“Thousands of terminally ill Americans will finally have hope, and the fighting chance…that they will be helped…,” Trump said while signing the “Right to Try” bill giving terminally ill patients access to experimental treatments not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (May, 2018)
“Millions of young Americans will finally have hope, and the fighting chance…that they will be educated…,” Trump said while signing the “Education Right to Try” bill giving students in terminally-underperforming school districts access to education programs not yet approved by the Department of Education (DoED). (May, 2019)
I can’t predict the future, but if I could write it, I would have President Trump signing an education “Right to Try” bill next year. Just as terminally-ill patients should have access to unconventional treatments that might improve their lives, so too should parents, school districts, and states be able to try unconventional education methods to improve lives.
Every year millions of American students either don’t graduate from high school or graduate functionally-illiterate and innumerate. These young adults suffer, society suffers, and taxpayers suffer when public funds are spent without generating a reasonable return on investment.
Yet each school year we continue down the same path, usually with the same excuse for not getting where we expected to be: If only we had spent more…
The drama in Franklin over the past few weeks provides a perfect local example. Franklin has a tax cap that limits spending. It also has a failing school system. To allocate additional funding requested by the school district, the city council voted to override the tax cap. The mayor vetoed to measure. The council overrode the veto, but days later reconsidered the override, deciding to live within tax-cap spending limits.
How bad is the education situation in Franklin? According to the state Department of Education website, district enrollment has been trending down for more than a decade. Barely half of the city’s 11th-graders were proficient in reading; only a quarter were proficient in mathematics; and Franklin students qualify for free/reduced lunch at twice the state average. Franklin’s per-pupil spending is $2,300 below state average, but at $13,003 it is above the average in 34 states.
From media reports and social media postings, it seems that many Franklin residents firmly believe that more money – from breaking the tax-cap and increasing state aid – will fix what ails them. Of course, “more” has never fixed any school system anywhere.
Franklin has been on a typical 19th-century-mill-town trajectory for a very long time. Unless Jeff Bezos builds an Amazon facility on Industrial Park Drive or gold is discovered at the confluence of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers, that trajectory isn’t changing.
What can change – what must change – is how the people of Franklin (and similar towns across the state) deal with their reality. The irony is that the same factory model that failed Franklin’s economy decades ago is being defended even as it fails its schools. Franklin is trying to save an education factory that produces damaged goods at high cost. No amount of subsidy can save it.
This is why an education “Right to Try” approach is crucial. And the political planets have aligned perfectly to support change: At the state and federal levels, we may never again have leaders more open to new ideas, more willing to find new paths.
Here are a few things Franklin could try to solve its education expenditure and return-on-investment dilemma:
– Disband the SAU. Reduce overhead by empowering principals, the school board, or outside vendors to meet requirements the superintendent’s office fulfilled. Work with the state to adjust mandates as needed.
– Focus more resources on elementary education, ensuring that all capable students are at grade-level in reading and math before starting middle school. This will save money in later years. Students entering middle school behind in reading ability fall behind in other subject areas, necessitating costly interventions.
– Replace intermural sports with intramural teams that include all students.
– Shift to a district-wide charter model. Charters cost much less and deliver more. We already have VLACS, a free online charter school that meets all requirements for middle and high school. VLACS could provide most Franklin students with all classes needed for graduation. – Encourage home schooling and other school choice options to reduce student population and the fixed costs associated with operating a school district. Offer unused facility space to start-up public charter or private schools.
Turning Franklin into a district charter would provide financial and educational advantages. Salary and benefit costs could be cut dramatically by changing the faculty model to having a few on-site “master teachers” supported by classroom managers, with most instruction provided by online educators. It would also support truly individualized education plans, replacing grade level advancement by allowing students to proceed at their own pace in each class even when in the same classroom.
Thinking outside the proverbial box is relatively easy. What’s hard is implementing ideas that chafe status quo minds. Curing what ails school districts like Franklin requires courage and the right to try something new.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org