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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Reagan’s Ghost Can Help Tear Down Our Cages

By Guest Blogger — April 28, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jacob Pactor. Pactor is an English teacher at Speedway (Indiana) High School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Educational Leadership, and a former Teach Plus Teaching Fellow.

The ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts President Obama in a play written by a senior in my creative writing class. In Nick’s play, an intrepid detective eventually discovers a robot Vice President Biden manipulating Reagan’s hologram to haunt President Obama. Overall, the play is quite funny—it might appear on stage one day.

In present reality, the ghost of President Reagan wanders through our educational policy. In Indiana, for example, the state legislature is poised to redistribute school funding away from high-needs schools (urban and rural) and towards suburban schools. In other words, the state is ready to move money away from schools demonstrating growth with at-risk students and towards schools demonstrating achievement with middle class students. The changes make no educational sense, but they do respond to the political realities on the ground. (For more information about Indiana’s school funding fiasco, see “Difficulty Defining Fairness.”)

Not only do we fight between growth and achievement metrics, but we do so blind, in a cage. Across the country, we have no idea how much money it takes to educate a student. We do, however, know how much money we spend. In Indiana, for example, the three-year average for per pupil expenditure was $11,044 for the years 2011-2014. Only 48 percent went towards academic achievement; another 10.2 percent supported instructional support. Overhead, operations, and nonoperating expenditures averaged 41.3 percent of the total. (The averages do not equal 100.)

While we know what we spend, we have no idea if that money makes a difference, how much of a difference it makes, or if it is even well spent. We have no metrics in place to measure or contextualize. That lack of data creates the current anti-agreement reality of today’s us-versus-them politics.

That brings us back to President Reagan. Back in 1981, in a joint address to Congress, President Reagan said, “The entitlement programs that make up our safety net for the truly needy have worthy goals and many deserving recipients. We will protect them. But there’s only one way to see to it that these programs really help those whom they were designed to help. And that is to bring their spiraling costs under control.” I am sure Republicans cheered and Democrats rolled their eyes.

But Reagan was correct.

Education, as a safety net, must protect and prepare everyone.

And we must keep costs under control, with data informing efficiency.

Education exists as that empowering antidote—as the strongest tool to break the cycle of poverty and to create a new cycle of hope, hard work, and honor. We need to invest in teachers, 21st century schools, wraparound programs, communities, and students. That investment must be infrastructural: to ensure that every child learns in a school with working heat and running water. And that investment must be emotional: to ensure that every child lives in safe and secure home. These investments will cost money now for hopeful results in the future. It’s a big liberal dream.

The conservative reality wants to control those costs today. And we should. Schools and teachers must be held accountable for the results they produce. We need business acumen and entrepreneurial mindsets to move schools out of their hierarchical hibernation and into the present world of results, accountability, and autonomy. We need controls around our dreams.

Back in Indiana, we also are poised to pay somewhere between $50 million and $75 million for a new statewide assessment that will not help students learn, support college graduation, or transform teaching. In 2013-2014, we spent $3,000,507 to remediate students who did not pass the current test. Is that a good number? Too high? Not enough? We have no idea. And we have no metric to measure the effectiveness or value of the new test.

And because we have no idea, we argue semantics instead of improving the system. And because we don’t improve the system, we just tinker around the edges. And when we do that, teachers become political fodder. And then we have fewer teachers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Right now, we are like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. We have to break the rock apart. Or shrink the hill.

Here’s the liberal idea. Let’s double the amount we spend on students and their communities, increase to 75 percent the amount directly related to achievement, and give people—teachers, students, communities—something to work towards with the tools needed to do it. By 2025, Indiana could have 100 percent high school graduation, 0 percent college remediation, and a return on investment far greater than just dollars and cents.

And here’s the conservative reality. After that investment, let’s return our spending to 75 percent of today’s dollars. And let’s make a high school diploma, college degree, or technical certification a prerequisite for accessing safety net programs for those born after the initial investment begins.

While we do not know how much it takes to educate a child, we know what happens when we don’t. We know those without a high school diploma are more likely to end up in the safety net. We know they are less likely to pay higher taxes into a larger safety net. We know they are less likely to start a business or hire someone with a diploma to strengthen the safety net. Those human and financial costs are staggering. They should give us pause.

And, after we have recovered from seeing Reagan’s ghost, we should tear down the walls of our self-imposed political cage and do something truly remarkable. We should fund every student’s exceptional education, efficiently.

--Jacob Pactor

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