Public education, particularly in Saint Louis, is in a state of distress. Ineffectual leadership, failed reform initiatives, and declining student performance are just some of the symptoms of a much larger disease that could seriously cripple the future of this country. Recent attempts at reform can be divided into two categories: reshuffling the administrative deck and throwing more money at the problem. Clearly, neither of these solutions has succeeded. It is time for a more fundamental change.
Recently, two state legislators from Saint Louis, Sen. Jeff Smith and Rep. T.D. El-Amin, offered some suggestions for such reform. They rest firmly on the notion that teachers must be treated more like private employees, with all the associated privileges and responsibilities. Their proposals include new pay structures for teachers, mandatory testing of teachers, tax credits to private citizens for donations to after-school enrichment programs, lengthening the school day and school year, and mandatory state-funded early childhood education.
The proposal would offer incentives for teachers to specialize in the most needed areas, particularly science, math, special education, and English as a Second Language. It would also offer bonuses to teachers for student performance. By the same token, those teachers that do not meet performance standards would receive professional development training; those failing more than once would be fired. Setting benchmarks that reflect a teacher’s performance and are not tied solely to the performance of each individual student is the key to making this system of compensation work. Such a rubric would reflect the unfortunate reality that some students simply don’t want to learn, and avoid blaming the teachers for those student’s failures. This will create a pay structure that acknowledges the reality faced by teachers in the public system; a structure that encourages innovation and emphasizes performance.
The plan also calls for state-funded pre-kindergarten education for all children between the ages of three and five, as well as tax credits to private donors who fund after-school enrichment programs. Both of these ideas are good on the surface, but the devil is in the details. A robust pre-school market already exists, and any attempt to require such additional schooling should take advantage of that market. It would be highly inefficient to build separate infrastructure for a network of new, state-funded, state-administered preschools. Rather, a practical approach would be to give every child a voucher to attend the existing preschool of their parents’ choosing. This method would place responsibility for kids’ educations squarely on the shoulders of parents, getting them involved in the education process early and hopefully keeping them involved throughout. If necessary, minimum performance standards could insure that preschools are optimally preparing student to enter kindergarten in the public system.
Similarly, private donations bolstered with tax credits for after-school programs should be distributed to schools chosen by that private donor, and students interested in those programs should have the option of attending the schools offering them. Injecting this small amount of competition into the system will encourage schools to seek this unique brand of public-private funding, fostering diversity between and within schools and districts. This choice-created diversity will more efficiently meet individual student needs than the current system that requires every school to be all things to all students.
Changing the way teachers are compensated and giving individual students and parents greater choice, and therefore a greater stake, in their education will serve the goal of creating a more effective and efficient system. The possibility of real failure or real success created by competition will embolden schools and districts to strive for real excellence, rather than simply maintaining the defective status quo.
Steve Bernstetter is an intern at the Show-Me Institute and a graduate student in Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.