Money for Nothing 

Why the debate on the school budget misses the point

Why the debate on the school budget misses the point

Every time a dramatic, overwrought debate flares up over education, it’s always—always—about money. Which makes sense, since money pays teachers, builds new schools, and allows for new programs and technologies. A lot of what’s wrong with public education can be fixed with dollars and cents: decrepit classrooms, overcrowding, salaries too low to attract the best and brightest. But the discussion shouldn’t be exclusively about finance. Metro could double its spending on schools without making a dent on drop-out rates, lagging test scores, student discipline and lack of parental involvement. And enrollment at private schools wouldn’t drop a bit.

The debate over what money will or won’t fix is coming to a head in Metro. School officials say next year’s proposed $42 million in budget cuts will slash 500 staff positions and close down Renaissance High School, which was started two years ago to give troubled students a second chance. What’s more, Mayor Bill Purcell apparently doesn’t expect the increasingly conservative Metro Council to pass the tax increase needed to plug the shortfall. Not without solid evidence that money produces results.

The mayor’s office is now taking a long-term look at Metro’s school system. While evaluating what the school board can live without may be a useful budget exercise, there’s nothing useful about the messy public spectacle of parents wringing their hands at meetings over budget cuts, or union members showing up with posters that read, “Don’t Fire My Mommy.” That just fosters the perception that the school system is about as stable as Liza Minnelli’s marriages. It stampedes parents who can afford to send their children to private school, but who hadn’t really thought about it before. At the same time, it publicly lowers the perceived value of Metro public education.

So here’s a radical proposal: What if Purcell rewrote the terms of the debate? What if he gave the school system the money it wants, in exchange for the drastic reforms it needs?

There is logic to this carrot/stick incentive package. Given that the school system hasn’t improved dramatically, after three years of Pedro Garcia’s leadership, Purcell is right that the Council won’t approve the needed 30- to 40-cent property-tax increase. In the minds of the Council members—and the people who put them there—that would be throwing good money after bad. Most socially conservative Council members are already skeptical about public education. But if Purcell tied a property-tax increase to an overhaul of how Metro runs its school system, he might be able to swing over more converts.

Here are just a few back-of-the-envelope initiatives the mayor could propose:

Merit pay for teachers. If a 20-something Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times wanted to settle in Nashville and write for the Scene, she’d be offered a lot more money than I currently make. And she should be. However, if this were the Metro school system—or really, most any other public-service job—she’d make about $10,000 less. Go figure. In the real world (read: private sector), seniority doesn’t trump ability. Teachers should therefore be paid according to merit, not how many years they’ve cashed a check. In just about every school, principals know who the good and bad teachers are—and if they don’t, they should be canned. Why not decentralize the process and allow pay based on ability? Attention union leaders: This is what’s called an “incentive”—something that exploits a quirk in human nature and encourages people to do a job better. It works in just about every setting.

Open enrollment. In 2002, then at-large Metro Council member Chris Ferrell proposed opening up the Hillsboro Cluster and giving parents more choices where to send their children. Because the plan made perfect sense, it went nowhere. It wasn’t even seriously debated. Since there’s no leadership on the school board to address opening up enrollment, the mayor should at least float the idea.

Obviously, there are logistical issues involved in allowing parents to choose their schools. But it would make the system more attractive to the many parents hemorrhaging out of Metro into private schools. However, this may be too radical an idea for the mayor, council and school board to explore. So what about...

Limited open enrollment. There’s no logical defense for why some schools, like Antioch High, are overcrowded and others like Whites Creek are under-utilized. Why not give Antioch parents the option to send their kids to any school in the district that could use warm bodies? This might appeal only to a few parents—and hence only put a dent in the problem—but at the very least it provides a way to test the open-enrollment idea on a manageable scale. This is not brain surgery. We already allow children to attend magnet schools outside their districts, and magnet schools are arguably the one aspect of the school system that more or less works. Why not repeat it?

Recruit second-career teachers. If Metro can spend over a million dollars to promote recycling, it can allocate at least some of Curby’s pocket change to lure older professionals into public-school service. Under the current system, a C-plus education major has a better chance to get hired as a science teacher than a 50-something doctor who wants a late-life career change. Who would you rather have as a teacher?

Encourage charter schools. Again, this subscribes to the premise that the more choice you give parents, the more attractive the system will look. What’s so bad about this? If the mayor gave his stamp of approval to the concept, at the very least, more people might give them a serious look.

Sure, these are rough ideas, and some of them no doubt look better on the page than they would in practice. And surely there are many other reforms we haven’t considered. But when debates on public education focus squarely on money, to the exclusion of every other concern, they fail to address the many other problems schools face.

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