Proven Policies to Fix Failing Schools


Out-of-control costs, struggling students, failing schools. 

Welcome to urban America's public school system, which drives away parents who want their children to be prepared for the future. Recently, these failures have been increasingly highlighted by the flight from traditional K-12 schools to charter school programs. Charters are publicly funded schools that get less in tax dollars than conventional schools but have far more autonomy in creating and implementing curricula. A July 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, "Detroit Schools on the Brink," details how Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have lost tens of thousands of students to charter schools and suburban districts in recent years. This is due to DPS's graduation rate of less than 58 percent and overall track record of dismal student performance.

Similar problems plague most urban school districts in the United States, including Cleveland's, despite massively increased investments in school funding, smaller class size, teacher pay, and more. Cleveland's public schools currently face a $53 million budget deficit, an enrollment loss of approximately 40,000 over the last decade, and a scandalously low 54 percent graduation rate. The state of Ohio officially lists close to three-quarters of the district's schools as being on academic watch or in an academic emergency, the state's worst categories.

Cleveland's school system should look to New Orleans for guidance on how to turn things around. New Orleans has been on its heels economically for a long time, well before 2005's Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city's infrastructure, including school buildings. More than 100 schools were closed statewide in Louisiana as a result of the storm, displacing approximately 118,000 school-age children. In the wake of Katrina, state officials encouraged school choice by facilitating charters and giving administrators broad leeway to get schools operational, often in non-traditional settings.

[Article continues after video, Fix The Schools: Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey, episode 2]

Their innovations succeeded. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Louisiana's burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans' estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005.

Why are New Orleans schools succeeding? Because of these basic principles that can easily be adapted to many different circumstances.

The Decentralized Portfolio Management Approach. The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest-performing schools, and creating alternative opportunities for students in the least-productive schools.

Student-Based Budgeting. Most districts assign large amounts of money to existing schools regardless of enrollment. In student-based budgeting, funds are attached to individual students who can take that money directly to the public school of their choice. Special-needs students carry larger amounts of money, reflecting the extra help they will need. Most important, funding "arrives" at the selected schools in real dollars that administrators can use for whatever they want-more instructors, more technology, or more supplies.

Give Principals Autonomy And Accountability. Principals must be able to make decisions about how to spend resources in terms of staffing and programs. The more "unlocked" dollars a principal controls, the more autonomy that principal has over designing the school to meet the needs of the students in the school. And the more autonomy a principal has, the more accountable she should be held for success or failure.

End Residential Assignment and Embrace Open Enrollment. To help improve outcomes for students, families need to be able to choose between schools rather than be assigned to them based on location. This gives less-popular schools an incentive to improve performance and hence attract and retain families.

Close Low-Performing Schools and Redirect Kids and Resources. School districts should take a hard line: Close failing schools. Open new schools. Replicate great schools. Repeat as needed. As important, clear timelines for judging schools and closing them need to be adopted and stuck with.

Empower the Parents. Districts should restructure schools in which a majority of parents sign a petiton asking to convert the establishment into a charter.

Collective Bargaining Relief. School districts need to work toward collective bargaining reforms that allow individual schools to operate more like charter schools that are free from many of the rules and regulations governing employee management in district schools. Far from disenfranchising teachers and other staff, it will allow the best of their numbers to bargain effectively based on individual performance.

Seniority-Neutral Policies. Seniority-based layoffs do not consider teacher effectiveness, meaning that teachers who make vital contributions to school success can nevertheless be among the first to receive pink slips. Urban districts should move to a seniority-neutral layoff policy and work to develop a fair performance-based evaluation system that would give principals and superintendents concrete performance criteria to make decisions about which teachers are let go.

Budget and Funding Transparency. Urban school districts should be required to provide accounting data at the school level and to use actual cost data, not district averages (which often mask huge variations in expenditures). This accounting method will promote the equitable distribution of general education funding and help ensure that the recommended additional funding for low-income students and English learners actually is used for those students.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.

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  1. How to save the city:

    Step 1, destroy city. . .

    We may have trouble selling this one.

    1. Will i have to leave the city i love?

  2. We won’t have to worry about poor black children:

    Stupak notes that his negotiations with House Democratic leaders in recent days have been revealing. “I really believe that the Democratic leadership is simply unwilling to change its stance,” he says. “Their position says that women, especially those without means available, should have their abortions covered.” The arguments they have made to him in recent deliberations, he adds, “are a pretty sad commentary on the state of the Democratic party.”What are Democratic leaders saying? “If you pass the Stupak amendment, more children will be born, and therefore it will cost us millions more. That’s one of the arguments I’ve been hearing,” Stupak says. “Money is their hang-up. Is this how we now value life in America? If money is the issue–come on, we can find room in the budget. This is life we’re talking about.”

    1. Death mills for pre-citizens!

  3. As a native New Orleanian, I never thought I’d see the day where N.O. schools would held up as a model of anything.

    1. Hopefully, other cities can get their act together without a natural disaster to shake things up.


    2. Not their public schools, at least.

  4. What are Democratic leaders saying? “If you pass the Stupak amendment, more children will be born, and therefore it will cost us millions more.

    Ho. Lee. Crap.

    And these are the same people banging their shoes on the podium saying there won’t be death panels, no way, no how.

    1. No shit. Pure evil.

    2. Damn! I should have read further.

    3. Is that a direct quote?

  5. Shaker Heights has/had a decent school system. as do/did West G. and Chagrin. Solon had a huge white trash back when, but its schools seemed decent enough, too…
    haven’t lived in the area since late 80s/early 90s: if anything has changed, SORRY – didn’t mean to misrepresent

  6. You’re going to have trouble selling this one: Even Diane Ravitch doesn’t believe in school choice anymore.

        1. Of course, if she were an oil company, we’d have to question her motives. Could it be that the ones who promote state solutions increase their influence and power while those who do the opposite remain relatively unknown? Why, self-interest exists when people promote state solutions! You don’t say!

          Privatization and choice works everywhere else in life, so why not now? Of course, it’s very difficult to test this theory in an environment already perverted and destroyed by regulation.

  7. Of course the elephant in the room is the preponderance of African Americans in our big city schools that are failing.

    We need to discuss this, along with questioning the black/African American societies’ influnence on the education of their youth, rather than always quickly blaming it on poverty and/or percieved racism.

    1. A good start. Now you just need to start a crazy blog and start telling people to ask questions and post the responses on youtube. We’ll make a good replacement of you yet.

      1. Sorry Warty. I dont understand your last sentence.

        1. Are you the Lonecracko?

          1. Heh, good one.

            Guess there are no failing schools in Appalachia, eh?

  8. I can top all of those suggestions: end all government funding, operation, and mandating of education, and turn it over to the free market and charity. When parents are spending their own money, they will pay more attention to the quality of the schools, and make sure their kids aren’t wasting it.

    For-profit schools with free competition will get rid of sub-standard teachers and unneeded administrators that detract from product quality and profitability.

  9. For the student-based budgeting idea, how does that work? Do the students (or their parents) have to decide in advance of the next fiscal year’s budget where they are going for school? What happens for families who move into a district mid-school year? I doubt that they would have to pony up the $____ in school mandated tax money upon moving into their new house and starting school within the week.

    I understand the concept, just not the implementation. How is the money allocated; i.e. how is the enrollment size determined–or for that matter how do the districts know how many students they need to set aside funds for?

    1. Also, I meant to ask about those who choose to homeschool. Are they allowed to dip into this charter-school funding system, kinda as a school voucheresque system?

      1. As a future homeschooler, I’d like to just keep my own money and use it at my discretion to support my children’s education.

        I don’t want anybody else’s money for it, and I don’t want to be forced to fund somebody else’s kids (unless I choose to).

  10. my comment is that I have a 3 yr old daughter. I lived in Cleveland 10 yrs. I did my Bachelors in Music at Cleveland State University. Last I checked only 12% of the people who live in cleveland have a college education. Due to gang violence and bad schools there was no was on earth I was going to raise my only child in cleveland. Especially after doing my elementary and secondary observations before I changed my major. I work for Akron Schools as a sub and have been to about 20 schools between the middle and high schools. Akron has open enrollment and a much higher graduation rate. The attitudes of the students are better too and Akron is undoubtable and urban school district. There is still a gap between black and white student achievement, but it is 90% at least better than Cleveland. I do however live in Kent in Portage county but I plan on sending my daughter to Miller South 4-8 who is in Akron and takes students from outside the district. Can you say private school quality in a public school.

  11. One problem with closing failing schools – what are you basing the closure on?

    If it’s in comparison to the state standard, or state average, the specific school usually has jack all to do with those results. When 90% of your kids are on a free lunch, they’re being raised by their grandparents because they’re dad ran off and their mom’s a crack addict, and those grandparents are most likely illiterate… you’re not going to have a lot of success as a teacher. There’s only so much any school system can do, unless we just take the kids away and board them at the school.

    My mom works in an inner small-city elementary, and that’s exactly what her student’s family lives are like, black and white trash.

    So should her job be dependent on working miracles?

    That said, I am hugely in favor of school choice, of removing seniority, and of actually holding teachers accountable for how their kids improve as they progress through school. We just need to realize that you’re starting with a different baseline in different districts, for cultural reasons.

  12. Get government out of the schools, period. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting a different result?

    And when teachers are indoctrinated and overtly required to subordinate their own judgement to pre-conceived nonsense like “white privilege causes black failure”, what exactly do you think is going to improve using the products of those ‘education’ departments? The education they’re peddling isn’t anything but a very thinly disguised dose of communist, “down with America” crap. Give control of schooling to the parents; let them home school, organize to make schools for their kids, all of the ways to do education. When you let the government into education, you’ve predetermined failure. Oh, by the way, Detroit’s graduation rate is 25% according to the State Department of Education; not 58%. Take a look at Detroit using satellite photos and guess why.

  13. I’ve got one. Let’s make the students responsible for paying back all the money spent on them if they don’t graduate. Graduate; free education. Don’t graduate and you’re on the hook for big money.

  14. Why should government be in the business of education? The “public goods” argument won’t fly; the primary benefits of a decent education are to the student, not to “society.” With a decent education, you can get a decent job; without, you’ll be at lower levels of the economic ladder, or not working at all. Mass education was developed on the free market first, before the government co-opted the field. Today’s home schoolers show just how bad the schools are. I challenge anyone to locate a government school which teaches first- and second-graders negative numbers, exponents, fractions, decimals, cryptography, and binary arithmetic – all of which are known to my 7 year old home-schooled grandson.

  15. While I commend you for recognizing the importance of education, the problem with the whole “school choice” approach is that there isn’t any evidence that it is working on a large scale.

    Arizona leads the nation in ‘choice’, and they have diverted a lot of federal and state dollars to opening charter schools around the state. Funding follows the child in this state. What they’ve found is that charters are underperforming the traditional district schools…often by a large margin. To make it worse, the high performing charters are often just ‘skimming’ the top performing kids from area schools and are leaving the remainder behind and the local district schools with fewer dollars to work with.

    There have been a number of problems with financial irregularity (see the lastest NY Times article on Imagine Schools) and when failed experimental charters finally collapse, the district schools have to re-absorb these kids and deal with the even larger learning gap that was created.

    I’m not an educator – just a parent. I appreciate innovative programs, but after researching charter schools in their entirety I have come to the conclusion that it is much more effective – both academically and financially – to innovate from within.

  16. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  17. It is interesting and informative article. Thank you.

  18. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

  19. Another excellent post, thank you, this is why I continue visiting here!

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