Sen. Brownback offers weak tea of reforms

Bob Weeks, writing at Voice for Liberty in Wichita, offers a quick review and commentary on the school reforms recently proposed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Sam Brownback. I’d have to say that they leave me underwhelmed.

Kansas should enact the following reforms, none of which Brownback mentions:

Merit pay for teachers. Make teacher pay at least partially dependent on measures of teacher performance. This can include standardized test results on a value-added basis (did students learn more or less than expected over the course of a year?), but since there are some significant methodology problems in such an approach, it probably shouldn’t be the only metric. Classroom observations, for example, can supplement test results. There’s more work to do in learning from and adapting the few merit-pay programs out there in other states, but that’s no excuse for not trying. Basing teacher pay primarily or even exclusively on time-and-service and number of college credits is akin to the factory system–and I mean the factory system of Henry Ford’s day (I want your hands and your back, not your brains), not today’s factories.

Tenure reform.  Kansas law is fairly weak in the requirements for obtaining tenure–job protection that few people in the private sector have. Then again, so is the law in most states. But Kansas can lead the way.

KPERS reform. The current retirement system rewards a teacher for hanging onto his job for decades, perhaps long after he’s lost interest in teaching. That’s because the accumulation of benefits isn’t spread out evenly over time; instead, it’s loaded on the back end. That should change.

Charter school reform. Make charter schools legally and financially independent of school districts, so they serve as true alternative providers of educational options. Give them something approaching financial parity with district schools, so as to attract charter operators. Set up alternative, specialized authorities, such as a state charter board or a unit of a state university, that focuses on helping charter schools thrive.

Weighted student funding. According to Weeks, “A focus of a new funding formula will be on getting dollars into the classroom.” The state has tried dictating that a certain percentage of spending be on “instructional” purposes, but such a top-down approach invites creative accounting. The state should move to implement weighted student funding, in which money government spends should be allocated on the basis of students rather than districts. This sounds a lot like a voucher system, but it’s more of a different approach to accounting than anything else, especially if the money can be spent only on “public schools.” It does, though, depart from the current approach by making the spending focus on students rather than systems.

Those are some of the shortcomings of Brownback’s plan.  But on the plus side, Brownback has endorsed:

Alternative certification. Ways for people to get teaching certificates aside from the usual “drop everything and become a college student again” approach.

A new place for career and technical education. Not all high school students want to or should attend a four-year college program.

Brownback calls for people in Johnson County (and elsewhere for that matter) to supplement state funding with local tax levies if they wish. I’m ambivalent about that, as I’d prefer supplemental local funding to be channeled through charitable foundations or a tax credit program. The Legislature ought to fund what it deems to be an appropriate amount for education (no judges please, funding decisions are inherently subjective and political), and then parcel out money on a per-student basis, perhaps adjusted for student circumstances. (Younger students get more money than older students, for example.)

In any case, it’s good to hear a candidate start to talk about schooling, even if his ideas leave something to be desired.

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