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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Education in Romneyland

Posted in Carlsbadistan.com

Carlsbad school officials worry that if voters don’t agree to a tax increase on November 6, a midyear budget reduction could lead to cutting the school year by up to three weeks. But a greater threat to local schools in the long run hangs on the outcome of the Presidential election.

Mitt Romney has announced a plan to “restore the promise of American education” by promoting choice and innovation. Titled, “A Chance for Every Child,” it signals a retreat from the goal of No Child Left Behind. A chance is not a promise. Romney’s vow to use federal funds to support school choice, rather than school improvement, will produce winners and losers. That’s a far cry from the role of public education as a springboard of equal opportunity for upward mobility.

Romney also believes school reform can be done on the cheap, evidenced by his claim class size doesn’t matter. He’s fond of quoting a 2007 McKinsey report, “How the World’s best performing school systems come out on top.” The consultants claim studies show good teachers are more important than smaller classes. To that earth-shattering discovery my response can only be, “well…duh!”But that’s not the point.

The McKinsey report refers to evidence from a 1997 study in Tennessee showing reducing class sizes from 23 to 15 students improved the performance of an average student by only 8 percentile points, while good teachers showed an impact of up to 50 percentile points when the achievement of two 8 year-old students was compared.

Fast forward now to the Carlsbad School District’s 2012-13 budget that sets student-to-teacher ratios at 32 for elementary schools and 39 for the high school. To a former teacher who once complained about having to teach American Literature to as many as 35 in a class of high school juniors, Romney’s claim that class size doesn’t matter is as scary as his plan to bring a competitive free market to public education.

Although he doesn’t bother with details, here’s how Romney describes the plan. The $25 billion the feds currently give public schools to serve low-income families (Title 1) and students with disabilities (IDEA, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act), would be “portable,” allowing the student to choose from any district or public charter school or private school or to use the funds for hiring a tutor or provider of online instruction. It would require states to allow open enrollment, so students could choose schools outside of their local districts.

Here’s how Romney’s redistribution of federal funds might work in Carlsbad.
The district received $2.7 million from the feds in Title 1 and IDEA funding in 2011-12. The district reports it enrolls 1,133 students with disabilities. Based on the number of economically disadvantaged students taking STARS tests, I estimate there are about 2,500 low-income students who would qualify for Title 1 funding.

Assuming some overlap in students who have disabilities and are low income, a fair estimate is that the number eligible for “portability” under Romney’s plan would come to about 3,000 students.

If the $2.7 million of the district’s current federal dollars are divided by the 3,000 students eligible to take their share and shop for another school, it comes to $900 per student. The per-pupil expense in the Carlsbad School District budget is $7,000. The tuition for Carlsbad’s newest private school, Pacific Ridge School, is $24,600.

The bottom line for Romney’s plan is that it abandons our country’s commitment for all public schools to serve all students. The money transferred from school to school would be insufficient to serve the needs of those its intended for, and the schools they leave would be hit with budget cuts that hurt the students who remain.

It calls to mind a U.S. Army major’s sad justification for civilian deaths after the bombing of a North Vietnam village: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Romney’s education plan is equally ironic. He justifies the abandonment of public schools to save public education.

And that’s why Carlsbad school officials should care about the Presidential election as much as the vote on state tax increases.

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