School Vouchers, the words conjure and mislead, cause division and debate, rile some, enrage others, while supporters hold them as the cure all for education. To them all I say: I have a plan.
I want you to keep in mind that this is a sketch of an idea. Something that has so much potential that I had to write it down and let people see it. I believe that vouchers, if done properly, that is to say, not as they have been proposed in California, could provide the great results everyone is after.
2) What it is in a nutshell:
The public funds that are gathered to fund the voucher program could not be used for private or religious schools. The public moneys will be used for public schools only. This is a major difference between my voucher plan and the ones that have recently been proposed in California.
That is the heart of the plan, now let us look at the specifics that not only make it palatable, but a truly visionary and pragmatic means to improve the educational system, monitor its progress, bring in community involvement, and increase the ability of educational professionals to better themselves.
First we take a look at funding. There are many statistics which attempt to measure just how much California is spending per pupil in a given year. I propose that the per pupil spending be set between 7,500 and 8,000 dollars per year.
This is the total sum that a given site receives. It is the total funding package that includes pay for the teachers, maintenance for the buildings, books, supplies and the like.
This sum would be subject to increase on a regular basis to match inflation.
The moneys brought into the site would be deposited in a managed account, perhaps centrally in the district and this office would be responsible for disbursing funds as needed by the site. The site would be responsible, ultimately, for having funds to pay the teachers salaries and for the total expenses of running the school. Once the vouchers are collected the school's account is credited, and disbursements for the various purposes would be carried out.
Each site would set aside 5% or more of its total budget for supporting the city, county, and state educational organizations that serve their needs. This figure may be lower than that, but it remains to be seen. This is my "Trickle Up Theory" which allows that central district, city, county and state planning or resources might be needed, however the sites would determine what they needed and pay for it as they need it. Or they could contract out.
If this were done, we'd know exactly how much we were spending for each student. It would be a matter of public record and a simple matter of using a calculator once the relevant figures were present.
Enrollment is the next area of concern. When a child is the appropriate age they may be entered into a lottery for the schools that are closest to them. There would be a formula developed to insure choice. For example if there were 70 elementary schools in the district, then the parents would be allowed to enter the lottery for the closest 20% of them. In this hypothetical case, the parent would be allowed to participate in lotteries for the closest 14 schools.
The parents are responsible for bringing their students to school. The possible exception to this would be for Special Education or Magnet Programs which may well require inordinate demands on parents if they were required to bring their students to distant sites.
Student that enter in the middle of the year or transfer have their voucher funds proportionately shared between the schools involved.
Performance and Curriculum
As to how the academic success of a school would be measured, this is the simplest part of the task, but a vital part of the whole plan. It does not matter so much which test is ultimately given, but it would be wise to use whatever the state is using, allowing comparison with other districts.
The procedure of testing will be very different from what is now done. Instead of having teachers test their own students, testing will be done by outside, hired, proctors and there would be considerable effort made to keep the testing circumstances consistent. The proctors would be trained professionals and the teachers would be on hand to assist as needed.
An alternate method of testing could be to have the proctors simply test a sampling of the students at a given site. As long as the sampling is statistically sound, schools could be "rated" that way. I suggest this because the purpose of the testing is to see how effective the site is, and this would determine that in an efficient way. It could be used to provide a quick overview of how a site is doing. However, individual progress needs to be measured and so mass testing will be around for a while.
I will have to interject a word here about the testing process as it relates to the curriculum and the educational standards that students are aiming for in each grade level and in each subject area. I would have, as an add on to this voucher plan, the idea that the tests chosen should vary from year to year in the specific questions and problems they present, but that the skills and knowledge tested remain consistent. The tests should also match the curriculum being taught, and both of these items should match the educational standards that the state has set for each subject at each grade level.
One related factor in this whole area of educational reform is time. As it is now teachers are faced with a situation that the various curricular items that are given to them have time conflicts built into them. That is to say that although there are recommendations as to how many minutes per day math, language, reading and science are taught, the curricular programs we are expected to implement do not follow those guidelines. What this means is that if I were follow, strictly speaking, the science lesson plans, the reading lesson plans and the math lesson plans, as presented, I would not have time for other areas of the curriculum, nor would I be able to explore questions, go in depth, reteach where needed, and in fact, be able to do all that they suggest in the time allotted in a school day. Add to this the requirements of planning lessons, meetings with other staff, parents, and reviewing work, and you find that the usual 7.5 hour day stretches considerably. Beginning teachers often have 70 hour work weeks. More experienced teachers can whittle this time down, but if you are committed to following the curriculum guides which requires much reading and planning time you will easily pass the conventional work week of 40 hours.
Many people, outside of the education field, are not aware that in California we change a subject areas curriculum every 5 to 7 years. Since it would be silly to replace everything at once we receive new material for some part of the curriculum every year or so while the old material is disposed of. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is we get updated materials, nice new books are attractive, and there might be changes in the standards that the new material meets. The disadvantages include the change over is incredibly expensive, new teachers inevitably do not have useful understanding of the old material before something altogether new, comes along. Also, often times the material being replaced is serviceable and could be augmented, or have replacements purchased for far less. To some extent stories are stories, math is math, and the information we are required to teach does not change so much that a complete overhaul of, say, math or reading, is needed as often as it occurs. Teachers are innovators and are able to take even rudimentary materials and create a productive and quality learning environment. Local sites should have control over what they use as materials. The role of the local or state governmental bodies would be to approve various curricular items from which the sites could choose.
There would be a requirements of any parent with students attending a school. I would prefer that it be in the form of a certain number of hours per school year, however it could be in the form of goods and services that the parent provides. I believe that this component should be required, and student attendance would be dependent on parental involvement in some way. Before school, after school, weekends, but some form of involvement would be expected. Much as now each site would have a group of teachers and the principal who would manage the site, albeit with more responsibility however there would be a parental component to that committee and so each site would have managing committee with a Parent Team playing a role. This management team would be responsible for managing the budget, the site, funding programs, and maintaining records.
Bussing and integration
Bussing was done, as most might but perceive it, to integrate our children and to provide equal access to a quality education. However, we do not need bussing to assure equal access to quality education with this voucher system. This voucher system allows, encourages even, quality schools to absorb those of a lesser quality. Also, the moneys that currently go to bussing would be then marked to be spent on teacher aides in the classroom or tutors.
That said, it is not likely that bussing would be ended quickly with the passage of this voucher initiative. There would have to be a process of development in each school district to prepare for implementation. Part of this would have to include allowing a year or two to plan for this change. It could be that bussing would continue as it is, with parents having little choice about where their vouchers are spent. But over a period of 5 to 10 years parents would have increasing ability to request different schools for students or want transfers. As this occurs, and as parents take the responsibility to transport their students, again excepting special education students and others who might be grouped at specific sites, the bussing system would be phased out. This transitional plan might take 5 or 10 years.
The schools, once using this system, will be in a competitive situation. Each site will be rated and that rating will effect whether or not parents enter their lotteries. A school site that succeeds well, will attract new students, have a bigger and bigger budget, hire more staff, and enlarge their building. Part of the vision is that we allow successful sites to grow. What happens when a site can no longer add a bungalow or build on a room or two? Well, they could buy into a school that is not succeeding. A successful school could offer to reorganize an unsuccessful one.
A school that continually has a poor showing will have fewer and fewer students, have less and less in its budget, and be forced to lay off teachers. Before that process proceeds to far a nearby successful school will offer to begin a take over. The motivation for the successful school? A larger budget, better programs, extra pay for teachers who are willing to mentor those from the school being absorbed, they might even establish a master teacher position for a teacher who would specialize in assisting teachers in need of it. Not to mention the intangible of being a true success.
There would have to be a set of conditions that would have to exist in both the successful schools and the failing schools for this kind of "take over" to be allowed. To be simple, let us say that a successful school would be one in which scores are tending to rise steadily or maintains a high position, and has a demand for entrance that greatly exceeds it supply of placements. A failing school would be the opposite, that is to say, one whose scores are falling or that maintain a consistently low position and which has an far greater supply of placements than requests for same. The exactitude of these measures would have to be formulated. But as to supply and demand of placements if a school has a 25% vacancy rate then it may well be a candidate for a take over.
That is the overall vision, successful schools reorganizing unsuccessful ones. Thus success will spread. I know that there are teachers who will be concerned about the teachers that want to leave the difficult schools or those that are failing. What happens to these teachers? They can apply to other sites in the district for one. Here is where the student testing reenters the picture. A teacher will have a portfolio, a record of performance if you will. The test scores of their classes from previous years, principal's evaluations, and a resume. The staff and parent team will be there to interview them. Each site will have to have a teacher training program that includes mentoring and team teaching.
Now let us get specific: The site that I am currently working at has 580 students. With an 8 thousand dollar voucher from each student, we would have an annual budget of 4,640.000. That is a great sum. We have 30 staff personnel roughly, if we paid each of them 60 thousand dollars we would expend: 1,800,000. That would leave 2,840,000, an amazing sum of money. Recently I was told that since 1952, when our school was built, less than half of that has been spent on the site for maintenance. Interesting thought, it means that we would have enough to take care of the building, pay the teachers, and then have so much left over that we could put full time aides into each class, hire artists , PE. specialists, musicians, provide ourselves with training in the latest educational techniques, keep papers and pencils in all the rooms, and the teachers would have just about everything they would need to their jobs in a professional manner.
Getting even more specific: I have 20 students in my room that would give my class a budget of 160,000 dollars. I could pay myself what I am earning now, hire two full time aides, all the books, papers, computers, pencils I could need and still have almost half of that amount left for whatever is needed or bank it for the following year.
This system would bring progress to the educational system, it would force the sites to perform or they would be reorganized by their more successful competitors. Parents would "vote with the vouchers" and competition would be a healthy component of this plan. I know that I could make tremendous progress with two extra persons in my class, I know we could manage the money that currently never reaches the students, I know that students would be happier in clean buildings with proper lighting, heating, and supplies.
It is a wonderful idea and its time has come.