OP-ED | Deal or No Deal on Education Reform
In an economy increasingly defined by the substitution of labor with capital, the future of the labor force will be principally defined by being smarter, faster, and more willing to embrace change than the competition. Put more simply, the quality of our education will determine how prosperous we are both as individuals and as a society.
The current education architecture, though, too often churns out people ill prepared for this brave new economic world. Though reforming this system is at the top of Governor Dan Malloy’s 2012 legislative agenda, the opening gambit from the Connecticut Education Association this week suggests that the path to real reform could be much more challenging than anyone imagines.
After Governor Dan Malloy’s education reform principles included tenure reform and expanded support for alternatives like charter schools, the stage seemed to be set for a head-on collision between the first Democratic Governor in twenty years and the politically powerful Connecticut Education Association (CEA).
CEA represents more than 41,000 teachers in Connecticut, making it the largest teachers’ union in the state. The union, which endorsed 2010 gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont rather than Malloy, responded to the Malloy proposals with their own report, titled “A View from the Classroom”. They turned the most heads by endorsing teacher tenure reform and, to a lesser extent, some form of performance measurements for their members. Compared to the stonewalling and foot dragging that usually characterizes CEA’s response to such reforms, the change seemed to represent a breakthrough.
Viewed in the context of the rest of their document, however, reveals a far more difficult truth. It rehashes the traditional wish list from the teachers’ union – more spending, more obstacles to becoming a teacher, and a tunnel vision focus on public schools. It recommends a number of action items to the legislature, including incentives for all-day kindergarten, more certification requirements for preschool educators, enhanced anti-bullying tools, and increased state spending for local education expenses.
The CEA plan plainly sets up the taxpaying public for a ‘compromise’ that trades reform on tenure and performance measures for increased education spending by the state. The only thing compromised, though, would be the point of the reforms in the first place.
The goal of tenure reform and performance measurement is to make education more productive – yielding better educational outcomes while creating greater financial efficiency within the current education budget. Trading these reforms for increased spending on education defeats their purpose.
A more workable set of reforms would make the systemic changes first and then use them to free up resources within current education budgets over a relatively short period of time, perhaps as little as three years.
Teacher tenure reform and performance measurements are important reforms that need to be enacted – before any other action is taken on funding decisions for at least three years. The result of a performance measurement system should be an evaluation that allows administrators to make improvements. Too often, however, a local school board that seeks to control costs on their personnel line item face full-fledged political combat to make it happen. But because Connecticut’s bind arbitration laws hang like the sword of Damocles over the process, the unions can often stymie such reforms. Unions can have the ability to protect their members and even to dilute systemic changes so that they are implemented gradually instead of in shocks. But they should not continue to hold veto power over every potential reform.
More broadly, the education model needs to change just as the economic model is changing. Smaller class sizes should be a goal, but expanding the size of the public school and increasing the number of public school teachers need not be the means to achieve it. More schools, be they charter, magnet, or even homeschools, and giving parents the ability to choose which is best for their children is the better solution.
Though education costs often make up the vast majority of local budgets and education cost sharing makes up a significant portion of the state budget, few citizens know how these funds are spent. Bringing greater transparency to the process by making the data public – by putting it on the school website, even in a simple spreadsheet format, will be a positive step.
This framework makes more sense because it puts the reform first and then allows for evaluations of spending decisions after a defined period of time. Not only does it reflect the current fiscal reality (the state has no money), it also allows the reforms to enable better spending instead of just more spending.
There are fundamental traits to be recognized in an economy that constantly replaces labor with capital. The only stable employment is self-employment. The new nimble is the new normal. The path to prosperity starts by engaging technology, then troubleshooting it followed by creating and designing it, and ultimately investing in it. Most importantly, all of it is dependent on a population that has smarts, speed, and a willingness to embrace change – the byproducts of a high quality education. Reform can’t come soon enough.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com