The Back To School Edition

Ken Gorrell

by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

You could almost hear the sighs of relief across the state these last couple of weeks as parents sent their children back to school. It’s been an annual late-summer ritual for longer than any of us can remember. And like most rituals, it’s an activity few think much about. It’s just what we do; this year same as last year. And that’s a problem.
Two problems, in fact: educational and fiscal. Educationally, it’s a problem because our public schools have become fortresses of mediocrity. They may not be particularly good at meeting the needs of those locked inside, but they’re great at keeping at bay the forces of change. Eighth-graders may test at 30%- 40% proficiency in math year in, year out, but we keep sending them back for more of the same. Many defend the status quo against those who dare question the dismal results.
Fiscally it’s a problem because, even as they fail to make the grade, they suck up more wealth from the nation’s economy. The education establishment’s answer to the question “How much money do you need to do the job?” comes straight from the mouth of Edward G. Robinson’s Key Largo character, the gangster Johnny Rocco: “More!” When asked if he’ll ever get enough, Johnny said, “Well, I never have.” And that’s Big Education’s answer, too.

Much electronic ink has been spilled pointing out Big Ed’s shortcomings, with solutions shaped by authors’ vested interests, either financial or intellectual. Charter schools, education savings accounts, more technology, better pay for teachers, more choice for parents, universal pre-K, and of course, more money.
The list seems endless. But even its most ardent advocates understand that something isn’t right with American public education. Their cry for “More!” is tacit recognition of that fact.
Businesses focus on return on investment when allocating resources. New technology, new personnel, or changes to processes and procedures all come with an ROI calculation. It either decreases costs or improves the product, and preferably both. I have personal experience with this. Though I had been a valued employee at a global defense firm, I found myself, to use the British phrase, “surplus to requirements” and let go. The company decided that my team could be consolidated (i.e., shrunk) and much of what we had been doing could be automated. As a higher-cost employee in the wrong location, I was on the wrong side of the ROI calculation. It wasn’t personal; just business.
When I pose the ROI question to the school board and superintendent at our annual school district meetings, I am met with a sad-cow-eye stare. ROI doesn’t factor into their calculations, as it must with businesses. But without ROI, we need something else to guide our education spending decisions.
I suggest an analysis of alternatives. We must look at each dollar and ask ourselves, “What else could we buy with this that would meet our needs – at decreased cost and/or with better outcome?”
When we buy a home – the single largest purchase most of us make – we conduct an analysis of alternatives. We look at things like the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the location, the style, etc. We also determine what we can afford. Affordability shades our perception of need. Yes, we want that neighborhood and two-and-a-half baths, but we could do fine with two baths and a slightly longer commute.
We should look at school funding the same way.
The beauty of looking at alternatives in education is that the market provides more and better alternatives all the time. We are constantly being presented with new ways of storming Big Ed’s fortress. Some of these options will be the topic of future essays. For now, we just need to recognize that they are out there, and be open to exploring them.
We also need to recognize that the people we’ve elected or hired to run our schools show a disconcerting lack of intellectual curiosity about what lies beyond their fortress gate. Given that NH’s per-pupil education spending was a whopping $15,320 in 2013 (13th highest in the nation), we must insist that they look at alternatives, even – or especially – if that means significantly changing how we educate our kids and how we employ educators.
As you sit behind a yellow school bus making its rounds, morning and afternoon, Monday through Friday, just like it did for you, and perhaps your parents, too, think about how much our world has changed over the past few decades…and how little our education model has changed. For reasons both fiscal and educational, it’s time for change.


Ken can be reached at