John Garen, Ph.D.

While a recent report on the Newport Independent School District focuses on one Northern Kentucky community, it certainly has relevance for the entire Commonwealth.

The report illustrates the many problems endemic to a large, public bureaucracy which many school systems have become — poor performance, demoralized employees and costing a lot of money.

The report assessing this district’s students perform very poorly when it comes to basic reading and math skills. There’s a great deal of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover. Administrative spending is high. Yet, Newport has one of the highest funding levels of any district in the state — at over $20,000 per pupil.

Sadly, this pattern of poor performance and high cost is repeated often in many Kentucky public schools, leading to a long-term statewide stagnation in overall student performance while per-pupil funding has almost continuously risen. (See my paper “Facts and Trends Regarding Performance and Funding of K-12 in Kentucky,” December 2020.)

The Newport report calls for sweeping changes to raise the culture and performance of the schools. It recommends, for example, raising academic standards, retaining and recruiting good teachers, developing school leaders to implement changes and improving accountability.

All are sensible recommendations and all apply to many Kentucky school districts. But a key to attaining them is assuring that the system doesn’t keep funding school failures; rather it should fund school success.

This is the essence of accountability.

Reformers frequently rely entirely on political accountability for change, i.e., political pressure on state and local governmental organizations. While this is worthwhile, too much reliance on political “solutions” to problems in public schools has led to the current disappointing results.

A far superior form of accountability is embedded in the demands of the marketplace — poorly performing organizations lose their clients and their revenue.

Applying this to schools means:

· Funding “follows” the student, and the family chooses the school the child attends. An important companion policy is encouraging the opening of new schools so that parents have a wider range of schools to choose from.

· Poorly performing schools lose students (and revenue) to the better performing schools; more of the latter can open and the former must reform or close.

· Schools are held accountable (and incentivized) for good performance.

· Good performance requires practices recommended by the report, including recruiting/retaining better teachers, high standards, a healthy school culture and good leadership.

The best way to attain market-like accountability is through the adoption of education savings accounts or vouchers, where each family is awarded funds to be spent on their children’s schooling, whether public or private. Another good option is a healthy set of independent and innovative public charter schools which parents may choose.

In this setting, there’s little reliance on parents having to “play politics” by schmoozing school officials to gain the type of schooling they want for their children. Instead, if their child is suffering in an ill-suited or poorly performing school, they simply move them.

Some commentators claim parents cannot be trusted to make good schooling decisions for their kids, especially low-income and poorly-educated parents. I dispute that claim. The top-performing charter schools in New York City have tens of thousands of applicants for whom there’s no space. These applicants are from the low-income, low-education demographic noted above, but they know which schools are best for their kids.

It’s noteworthy that every school district in Kentucky could embrace more choice for parents and encourage education innovation by allowing a wide set of charter schools to open in their districts. Sadly, I doubt many districts will do so.

It looks like it will take state government action to establish a voucher-like option or a broader charter school program to accomplish more choice, accountability and better-performing schools.

John Garen, Ph.D., is BB&T Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Kentucky and a Bluegrass Institute Scholar. He can be reached at jgaren1953@gmail.com.

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