The DeHavilland Blog

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The upside of less education funding

I’ve been thinking more about the likely prospect of reduced funding for education in the future (as introduced here). And here’s the question – would it be such a bad thing? In fact, could less funding actually save the institution of public education?

I believe strongly that public schools are the public’s schools, to quote David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation. What that means is that our schools are intended to be a means to an end which is determined, and paid for, by the public. Simply put, schools are service providers, and we – all of us – are the customers.

But that’s not the current dynamic. Schools and districts generally do not consider themselves in service to the public, and that’s clear from the hue and cry over any sort of independent accountability (which at heart seeks to demonstrate a return on the billions of dollars in federal grants – something the public has a right to see) to the lack of simple courtesy one would show to any customer (see here).

The reason for this disconnect, I believe, is the funding model. If schools and districts were funded directly by the public, I expect they’d be extremely responsive to the public’s interests, involvement, and oversight. However, since the government serves as an intermediary – the public gives money to the government, and the government gives it to the schools – there’s no direct link between the public and the money they provide to the public education system. Schools are not responsive to the public; they’re responsive to the bureaucracy that authorizes their funding.

In light of that, think about what would happen if government funding was cut back. I assume that schools and districts wouldn’t just accept the reduced funding – more likely, they’d reach out to the public to make up the difference. They’d ask parents, PTA/PTO groups, community organizations, businesses and business coalitions, higher education institutions, and everyone else to make up the difference. And that support would come in the form of not only cash but also volunteers and mentors of all stripes, free goods and services, and expertise in all areas – both instructional and operational.

Sure, that’s going on to some degree already. But according to a survey we conducted earlier this year, nearly two-thirds of schools (63.7%) received less than $25,000 worth of support from the community in the last 12 months. And “support” includes all forms of support – cash as well as the value of donated time, goods, services, and expertise.

So what if instead of simply seeking a little pocket money from the community, a school needed to solicit $500,000 in order to make up a 20% shortfall in a $2.5 million budget?

To raise this kind of money from the community, schools would have to become consumer-facing organizations. Schools can raise small amounts (like $25K/year or less) pretty much by just sticking out their hands and asking. But to solicit $500,000, they’d have to take the same steps as other nonprofits: set goals that their donors can get behind (or that their donors set for them), operate with complete transparency, track their efforts and report on outcomes, and work tirelessly to build donor relations by communicating regularly, clearly, and courteously.

These hypothetical budget cuts would, in effect, force schools and districts to think of the public as their patrons and act accordingly. (Of course, they’ve been patrons all along, but the funding model masked this fact.) The public schools would once again need to act like the public’s schools in order to remain financially strong.

The shift I’m describing would dramatically improve relations between schools and their stakeholders. Schools would be setting objectives based on public input, working hand-in-hand with the public on school operations (instructional and otherwise), tracking and achieving relevant outcomes, and communicating regularly with the public as true partners.

Can you think of anything that would do more to ensure the viability and vibrancy of public education in the future?

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