Tackling public education reform: thinking outside the box

We must think outside the box about public education reform, and take action

I began to write this column initially as a response to someone who criticized my Mar. 3 column in which I explained that our education system is a socialist system. My intent of that article was to get people to think about the education system we have and whether it is the best system we could have. It was not intended to put shame on the system, but to get people to think about how to fix and improve our educational system, especially those from the right who always are upset at the system but do not propose any practical solutions to fix it.

From my perspective, the system isn’t working. In one of the school districts I represent, my local school district of Olentangy, we spend approximately $9,400 per student. Our schools have all As and Bs on the state report card. One of my other school districts has a couple Cs. The school district where I live covers approximately $9,000 of the per student bill. And because we are a high wealth district, our income taxes are redistributed to failing school districts in other parts of the state. The parents in my district also help their children, where in the poor and failing districts, parents may not even be around.

While the cost per student in our urban schools is roughly twice the per student spending in the schools I represent, they are failing and failing miserably. I don’t think a school district like Youngstown, which spends roughly $20,000 per student and received 2 Ds and 3 Fs on its state report card, should continue to operate in the manner they are now (if you do think so, please … tell me why). There is always the excuse that those students are disadvantaged. Of course they are — broken homes, drugs, gangs. I not only get that, I have visited significantly disadvantaged schools. Those kids deserve better from our public schools, and saying repeatedly that we just need to throw more money at them or continue to allow those kids to suffer are both ridiculous responses.

We are spending twice as much money in those poor urban school districts throughout the state as opposed to the suburban districts. We are spending approximately one-third the cost in most of our rural schools as opposed to our urban, and they too have poverty and drugs. Yet, these rural schools are out performing our urban and many of our suburban schools.  Some of the differences are demographics, and the low expectations set for inner-city students as a result. However, rural schools were forced to make choices years ago, and improved despite lower funding.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers in the suburban school districts have had it with subsidizing failed urban schools. We can no longer afford to increase our taxes so that we can have them redistributed to failed schools, whether they are public or chartered. Yes — we should close charter schools failing the students. In addition, students in our urban schools should not be forced, because they are poor and can not move into high taxed suburban districts, to continue to go to failed schools. Generations of students in our urban schools have come and gone. The schools were given numerous chances to improve, yet have not. This is not to discount some reforms which are now taking place or some which were tried before, but the results speak for themselves.

Why should we as a state allow 40% to 50% dropout rates in our urban schools? Why should we accept 41% remediation rates for those going to college here in Ohio? Are any of us who support public education going to say that these numbers are acceptable? Clearly, the current system isn’t working, whether you isolate the in-state statistics or compare the country as a whole to the rest of the world.

Recently, I was shown a copy of a fourth grade proficiency test from 1992, and then shown an eleventh grade test from 2011. The two tests looked almost the same. Can you say, dumbed down and low expectations? If this is acceptable then by all means let’s continue down the same path. Is it acceptable to allow Columbus City Schools to get away with changing letter grades on student report cards so that Columbus’ children and parents can feel better? I certainly do not think so, and it definitely is not helping the students.

Ohio schools are at a crossroads. We have implemented many reforms. Over the last ten years new school buildings have been built. In just the last three years under Governor Kasich, we have passed and had signed into law the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the Cleveland Education Plan, the Columbus Education Plan, Teach for America, my bills to help dyslexic students, the Straight-A Fund, and expanding school vouchers. We have added blended learning and tried to raise standards.

Standardized tests are part of the education system because Ohioans want to make sure our tax dollars are being spent effectively. Ohio adopted Common Core in 2010 because some believe they are higher standards than what we had before. Many from the right who oppose Common Core would disagree. Whether you agree or disagree, standardized tests have been around for more than 20 years, and are not going away.

Are there too many tests? Is Common Core wrong or right for Ohio? I question whether the tests are actually measuring student performance properly, or being treated by many of our students as a joke. Should the results of the tests be used as part of a teacher evaluation? If kids pass the tests and are in fact trying to pass them, then they probably should be used. Is online testing better than paper and pencil? Are some students who do not have regular access to computers going to be placed at a disadvantage by using online testing? Do our schools have the bandwidth and enough computers for online testing? Is the student data protected? We do not know yet we are about to find out by testing our students on the new system, and many problems loom.

I visited Marion Correctional Facility two weeks ago. I was able to observe the Horizon Ministry Program. It is a mentoring program which helps bring together current and former prisoners to support each other in prison as well as after they are released back into society. The program is helping reduce recidivism rates down to a very low 7%, which is an outstanding accomplishment. The volunteers, prisoners, and staff can tie all of the problems which lead to imprisonment to two main things: drugs, and a lack of an education. Many resorted to drugs because they were mistreated. They couldn’t read, and couldn’t get a job. We have over 53,000 people incarcerated in Ohio, which is a shameful number. The failures of our education system are part of the reason many end up in prison. To suggest otherwise is to deny the reality of what is happening, and the clear cause.

We have tried various forms of discipline in schools. Lawsuits ended paddling. The Bible, used by millions of Americans as a moral compass, was removed from public classrooms almost three generations ago. Drugs, violence, and gangs are the new morality in many public schools. Teachers in these schools try to cope, but many times the students who want to learn, can’t, because of disruptions in the classroom which the teachers can not stop. When teachers do intercede, they are assaulted and sued by the students and their parents, assuming there is a parent. 

My prior column, suggesting that we need some privatization in our education system, was met with some support, but an awful lot of disdain. Many misunderstood the column, believing the synopses written on progressive, pro-union, anti-reform websites. The examples given were used to tell people that I believe our system should become like Russia’s, and a whole host of false claims. To the contrary, the column was intended to provide some tools for thought. Clearly, that objective was met, but some unfortunately oppose reform and took the column to mean the worst that it could be twisted to mean.

School choice works for colleges and universities, where students are free to choose which school to attend using their own dollars or taxpayer funded grants. Millions of students attend for-profit universities and tech schools with taxpayer grants, and nobody complains. Yet privatization has never happened in primary education, and probably never will. The rhetoric that it would destroy our public schools is fierce.

The late economist, Milton Friedman, learned over 40 years ago that school choice would be difficult.  Today, those against school choice point to failed charter schools. Yet, they ignore the fact that those same failed charter schools are many times performing better than the public schools they replaced, and for a fraction of the cost. Of course some people have opened up charter schools in order to take advantage of the system and left the children, and taxpayers, hanging. We should make sure those operators are banned for life, and this is also way I do believe that failing charter schools — and failing public schools — should be shut down.

In fact, what I explained in my prior column that was misinterpreted by some, is what Russia did after the Soviet Union failed. They took the assets of the failed government and sold them off to raise money and eliminate them from the system. In Ohio, school buildings that have been shut down should be sold off. Charter schools could possibly open when public schools have failed. For example, where Columbus City Schools are failing students both in education and in funding, the buildings being closed down should be sold to charter or alternative schools to offer an opportunity to students seeking a better education. This is the comparison to Russia that I made previously that so many misunderstood. Thinking outside of the box can certainly throw people for a loop.

We’re on our second decade of the 21st century, and we are still trying to upgrade public schools so that they have broadband internet access. We are still trying to place one teacher per 18 students, yet many times we still have one teacher per 30 to 50 students. We are holding some kids back from their potential because we perceive them to be too young to advance, and we are advancing some kids because we don’t want them to feel badly or be older than their classmates. Of course, many of those kids end up dropping out, getting into drugs, going to jail and ending up on our welfare system. But, what — at least we feel good that they weren’t held back one grade in school so that they could learn to read?

And this highlights another point: given technology, do we need to hold anyone back? Technology today should allow students to progress at their own pace. Why pay to have a 16 year old stay in high school when he or she is ready to go to college?

One solution we have not considered here in Ohio, and in many other places throughout the country, is deregulation. Have we implemented so many rules, regulations, and standards that the system itself can not function properly? I think we should consider allowing some districts, as a test, to have complete local control, especially those exceeding expectations. However, that would require state and federal waivers which might impact funding, and the paperwork needed to get though the waivers discourages those who would otherwise try.

Not every suggested reform is the solution. But we have to agree that the redistribution of wealth among our public schools is not working for the children who attend them, with the rare exception of school districts in wealthy areas and excellent charter schools. Are we propping up public schools at the expense of the students? Is nostalgia from our youth keeping us locked into a system that isn’t living up to our students abilities and the demands of the 21st century?

It is my hope that we can make major changes which improve outcomes of students. One day we will get there, but it takes a vision and some risk. Given that this was a nation founded by risk takers who proved that the risks were worth the rewards, we should take those risks and fix our education system today, and not put it off until tomorrow’s generation becomes another statistic.

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Andrew Brenner
Andrew O. Brenner is a conservative, Republican state representative in Ohio. Elected in 2010 after serving as county recorder since 2005, Brenner is vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee. He also serves on the Financial Institutions / Housing / Urban Development Committee, Policy & Oversight Committee, and Rules & Reference.

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  • John tsylor gatto

    The weary tone in mr.brenner’sessay isvfullynjustifie;every thingnhebsaysvhasvbeen said hundreds ofttimes snd responded to with thevkindbof weary reaction that admits nothing will chsnge. Brenner’sessay shouldvtrybto I this: teach a high-powered entrepreneurial courseboscdtudybfrom elementsry Schoolmon, and then re-distribute the money vurrentlybsprntnon schools to the families directly; he uses a termIinvented20 years sgo,twice,”dumbingnusvdown. I duggestbhevread my other books on Amazon.Whst’s wrong with schools shouldn’t cost money to fix;everything we csn BUYmskesvthingsvworse–cantbthevrestnof you see thst?! Wake up! Your friend,John

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  • Kevin S. Wilson

    Anyone who uses the tired, shopworn cliche “think outside the box”–as Mr. Brenner here does twice–isn’t heeding his own advice but instead is merely repeating meaningless platitudes. In this particular case, the meaningless platitudes come with a heaping helping of talking points produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in support of the model legislation cooked up by corporate lobbyists in collusion with legislators such as Mr. Brenner.

    Oh, look. What a surprise. Mr. Brenner is a member of ALEC.

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Ohio_ALEC_Politicians

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  • Adam West

    Rep. Brenner, What planet do you live on?

    You FALSELY wrote: “Yet privatization has never happened in primary education”

    That is 100% FALSE. Unless you are completely unaware of the fact that Village Academy is a PRIVATE SCHOOL in Powell, Ohio?

    Your piece here is riddled with false information and you have no business being on the Education Committee.

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  • P-G Matuszak

    Mr. Brenner, I applaud your efforts to provoke the conversation on education. I am a trained educator, thanks to the US Army. I taught at a collegiate level up to post-graduate studies.

    I have a few suggestions. The first is for elementary “educators” to stop attempting to employ ALM and CTM pedagogy. They need to follow Bloom’s Taxonomy and teach to the kids’ level of cognitive development.

    Second, in many places, teachers are paid very well. In cities such as Chicago, San Antonio, etc., an elementary education degree garners some of the highest paid entry level positions for a baccalaureate degree. It is also among the easiest courses of study in college, especially compared to, say, a degree in physics, engineering or economics. Granted, teachers are still underpaid in some places. But unions have stifled supply and demand, creating oligopolies in the labor market.

    Then come the benefits. The average starting salary for a public school teacher in San Antonio is just under $30k a year. However, the benefits package places total compensation near $70k. That is starting pay. The average tenured elementary teacher (in San Antonio) makes over $70k in salary alone. Benefits bump that much higher. Private sector teachers have to contribute to their 401k programs and purchase their own medical insurance. Those costs are rising due to Obamacare and have become even less affordable. Perhaps public teachers need to contribute to those benefits out of pocket. Even US military personnel contribute to their TSP accounts (plus have to pay for their families’ health insurance).

    The money saved could be used for better equipment and resources.

    On-going review or continuous review require no additional spending and are effective education tools. However, Common core and CSOPE eliminate these tools in order to push “new theories”, a need for more expensive technology (to create a market for that equipment hence why Bill Gates is a proponent of Common Core), and teach testing strategies instead of teaching actual material.

    However, those don’t necessarily mean better education. In our local district, teachers spend more time on discipline than they do teaching. They enforce “hallway hands” (making kids walk with their hands behind their backs like they are incarcerated) and investigate thefts. Perhaps the money could be used for better security systems and some security personnel to walk the halls?

    We had that when I grew up. We had a Vice Principal of Discipline. She walked the halls and managed hall monitors. She handled detentions and in-school suspensions. She also was normally first on scene if a teacher crossed the line.

    Kids need a sense of discipline to learn. If they are not interested, they won’t bother to study. If the subject is too challenging or over-complicated, they lose interest and give up.

    It comes down to both parents and teachers invoking those natural curiosities. It means challenging the kids and letting them try on their own with the parent or teacher watching like a hawk, ready to jump in and show them the “trick” or the “key”, then letting them try again.

    My answer is complex. We need school choice, especially like Arizona’s new model. Vouchers are an idea. Pay as you go is an idea. Charter schools have proven successful. Home-schooled children usually do better in college than any of the above. So, we need P3 programs that provide inexpensive incentives to teach and to learn. Parents need their rights returned to them, so they can move the kids to better schools or home-school. Politicians and “educators” need to quit their (generally) condescension of parents, especially when there are parents who do know better. Public educators need to remember that they are the parents’ employees, not masters, and the kids do not belong to the educators. Parents need to be more involved.

    Students need to be allowed to fail. Failure is a learning opportunity. Get rid of this “no child left behind” mentality. Either a kid makes the grades or he does summer school and/or repeats a year. Hold kids to standards set by parents in cooperation with the “experts”. No more trophies for just showing up. Teach kids that competition is part of life and not everybody can win.