old, and it has about 120,000 miles on it. Moreover, the paint is peeling, there’s a permanent layer of cement dust stuck to it, and there’s a scrape that runs the length of the passenger side from a snow storm years ago. Inside, my son has filled the back seat with “his stuff” (I’ll let you picture all that) and there are various stains and sticky places.

As I was cleaning the stuff out of it–preparing for it to be towed to the Estimator, which may actually be the Terminator–I was struck by how tacky this car really looked. And how all these little things were wrong with it, like the little tear in the armrest, and the crayon melted onto the floor.

And I thought about how I didn’t really see those things until I really looked at them.

Why am I telling you this? Because there’s an analogy for nonprofits. First, ask yourself if you have taken a good look at your database lately. Databases and cars are a lot alike. We drive them around, letting them accumulate junk, and we don’t bother to fix little things that are wrong. Suddenly we realize that our database is a mess, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it fixed up again.

Now picture this: a classic car, lovingly maintained, beautiful paint job, perfect interior. That’s what our databases should be.

How do you maintain a database so it runs like the day you bought it? You clean out or inactivate old codes. You combine extraneous codes into one. You look at your coding structure and make sure that all new codes are following a standard protocol. You run the de-duping function and get rid of duplicate data. You run an address check and correct bad addresses. You run analytical reports and see if your database is pulling the information you think it should. You cross-check with accounting. You do a search for missing data and either delete incomplete records or find the missing information.

January is a great time to do this! The rush of donations is over, and you need clean data in order to run your annual tax receipts. You can prepare now by making address changes when donors send in their annual contributions.

If you want to keep the car analogy, I could say that there are some people who simply get a new car whenever they’re tired to the old one. That’s what leasing is for, I guess. But most nonprofits can’t get a new database every three years. That’s when a database renovation can be useful, like the one I did for Mission of Mercy this year.

Database maintenance sounds more complicated than an oil change, but really it’s not. And if it is, then perhaps you’ve let your database become like my car.

You don’t want to think yourself lucky to be hit by a wayward school bus.

Which I kind of do. For the car, anyway.

Still, I was hoping to drive it a little longer, and then donate it to Second Chances Garage. I am sorry I won’t have that opportunity now to let a basically reliable car help someone in need. (I don’t think they’ll want it now.)

PS Do you want to donate your car? You should!

HPIM2519

Following the crowd

Did your mother ever tell you just to be yourself? Stand out from the crowd?

Your mother was right, but there are some great times to follow the crowd. Who doesn’t love the thrill of being part of an amazing social movement? It takes a crowd to enact social change in a country that prides itself on individuality and independence.

I find the crowdfunding phenomenon both very exciting and very troubling.

For one, it’s terrific that good causes everywhere, the large and the tiny, all have a new way to reach out to potential supporters.

But there are some downsides too. For example, how do you know that you’re sending your hard-earned dollars to a truly worthy cause? How do you know it will be spent responsibly? How do you decide from among so many causes?

There are several sites that have stepped up to help us out, and they’re terrific. Here are two of my favorites.

One is called www.StartSomeGood.com. This is one my client the Pet Care Trust has used. I like it, because this site reviews potential causes very carefully, and they are careful to note if a cause is backed by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. So it takes the shady stuff out of giving. (By the way, the campaign is still going–give today and help young people discover the joy of animals.)

Another is called www.Kiva.org . I love this one because it’s not just a donation site–you can become a micro-lender and see even just one loans help people over and over. You make a micro loan (minimum $25) and the recipients use your funds to better themselves, either through entrepreneurship, or schooling, for example. Then, when the loan is paid off, you can simply re-lend it to someone else. It’s so much fun!

I have made three loans to women in South America who are using knitting as their livelihood, and already one has been paid back. I’m ready to lend again! I’ve also used this as a teaching tool for my son. He used his own money to make a loan to a young man in Kyrgyzstan so he can go to school. We sit together and read the student’s updates on how he’s doing.

So join the crowd, and find a cause that makes your heart sing.