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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Donors Choose And Policy Choice

Warning: Although this Blog post begins with a pleasant reference to a positive bit of news, it moves toward a running rant on the state of the state's education structure and contains more than an opinion or two. If that will scare you then turn away today and return tomorrow for a less strident piece. I will apologetically admit that this post is more opinionated in nature (and follows yesterday's post - Debate As Civil Discourse) than any of my other posts and may result from my attendance today at a forum of superintendents discussing the enormous financial challenges facing public schools. Here goes:

Two teachers recently submitted separate requests to Donors Choose, an on-line charity ( connecting generous people with children in classrooms. Their proposals were successful in attracting benefactors interested in advancing learning opportunities. Congratulations to the teachers for their efforts at obtaining much needed supplies for specific learning experiences. Thanks to the donors, who will receive heartfelt thank you notes from our learners. For more information on this subject, please read the article on our school district website.

Here's an explanation from the donors choose website of how the organization began.

How we started

" grew out of a Bronx high school where teachers experienced first-hand the scarcity of learning materials in our public schools.
Charles Best, then a social studies teacher, sensed that many people would like to help distressed public schools, but were frustrated by a lack of influence over their donations. He created in 2000 so that individuals could connect directly with classrooms in need.
Our mission is to improve public education by empowering every teacher to be a change-maker and enabling any citizen to be a philanthropist.
Our vision is a nation where students in every community have the resources they need to learn."

This project is a noble attempt to broker assistance to schools in need. Unfortunately, the massive cuts that presently imperil the financial resources of public schools throughout the nation will likely produce far more applications to donorschoose from teachers responding to reductions in supplies and materials resulting from continued budget shortfalls.

The hue and cry on both sides (I'm sure there are more than two sides of the issue) of the budget echoes the volume of artillery blasts on the battlefield. The angry exchanges and accusations, and the use and abuse of statistics in the support of interest groups - be they state legislators confronted by demands far in excess of available dwindling funds, irate taxpayers screaming of fatigue, employees fearful of losing their jobs, collective bargaining units threatened by the economic pinch, or politicians seeking to exploit the economic woes to advance agendas against labor unions - have obscured the interests and voice of those perhaps most impacted by the decisions - the learners.

My parent's generation grew up in the Great Depression and matured during World War II. They gained unprecedented access to higher education through the G.I. Bill that was initiated and extended to members of the armed services returning home from the war. The collective increase in knowledge and skills fueled a wave of prosperity that grew the national economy. In turn, my generation, the Baby Boomers, not only reaped the added support from their parent's newly minted middle class status amidst suburban sprawl, but also enjoyed the benefit of increased federal funds allocated in the form of grants (Pell Grants, Equal Opportunity Grants..) designed to help pay for college. The generation of my children was supported by a robust national economy charged by technology and innovation advances like the industries, and the dizzying and intoxicating largess of the stock market that offered a healthy amount of support for education.

Now what? What do we owe the members of the current generation? What are the implications of the future if we limit the hopes and dreams of public school learners inhabiting classrooms in the present? Who pays? -not now, but years from now when the cost of a decreased investment becomes clear? Will we remain leaders in the world? Will we be competitive? How will we explain what we did or didn't do, to our children and grandchildren?

Money alone is not the issue or the answer. I am an advocate of reforming education to prevent the suffocation of opportunities by rigid regulations, outdated traditions, and errant expectations. Unfunded state mandates may serve as an imposing obstacle. They also reduce the impact of local governance by elected school boards compelled to comply with legislated requirements that may not rest comfortably on districts as disparate as Green Island and Staten Island. Eliminating, or greatly minimizing these requirements that lack any accompanying dollars from the state could stimulate both savings and innovation. Education seems more regulated than virtually any other industry - at a time when creative solutions are needed for vexing problems. Our nation has witnessed many transformations through deregulation in industries such as airlines and energy. Policy makers and interest groups have played politics at the expense of those responsible for implementing and/or receiving services (see a Blog posted earlier this week for references to the bureaucratic hurdles impeding on-line learning experiences that could inexpensively expand the reach of our learners desiring enriching elective classes). I'd like to suggest we actively and aggressively pursue the weeding out of stifling regulations and mandates and hope that Governor Cuomo is not just conducting a chorus of rhetoric when he called forth a commission on mandate relief. We need more than perplexing sound bites and political bones tossed here and there with the intention of temporarily placating the public. We need real and strategic mandate relief.

I'm not one prone to conspiracy theories, nor do I point my finger at any stealth like organization or interest group. That would credit people and agencies with more insight and finesse than deserved. But, my fear as an advocate for Green Island originates from a skeptical opinion that small school districts are being slowly strangled by the combined (not coordinated) negative impact of the economy and the manipulations of thinly disguised policies on state aid and educational practice that can be exploited to ultimately steer small districts toward merging with another district as the only means of survival. It is a belief that these forces have coincidentally formed a perfect storm that lends itself to exploitation. Forced mergers, even with attractive financial incentives have not produced the consolidations expected or desired by those calling for centralization, efficiencies, and economy of scale because merging schools is not solely about finances as much as it tends to be about emotions, history, local governance, affiliation, and community identity. The circumstances resulting from the blend of fiscal problems, political rhetoric, and stricter requirements represent a more subtle mixture of regulation and practice that can leverage mergers as the only available recourse, leaving the hands of policy makers clean and the hands of the absorbed school community empty. It's just an idea.

Finally, I can honestly state that I am one superintendent who does not receive, or even approach, the salary of Governor Cuomo. He has effectively drawn attention to a red herring by calling out superintendents on their pay as an example of the waste in education and a source of potential savings. Not only would the collective salaries of every superintendent in the state not begin to bridge the funding gap between his budget proposal for education and the needs of public schools, but he should perhaps redirect his view toward the salary of the much heralded Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children's Zone charter school system, (prominently featured in the recently released documentary, Waiting for Superman). Though I have no doubt that Canada is an exceptional educational leader and innovator, I also have no doubt that his annual salary of $400,000 dollars is much, much more than twice the average salary of superintendents within the capital district region. 

Let's skip the rhetoric and stop the arguments and begin the earnest work of growing people by nurturing dreams and sustaining hope.

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