The Richmond Register

September 23, 2012

How good are our schools?

By Bill Robinson
Register Editor

RICHMOND — When economic times are tough, we focus more on penny-pinching, something we should do even in good times.

Even if they squander their own money, everyone wants government to be careful with the money taken from them in taxes. With education the most expensive service provided by state and local governments, it has become the target of government critics. Even the slightest increase in revenue, even without a tax increase, draws howls of protest.

In Pulaski County, the library board’s move to raise its property tax by 0.01 cent per $100 of assessed value to maintain the same level of revenue has generated organized opposition.

In Madison County, critics of the county schools like to hold up graphs showing steady decline in scores on basic skills tests to support their argument against extra revenue for education.

This past Monday, the Bluegrass Institute ranked Kentucky’s 169 school districts based on the ratio of their per-pupil spending to their students’ average ACT scores. Madison County came in 49th while Berea Independent came in 60.

If the formula used to rank the districts is valid, school officials could have taken some satisfaction in being near the top third of the state. In the region, Madison County was outranked only by Clark County, 27th, and Berea was outranked only by Clark and Jessamine County,  51st.

The was not school leaders’ reaction, however. As Superintendent Mike Hogg of Berea Independent told the Register, “easy metrics” probably aren’t the best way to evaluate a school district’s performance. Madison County Superintendent Tommy Floyd said school districts have to look at their own situations more than at their neighbors to judge themselves.

Berea could say it does a much better job than Fayette County because it spends $1,890 less per pupil, but their ACT scores are the same, 20.1. Could Madison County raise its average ACT score 1.1 points to equal Berea’s by spending $898 per pupil to match Berea’s spending? Or would it have to spend $1,988 to match Fayette County in both spending and test scores? Clark County spends $736 less per pupil than Madison, but its test scores were 1.1 points lower.

The Bluegrass Institute pointed to the independent districts in Barbourville and Harlan as proof that above-average achievement is possible, even with higher percentages of students from low income families and lower levels of public spending.

Barbourville Independent was ranked the fourth in efficiency. It got above-average test scores, 19.1, virtually the same as Madison County, while spending $8,238 per student, 60 percent of whom come from low-income families.

Local critics of the county school board say the district’s priorities are skewed. Too much is being spent on central-office administrators and facilities, especially sports facilities, they say.

Madison Central’s football team has begun playing and practicing in a new $4.6 million complex that will be the site of only four home games this year. The school’s band will host a competition Oct. 6. Even with daily practices in season by both the football and track teams, plus the band, most of the facility will sit idle for much of the year.

School board members noted that money for Central’s sports complex was saved from other construction projects. But, that money could have been saved and spent on the next new school the growing district will need.

Athletics involve only a relatively small number of students and do little to promote academic achievement, aside from the athletes who keep their grades up only to remain eligible to participate.

In Europe and Asia, where schools rarely are associated with athletic teams, America is sometimes mocked because of the emphasis on sports in our schools and its lack-luster academics.

No one in Europe or Asia was laughing, however, when U.S. Soldiers turned back German and Japanese forces in World War II. Just as the Duke of Wellington is quoted as saying the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, training for victory in World War II could be said to have started on the football fields of America.

Answers to complex problems are rarely simple, but the American habit of throwing money at problems should have been given up long ago. Now that there’s much less money to go around, spending more efficiently has become a necessity.

Higher teacher salaries won’t guarantee better teaching, but stagnant salaries won’t either. Still, performance should be a factor, along with level of training and length of service, in determining pay.

Even as an elementary student, I remember teachers openly expressing their resentment of higher-paid district administrators. At best they were ineffective, and at worst, they were a hindrance, the teachers didn’t mind saying. On top of that, those with the higher pay got their jobs through personal or political connections, complaining teachers would say.

This cynical joke is still told today. Ineffective teachers get promoted to principal, and ineffective principals get promoted to district administrator. That’s probably an unfair, cheap shot. But, government at all levels and in every endeavor must stretch every dollar and keep their priorities in focus, even if easy metrics aren’t the full measure of what they do.