Education policy must focus on results versus revenue

What a difference a session makes. The 2013 legislative session was very favorable for Minnesota public schools. Infusion of new revenue streams for preschool, all-day kindergarten and special education programs were met with much enthusiasm by public school boards, administrators and teachers. Overall, E-12 funding was increased by $485 million.

In fact, Gov. Mark Dayton described the K-12 omnibus budget bill as the capstone of a historic session for education in Minnesota.

“This year, the DFL legislature has made the investments necessary to give our kids the quality education they deserve — and the quality education our future depends on,” Dayton said. “All-day kindergarten should have happened years ago; we’re catching up and we’re moving ahead. This is money well spent, and I think Minnesotans will know that and believe it.”

Hopefully his prophecy comes to fruition with the intended effect of reducing the daunting achievement gap between Minnesota’s white and minority student populations that has afflicted Minnesota for decades.

Educational accountability

The Minnesota Catholic Conference applauds lawmakers’ attempts to close the achievement gap through the expansion of early learning opportunities for disadvantaged, low-income children. Some empirical evidence supports the notion that early-learning programs for disadvantaged children pay dividends down the road.

Along with an infusion of revenue to support the aforementioned programs, MCC also proposes additional accountability measures to assess a program’s long-term effectiveness. Accountability language does permeate the education budget bill with references to academic standards, benchmarks, “World’s Best Workforce,” assessments and required reporting procedures. In terms of accountability, this is an upgrade from most education budget bills over the past few decades.

Yet, there are pragmatic questions to be addressed regarding the metrics by which student learning and achievement will be measured, the consequences for falling short of intended learning goals, and alternative options for students if schools do not deliver on their promises. Those are multi-billion-dollar questions. True accountability looks at outputs rather than inputs; test results and graduation rates versus revenue.

Allowing children to thrive

Parents, citizens, and taxpayers deserve a minimal level of accountability to ensure they receive the quality services they were promised. Moreover, there ought to be consequences for programs that fall short of expectations. A proven method of verifying effectiveness of educational programs is to gather baseline data, establish tangible learner outcomes, collect new data after program implementation and compare the new results with baseline data.

Unfortunately, Minnesota has a track record of actually rewarding schools when they fall short of expectation. Rather than rewarding schools for underachieving, MCC proposes to improve accountability mechanisms and empower families with additional educational opportunities. In other words, families should have the opportunity to choose a school in which their child has a better chance to succeed.

If schools do not deliver on their promises, families should not be the ones to pay the consequences. Families ought to be accorded alternative options if schools cannot deliver on expectations.

One solution spreading across the nation provides families trapped in failing schools with a government-funded scholarship to attend a private school of their choice. Economically disadvantaged families benefit the most from this alternative solution since they are often left without quality options. In many cases, they cannot afford to move to a neighborhood with better public schools and do not have disposable income to afford private school tuition.

A compassionate society does not force families to accept an inferior education for their children. Rather, a compassionate society permits these families to attend a school in which their children can thrive and develop their God-given abilities.

Noll is education director at the Min­nesota Catholic Conference.

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