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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Way to Fund Education in Texas: A Modest Proposal

I submit the following modest proposal (at some risk of exposing my ignorance, I'm afraid).  I have made this proposal twice to legislators who represented my district  when I lived in the the greater Austin area, and to a TEA committee hearing three years ago, in the presence of the Commissioner.
Here goes:
The negative connotations we associate with the word "bureaucracy" derive from the fact that bureaucracies tend to become slaves to their processes rather than slaves to their customers.  They tend to move ever toward higher levels of incentivizing adherence to process/protocol and their own institutional sustainability, rather than incentivizing the outcomes desired.
In the case of public schools we have some very noble, worthy, and clearly stated desired outcomes: 
1) graduate ALL children, regardless of their station in life, and
2) have ALL children college-ready, whether they choose to attend college or not.
It seems to me that we would invigorate a rather talented public workforce (i.e., educators) if we were to fund school districts by the desired outcomes (graduates + college readiness) rather than funding the processes (e.g., G/T programming, reading programs, compensatory education, dropout recovery initiatives, compulsary attendance, etc., etc.).  (We already see this dynamic at play in the more successful charter schools).  To be sure, it cost more to graduate a non-English speaker or a student with special needs than it does a student with no apparent cognitive/social/emotional learning barriers.  Rather than funding the process, I suggest incentivizing the outcomes desired. 
Some examples:
  • Graduating average old general education Joe would garner a school X dollars in state funding.
  • Graduating Sue, who is an economically disadvantaged student, garners the school X, plus additional Y dollars.
  • Graduating Sam(antha), who is an economically disadvantaged student, but who has also demonstrated college readiness, garners the school X+Y+Z dollars.

You get the idea, the money flows to schools based on the numbers of graduates they have, and the kinds of students they are graduating.  I realize this proposal is akin to the relieve-us-of-the-mandates movement. In this proposal, I am suggesting that schools be given REAL opportunity to be flexible and innovative.  Yes, they are already mandated to to be both, by statute (federal and state); but, "flexible and innovative" have been largely unachievable because of the statutory constraints that prevent them from being both (e.g., length of school day requirements, prescribed instructional days in the year, burdensome attendance policies, credentialing limitations, uniform start dates, etc.).  The change in process would require a phase-in (just like changing from TAAS to TAKS did).

Does this model introduce an element of competition?  Sure does.  Actually, it's more of an acknowledgment of current realities.  Most of those that work in schools already feel it, and the on-line delivery options (even those now provided at the state level) are only increasing that competition.  Thus, schools are all becoming ever more focused on providing a quality product to their constituency (because if they don't, the "customers" take their business elsewhere).

Some might argue that "diploma factories" would spring up.  I don't think so, because of the duality of Texas'  quality assurance checks: 
1)  The state has a clearly defined curriculum and uniform credit requirements for graduation. 
2)  Receipt of diploma requires passage of Exit-level TAKS and/or EOC exams (high-stakes exams). 
The systems in place would make it very difficult to "fake" either of these standards.

Essentially, this proposal would allow schools to mush, morph, and adapt themselves into any shape/form necessary to produce the graduates desired by statute (being additionally rewarded if the graduates are the hard-to-educate kind).

I freely acknowledge that this proposal addresses only the "adequacy" side of the issue, not the "equity" element.  But, it's a start.

Interesting times afford us the opportunity to consider/deploy unique measures. At the risk of sounding cliche, the opportunity to consider real shifts in paradigm.  Perhaps it's time for an idea like this to gain some traction.

Thanks for listening.


  1. This is a very interesting solution. I know we have not gone to this model obviously, but how were you received in Austin and by our legislators?

  2. Mostly, I've received responses of interest and intrigue. However, by the kinds of questions that follow it becomes apparent to me that long-held assumptions about the way funding "should" occur trump this idea.
    I'll keep trying...


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