(Michelle Rhee) – In the past year, 46 states grappled with budget deficits of more than $130 billion. This year could be worse as federal recovery dollars dry up. And yet, for education reform, 2011 could be the best of times.
California, to name one example, bridged its $25.4 billion budget gap by cutting billions from public education. It is now forced to cut another $18 billion to fill its current deficit. State executives and legislatures face severe choices and disappointments that could undo political careers and derail progress.
On the bright side, public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo. And policy makers are rising to the challenge, not only because their budgets are tighter than ever, but also because they see an opportunity to reverse the current trend of discouraging academic results for our children.
Three weeks ago, I founded StudentsFirst, a national organization to defend and promote the interests of children in public education and to pursue an aggressive reform agenda to make American schools the best in the world. In the first 48 hours, 100,000 Americans signed up as members, contributing $1 million in small online donations.
This was a sign that we had tapped into a vein of both concern and hope. There were others: Several governors, in states such as Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada have been interested in how we might join forces. Mayors in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Newark want to push the envelope, too.
This week StudentsFirst is introducing its legislative agenda, “A Challenge to States and Districts: Policies that Put Students First.” It is a comprehensive set of policies and legislation that we believe must be adopted to create the right environment at local and state levels, where transformational school reform can take hold.
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.We do not pretend that we are the first to advocate for the ideas in this agenda—many organizations, policy makers and individuals have made important contributions to educational reform. However, we do believe that the fiscal crisis, and the latest embarrassing rankings of U.S. students by the Program for International Student Assessment compared to their international peers (of 65 countries, American 15-year-olds were 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math), can focus the nation on the need for change.
Reversing this country’s quiet retreat from international educational superiority will require courage and prioritization through several legislative cycles. But not all of the ideas in our agenda require big spending—and some are even budget opportunities for savvy governors and lawmakers.
StudentsFirst’s efforts will center on three key areas:
• Treating teachers like professionals. Compensation, staffing decisions and professional development should be based on teachers’ effectiveness, not on their seniority. That means urging states and districts to implement a strong performance pay system for the best teachers, while discontinuing tenure as job protection for ineffective teachers. This will ensure that the money spent on teacher salaries goes to the hard-working professionals who are improving student achievement every day.
The budget crisis inevitably requires layoffs of school staff. Teacher-layoff policies are a good example of how recognizing quality over seniority translates into responsible decision-making during difficult economic times. Currently, layoff decisions are based on seniority, which means the last person hired is the first person fired. However, research, such as a recent study by Dan Goldhaber at the University of Washington, shows that when teacher layoffs are determined by seniority it hurts students and teachers.
• Empowering parents and families with real choices and real information. Parents, especially those who live in lower-income neighborhoods, have limited educational options for their children. StudentsFirst believes that states and school districts must remove the barriers that limit the number of available seats in high-quality schools. This includes allowing the best charter schools to grow and serve more students. It also means giving poor families access to publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools. All children deserve the chance to get a great education; no family should be forced to send kids to a school they know is failing.
StudentsFirst also urges legislation to equip parents and communities with the tools they need to effectively organize and lead reform efforts when their public-school system fails them. California’s “parent trigger” law, for example, forces the restructuring of a poor performing school when more than 50% of the parents whose children attend it sign a petition.
• Ensure accountability for every dollar and every child. Due to the financial downturn in the states, it is critically important to ensure that every dollar spent on public education has a positive impact on student learning. Unfortunately, billions of dollars today are wasted on things such as paying for advanced degrees for teachers that have no measurable impact on student achievement.
States will continue to find it difficult to solve budget deficits if they continue to ignore problems surrounding the current structure of their benefits and pensions for teachers and administrators. For example, states and districts must shift new employees from defined-benefit pension programs to portable, defined-contribution plans where employees can contribute a proportionate amount to their own retirement savings. This will help ensure that states aren’t draining their budgets with pension payouts.
Sometimes only a shakeup in the school governance structure can bring about fiscal responsibility. After all, the buck has to stop somewhere—and knowing exactly who is responsible and accountable for spending and academic achievement has proven to show positive results. Mayoral control is one way to achieve this. We’ve seen success is places like Washington, D.C., and New York City, where funds are directed toward initiatives that improve achievement, and test scores and graduation rates have greatly increased.
Now is the time to act. With 28 new governors, 10 big mayoral races this year, and shifting ideological balances inside of old political parties, there is a real opportunity for change.
(Ms. Rhee was chancellor of the public school system in Washington, D.C., from 2007-2010. She is founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.)