Money and Red Tape

Lack of money isn’t the major roadblock to reform of our education system.

Public school leaders nationwide say they are hamstrung by "red tape, competing laws and regulations" as well as "inadequate resources to meet increased requirements and mandates."

Those are key findings of a new national survey of public school superintendents and principals, conducted by Public Agenda, a social science research organization focused on public policy issues.

The new survey, "Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk about What’s Needed to Fix Public Schools," is a follow-up to a widely cited report in 2001: "Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game," in which public school officials talked about leadership.

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While some officials do complain about insufficient funding as the biggest challenge they face, most say they can manage with what they have. What really bugs them is keeping up with local, state and federal mandates, which they say steal too much of their time. President Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" Act, which every state and school is now bound by, and special education, the program for the mentally, emotionally, and physically impaired, "trigger a great deal of frustration" for public school administrators.

While a handful scoff at the emphasis parents and politicians put on standards and accountability embodied in the "No Child Left Behind" law, most school leaders don’t consider it just a fad. Many say their school districts are trying to narrow the long-standing achievement gap between minority and white students, improve the language skills of non-English-speaking pupils and encourage teachers and principals in pushing for student achievement.

A major sore spot, according to superintendents and principals, is teacher tenure, the treasured policy of teacher unions. Most school leaders in the study say openly that teachers automatically receive tenure without proving their know-how. In fact, according to most principals and superintendents surveyed by Public Agenda, it is "difficult — sometimes almost impossible" to fire a tenured teacher. Most school leaders agree that the union sometimes "… fights to protect inadequate teachers and sometimes resists doing things that would improve education." Indeed, a 2002 report by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy states that, "Collective bargaining agreements in Michigan, with few exceptions, place more restrictions on school administrators’ rights to evaluate their teachers than do any statutory requirements."

One principal complained: "It takes a year and a half to get rid of a tenured teacher unless they do something that’s just absolutely off the wall."

The inability to fire incompetent teachers is nothing new, and obviously has implications for educational excellence. What is surprising is that school administrators are voicing this concern, when for decades union power kept all but the most vocal from airing their views.

The Public Agenda survey also found that most school superintendents believe a good principal can make the difference between success and failure in a school. They think it’s a good idea to hold principals accountable for student achievement. But this doesn’t mean they think the principals they have are doing a good job. Overall, "superintendents give principals a mediocre performance evaluation." They seem particularly concerned about principals’ ability to determine teacher quality.

School leaders are said to applaud the goals of the "No Child Left Behind" Act, but say they are not sure national mandates will lead to improved public schools. As one superintendent said, "Some items [in the Act] are well intended, but most of the lawmakers [in Congress] don’t have a clue what the unintended consequences of their law will be."

Another superintendent reeled off a list of relatively trivial mandates in the law that he said ranged from oral health instruction, information about body donation, and anti-bullying policies.

"Keeping up with state and federal mandates … is extremely time-consuming," one superintendent noted. "We have an education code that is over 3,500 pages, and that doesn’t include all the laws … within the health and safety code and government code to which we must adhere … We spend a lot of time trying to straighten out the confusion and regulations."

Other administrators bitterly pointed out the degree to which mandates detract from the main thrust of public education.

As for trying to teach the impaired kids with special needs, one administrator declared, "We’ve gone so far overboard that we can no longer even hope to meet our [special needs students’] real education needs. Can you tell that I’m frustrated and disgusted?"

What to do about such problems? The most disappointing omission from Public Agenda’s report is any mention of school choice, charter schools or home schooling, which not only offers parents and their children an alternative to traditional public schools, but offers educators the chance to work in a far freer environment with regard to bureaucracy and red tape.

What a waste to have surveyed so many school administrators across the country, only to fail to ask them about the most significant school reform movement in decades.

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Note: Tait Trussell writes a weekly column for the Pioneer Group in Big Rapids, Mich., and collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the former managing editor for Nation’s Business magazine and was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.