Wednesday, August 23, 2006

COLUMN -- Helping schools get their ACT together

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:08 PM |  

Monday, 23 August, 2006

Yes, Ms. Schaubach, we should “invest” more in education.

Trumpeting the triumph of Minnesota’s best-in-the-nation ACT scores, Judy Schaubach, President of Education Minnesota, declares --

“Today’s news about Minnesota’s ACT scores is wonderful. It is more proof that our teachers and students are focused, committed and they’re succeeding, But if we do not continually improve how we support and invest in education, we are not going to be standing here in two years, five years or 10 years from now sharing news like today’s ACT news.”

“Invest” is the operative word. To Schaubach, “invest” means spending more money, specifically spending more money on a monopoly system of public education, which she credits for Minnesota’s ACT performance. More on that later. For now, let’s talk about “investment.”

The three most important principles of investing are “diversify, diversify and diversify.” The money-grubbing “Boiler Room” broker played by Ben Affleck in the film of the same name pressured the gullible into a single-investment scheme, but outside of a Hollywood production studio, there isn’t a financial counselor that would recommend dumping all one’s assists in a single “investment.”

Further, a good portfolio is one balanced between steady investments and promising opportunities. Over time, one watches one’s portfolio and shifts funds from investments trending downward to those showing more positive results. That doesn’t mean jumping on the latest fad, and it doesn’t mean turning one’s entire portfolio on a single quarter’s performance. It does mean constantly looking for new ideas from a diverse set of sources.

So, in that sense, I agree we should “invest” more in education. --- not spend more, but look to achieve a little balance in our educational portfolio. We should provide for a uniform system of education as is constitutionally mandated, but we shouldn’t put all our educational eggs in that one-system basket. We need to expand that portfolio to include meaningful school choice.

In the past two sessions, legislation has been proposed that would provide state vouchers to low-income families that they can apply towards tuition at any certified private school. The vouchers would pay up to the state instructional amount allocated by the state for each student; the balance of funds allocated for each student would remain with the school district. The legislation has yet to make it out of committees, a major factor being opposition from Education Minnesota and school district administrators.

Why the resistance? If we return to the investment metaphor, taxpayers are the investors, state government is the broker, and the public education system is a company seeking investment. If the metaphor were perfect, public education would compete with other education providers for tax dollars based on its performance – how well it was providing education to our kids. But the metaphor is not perfect – the virtual monopoly hold on education of government schools creates a system with virtually no completion. Public education does not have to compete for revenue,; it merely has to create the perception of doing a good job and imply that it could do even better with more “investment.”

Thus, it’s not surprising that Schaubach’s crowing about Minnesota’s ACT scores cackles with the duplicity of an Enron annual report. For example, the association web site notes “the U.S. Census Bureau puts Minnesota in a virtual three-way tie for the top percentage of people who graduate from high school.”

Aside from the fact that “completion rate,” which takes drop-outs into the mix when calculating graduation rates, is a more accurate measure,* the teachers union ignores the much publicized, much hushed, fact that urban Minnesota has one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation between children of color and white students.

The public school system is telling us they are addressing that problem, like Detroit once told us it was fixing quality problems with its cars. The difference is, while Detroit was fixing, consumers were buying foreign cars at record rates – to their benefit. While schools are fixing, low-income families are stuck in floundering schools – to their detriment. Perpetuating that situation is morally unacceptable.

Isn’t about time to take “investment” in education seriously and start thinking like investors? Isn’t past time to diversify our education portfolio? No one system has the only answer to educating kids. But like a well-balanced portfolio, a “public education” system including state-run schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools, home schools, cyber schools and that is open to new ideas will provide a better return on our education “investment.”