Monday, January 14, 2008

Public Money for Public Schools

Public School Reform

A recent article in the Arizona Daily Star informed the public of this series of town halls concerning public school reform. I have a few suggestions in the area of school reform.

Short and long term reforms in these categories will be discussed:

Physical facilities
Curricular issues

1. Physical facilities

The present facilities require busing to the school site. If the school sites were smaller and more neighborhood oriented, no busing would be required. I suggest renting buildings like charter schools presently are doing, which would make the schools within walking distance of the people.

If present regulations on the part of the state or city do not allow the use of these buildings, then these regulations should be reviewed. I believe that the public school system is choked with expensive regulation designed to provide jobs for the regulators.

Any new schools should be located where no busing is required. This includes high schools.

Each of these small schools should have distance learning, internet learning and enough equipment for each student to have access to advanced learning. Any new school should employ ‘green’ technology and retrofits should be considered.

*Research indicates that smaller schools are more successful in academia and discipline.

2. Curricular Issues

The state of Arizona has a competent course of study for the students already in place, plus a battery of tests designed to diagnose success levels in the classroom. The funding for the curriculum and testing has been adequate and all this investment should not be discarded.

This course of study developed over the years by the Arizona Department of Education should also be taught and it is the duty of the teachers to teach it. It is the duty of the administrator to make sure the curriculum is taught and that the materials necessary to teach it are available to the teachers. This includes books and other materials for all the students, which is not currently the case.

The establishment of internet learning, equipment and books for each student within the schools would ensure that the students would receive expert instruction or remediation in any subject. Small high schools could participate in the internet learning while teachers on site assist and monitor progress. No bright student would be without learning opportunity.

The small high school need not be large in order to offer various topics taught by experts. The large high school concept was originally justified in that students would have access to more teachers in more subjects, but the internet corrects that problem. I believe that the huge high school concept results in higher drop out rates.

It appears that the textbook funding formula has severe problems and that students are deprived of books when the textbook money from the state is diverted into other spending. This practice needs review.

3. Staffing

A change from large, distant schools to small, neighborhood schools need not result in laying off of staff members. It is suggested that the class sizes be reduced to no more than 25 plus an aide to assist with instruction and recordkeeping. Money now spent on busing could now be used to hire more instructional staff. I know that this is money in a different category but that can be changed. Huge sums are now spent on busing, insurance etc. that could be used in the classroom or assist in dealing with the deficits in the state budget. Class sizes are too large, which leads to less effective, less personal instruction.

The small schools would have a head teacher who is given time to do administrative duties but the larger percentage of time would be spent in the classroom. The head teachers would report to an administrator over several small schools.

4. Transportation

The finance of school transportation by the state needs review and reform. It appears to encourage the use of busing through the funding formula. It appears that fuel costs are continuing to rise and it makes better sense to phase out busing rather than take an ever increasing bite out of the state budget to continue this wasteful practice. The high cost of insurance is also another reason to phase out busing.

School busing can be gradually phased out beginning at the present time. Programs for merging public transportation with student busing are used elsewhere successfully. Students ride public transportation to school. The school bus system and the public transportation system are actually an expensive duplication of services that wastes fuel, equipment and other costs.

This obviously requires an expansion of public transportation, which would be a good thing for our city. Compare the costs of the school busing and public transportation. Giving parents a voucher for rides might be cheaper than financing all those school buses.

I don’t see this as a job loss. The expansion of public transportation would absorb the workers. Bus maintenance and repair yards would still function, but as part of the public transportation system.

5. Budget

The phase out of the transportation costs would benefit the state and the schools by freeing up money currently spent hauling students. If students were charged a nominal fee to ride or the state provided vouchers to ride, the public transportation system would benefit financially.

Another wasteful practice is the provision of cars and mileage to administrators. This should be reviewed and cuts made. Video conferencing should be required in lieu of expensive travel. Long term contracts with administrators often result in high payoffs, which discourages excellence in job performance. If conferences are attended by anyone, attendees should be required to share the ideas with other staff members at meetings.

Insurance should not be free to any employee. Insurance costs could be contained by allowing staff members to control the money used to buy insurance. Each staff member would then be free to buy insurance on their own, join a plan or not have insurance. This idea would free the schools from being insurance providers for the staff and would allow staff members freedom of choice for the money they earned.

6. Sports

Physical education in the form of lifelong exercise activities and games that anyone can play without expensive equipment should be incorporated into the curriculum of the small schools.

Extracurricular sports would be available at a central location on bus routes, so students can access it. Students would be responsible for their own transportation by using the public buses. Small high schools could join a consortium and field teams in all sports for both genders. A few buses would be retained for team trips. Brilliant sports students would have the opportunity to shine and earn scholarships just like now.

Extracurricular sports would be funded through the schools by donations from parents and the business community, plus public funds and grants. It is my belief that students should not have to pay to participate in extracurricular sports if the programs are under the aegis of the public schools. These sports opportunities should be available to all, no matter what the income of the family.

I hope these suggestions assist in the school reform process. My qualifications for making these suggestions come from a long career in public education where I taught in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California. My educational credentials are: B.A. University of Arizona in Education 1973, M.A. in Educational Leadership Northern Arizona University 1990, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction 1995, Northern Arizona University. My dissertation, titled An Historical Review of Public Education in Arizona, not only describes the development of public education in Arizona from 1865, but gives reform ideas and other relevant information. I am a Tucson native and deeply care about the future of this state and nation.

Dorothy Prater Niemi