October 23, 2006
Break Seattle School District In Four
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas has announced he'll resign; this follows the board's embarrassing failure last week to approve two planned school mergers. The district needs to do much more than complete planned closures and mergers, and repair finances. The district needs to be broken in four to improve accountability and better unite communities and the schools and families within. The special program for top, top-tier students (APP) must be offered in each quadrant from at least grade 3-12. Second-tier high achiever programs (Spectrum) must be rescued from diluted standards borne of racial politics and self-esteem cant. More uniform curricula emphasizing core academics is necessary. The "disproportionality" gospel and attendant low expectations of black students must be institutionally offloaded, parents assigned greater responsibility, and teacher merit pay instituted. Future labor negotiations are key. But until there are some signs of real reform, too many of the Seattle voters who might support a Jane Fellner - or other sensible candidate - will sit out school board elections; or continue leaving the city. The system is in a huge downward spiral, and sadly, things may need to get far worse before they get better. If ever there were a case for charter schools and vouchers, Seattle is it. Minority parents, especially those flinging accusations at the district for failing to educate their children, should wake up. The NEA, WEA and the Seattle teachers union won't allow competition, and successfully peddle fear whenever the spectre of real school choice arises. You reap what you don't sow.
Posted by Matt Rosenberg at October 23, 2006
08:30 PM | Email This
It's kind of funny that over HA, Goldy was doing whatever he could to save his own personal charter school, otherwise known as a public elementary school. It has a special Montessori program that excludes those who don't get in early and pay for it. It sucks all the resources out of the "regular" program, along with parent support. But, hey, Goldy's child is getting a private education at public expense, so who loses?
So the lesson is, if you have enough clout, you can have the school that you want in Seattle. If you don't, you are locked in a failing system.
Good comment Janet S - I caught a bit of the news coverage last week on the public meeting - a study is narcissism. Like a death of a thousand cuts, they were all selfishly pursuing their own gratification while chanting "Unity", and mostly just stewing in their own juices.
Mama sez "Stupid is as stupid does"...
3. Oh for the days of John Henry Stanford.
4. Anyone that really cared what kind of education their children receive left Seattle ages ago.
5. Are there any other cities that have multiple school districts? I'm wondering what the impact would be. It would tend to increase overhead (4 superintendents, etc.), although that doesn't necessarily have to happen. It would also make it hard to put the school district under control of the mayor, which has worked well in some cities.
Where does one begin to comment. First, I think that Superintendent Manhas did what was possible in an impossible situation. The problem, in my opinion, is too complex to simply say break up the District. School Superintendents have a job that is designed to fail. There are a number of questions to ask about the current institutional structure:
1. Have school boards outlived their usefulness?Many elected in "progressive" cities like Seattle and Berkley are there to push their own pet agendas and their view of changing society. Does anyone remember ebonics as promoted by the Oakland school board? Their district is a bigger mess than Seattle. Is there another insitutional structure to ensure accountability other than the elected school board model?
2. School finance as opposed to regular accounting. Thanks to the legislature for restricting the use of funds and not allowing the use of all funds for necessary expenses and regular operations as an accountable superintendent and their finance staff deem necessary. Shouldn't the role of the state be to ensure accountability rather than micromanage?
3. Superintendants have accountability with very little real power. Sometimes persuasion isn't all that effective, they need the ability to fire people.
4.Teacher unions and extroridnarily complex contracts that, according to Hess and others, reduce innovation and actually hamper classroom learning.
I know that charter schools have been on the ballot a couple of times. Thinking small is the answer. Breaking up the district is really re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I think Matt is on the right track in terms of thinking smaller. The smaller we need to think about is charter schools.
I wish the next victim/superintendent candidate a lot of luck. Without some institutional changes, I doubt if they will be around 24 months from their start date.
7. Keep this on your own blog, Matt. SP is hardly the place for reasoned debate on an important and complex issue like this.
8. WVH@6, charter schools have (on average) performed worse than public schools. So while they sound great in theory, and perhaps we should have them, why do you think they're the primary answer to our problems?
I anticipated the comments on the effectiveness of charters, I refer interested parties to Carolyn Hoxby:
Hoxby, C. M. (2001, spring). Changing the profession: How would school
choice affect teachers. Education Next, I (4), 69-74.
Hoxby, C. M. (2001, winter). Rising tide: Critics of school choice have grossly
underestimated the public school system's ability to respond to competition.
Education Next, I (4), 69-74.
Hoxby, C.M. (2002). The cost of accoutability. (NBER Working Paper 8855).
Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Hoxby, C. M. (2002, summer). The power of peers. Education Next, 2 (2), 57- 63.
Hoxby, C. M. (2003). School choice and school competition: Evidence from the
United States. Swedish Economic Policy Review, 10, 9-65.
Blog readers are usually a pretty smart bunch. A lot of comparison of the effectiveness of charters doesn't look at the the popoulation of kids most likely to attend charters:
1. Would they be doing worse in another school?
2. Do the studies compare charters with the nearest school which the child would be likely to attend.
I think the Swedish Economic Review is available online. It is an interesting read.
That is not a bad idea. However funding should be destributed on a city wide basis. Lest we create rich districts and poor districts (it would also take the inevitable arguments of income and race out of the discussion). However actually creating neighborhood schools, a feeder system i.e. every student from x elementary schools go to one middle school and x middle schools feed into one high school, would be vary nice. It would also allow school board members to go out and meet the voters and also come from the area they represent.
I have always found school board politics to be, well, annoying. There is nothing more difficult then to have rational discussions when peoples children are involved. Just ask a teacher. Everybodies kid no matter how ordinary or dull is a super star needing special attention and advanced work. Every minor or nonexistent problem facing a school or their kid is the single greatest thing facing the nation, and you can't go five minutes without somebody spouting some empty platatute like "the children are the future".
The best politics are local. The smaller the better. Smaller responds to the needs of their own better and quicker.
One size fits all government doesn't work.
If you broke the districts into 4, would the overall cost be the same or more? Would you be mixing some rich neighborhoods with poor neighborhoods to balance the costs?
This really sounds like a good idea for discussion.
Let me put a plug in here for Bellevue schools. We get the same funding as everyone else in the state, for the same classroom sizes. Yes, we pass our levies and have an active foundation that provides additional funds, so our per-student money is probably higher than many other districts in the state.
That said, it doesn't matter how much money you have if you have a poor system. Bellevue has a rigorous system because it is constantly asking the parent population what works and what doesn't. There are charter-like schools in the district for those who who choose them, because the district knows those parents will opt for private schools if the district doesn't provide them.
The biggest difference Bellevue (and Issaquah, Northshort, Mercer Island and Lake Washington) and Seattle is a highly committed parent population that is well educated. Parents demand that their students be prepared for college, not prepared to lead a seminar on diversity. We have diversity, mainly because a diverse group of parents who care about their children do whatever it takes to live in the Bellevue School District.
The two worst things that can ever happen to education are:
1) Unions (despicable things run by contemptable "people")
2) Interference by the federal government (another despicable thing run by contemptable "people")
The root problem with large school districts does boil back to the employee groups, but not because they are "contemptable people." They are simply doing what they collect money to do: protect the employee first and foremost. Perhaps in Seattle, they are too successful.
The problem is that when employee groups acquire the power to set spending priorities, the students lose. And through board elections, high union dues, strong control over levy elections and the general culture of "labor can do no wrong," they might have been very successful at grabbing the power necessary to serve the employees of public schools.
The use of power in the interest of employees without balance ultimately harms the host organization and even the families schools are intended to serve.
Specifically, the damage is done by spending on (1) staff retention, (2) salary increases beyond the level of state provision and (3) employee benefits which cost more than the state provides.
The problem is that these increases are despite declining student enrollment (NOT state spending, since by all measures, provision for students' education increases each year). In fact, Seattle schools should be a model for how money makes kids smarter...since they have TREMENDOUS resources from local levies and poverty programs (It is an ironic point that it is accessing funds by virtue of its wealth AND its poverty).
Any reasonable person would know that maintaining and increasing cost at a time of declining income is a recipe for disaster...unless you can call for the calvary to arrive with buckets of cash.
And we are hearing those cries: "Its the state's fault for 'cutting' funding" "We need the power to raise larger levies" All for what? To keep the growing paychecks rolling out to all the current people. Likely they would want to keep the payroll train running even if NO students were enrolled.
Poor Raj knows his economics and tried hard to make the logical adjustments...only to be thwarted by communities agitated by employee groups' interests. (Granted, communities have a measure of self interest in convenient, local schools staffed by known educators).
Breaking the school district might work if it fragments the power of employee groups to run the district on the rocks. Charter schools accomplish the same purpose. But nothing says that the existing school board couldn't make the same kinds of changes, except that they are elected in a culture of ignorance about the impact of too much union influence.
The only other solution would be for the union officials themselves to ease up on the host organism in the interest of its survival...as many PRIVATE sector unions have needed to.
You seem to have all the answers. Why not get yourself selected as superintendent...or get yourself elected to the school board.
Mr. Know it All. Knows everything. Does nothing but write and complain.
Wow. First time for everything. I actually agree with Matt Rosenberg.
In a rare moment of lucidity, a few years back The Economists shared the findings of a study comparing the public schools of Boston, NYC, and Chicago. Turns out that student achievement and school competitiveness is a function of district size and parental choice. Boston, which had the best public schools, has 12 districts. If a parent doesn't like their kid's school, they move. So the smaller districts had to compete for students. Which becomes their incentive mechanism.
By comparison, NYC, the worst of the lot, has one big district and the lowest achievement. No parental choice. No competition. No incentive.
This isn't an ideological debate. This is about pragmatism. Scale matters. The Seattle school district is too big. Split it up. I was thinking 3, but 4 would probably work.
People advocating charter schools, even more standardized testing, and other hare-brained ideas miss what's really happening here.
Open markets (vs the mythical "free markets") function because of choice, incentives, and feedback. That's just economics. Not ideology.
Get your facts right. Issaquah has a lower levy cap (thanks to grandfathering)..so Bellevue gets TONS more money per kid than Issaquah by state law! Both districts have voters that pay the maximum...it's just that your precious Bellevue gets MUCH more by law than Issaquah.
Also, you do your plug but you don't mention that Bellevue is the only school district around that went DOWN in math WASL. With all that extra money...and all those AP classes...how come the basic math pass rate is so Low in Bellevue and getting lower while all the other districts are going UP!
Hi Tom Johnson-
I haven't looked at public education issues for a long time. I was under the impression that in WA state, the money per student that a district receives is standardized. I guess the idea was to enforce equality by ensuring everyone was at the lowest common denominator.
I grew up in Bellevue during the '80s. I remember how upset everyone was that we couldn't raise more money for our schools if we choose to.
It sounds like the situation has changed. Is there a primer or summary readily available that I can read?
19. I find that Matt is a thoughtful and provacative thinker. A couple of years ago, Seattle University sponsored a program which asked the question - what is the "common good?" Participants had many definitions, usually dependent on their background and beliefs. I would like to pose this question to Matt - does your idea of breaking the district into four parts advance the common good? I don't mean the world envisioned by moonbats and race pimps on one side or bigots. What kind of city can be developed which can be inhabited by those in the middle? A lot of what is going on in the discussion about schools is really a discussion of class and traits associated with success in the culture. Unless one is Russell Simmons or Jay Zee, traits of hip hop culture are not going to grant entry into the halls of commerce or academia. No wonder caring parents of all colors want their kids removed from those corrosive influences. Now, back Matt's proposal - does dividing the district into four parts advance the common good of the city or is it better to focus on an institutional structure which allows the growth of good schools in all parts of the city?
kinda like Iraq or Serbia--
cut the district in 4's. give all sides 1/4 the full equivalent state/whatever funding & full operational powers to hire, fire & sign contracts. funds signers/in charge people are tied to their collective personal assets to prevent theft & ensure personal responsibility.
then--spend it any way you like--on diversity, on field trips on sensitivity training or basic reading/math. have volunteers help out too. at the end of 2 years, we audit the hell out of every nook/cranny & take a tally. win? Lose? at least we tried something different.
the loudmouth demanding parents learn to live within a bidget and be realistic. the admins learn about being on the hook for failure. the community gets the power to form their own destiny. researchers get a live Petri dish for education.
Thanks for your good comments, and for the Hoxby citations, some of which I've read.
I have to disagree, though, with "Thanks to the legislature for restricting the use of funds and not allowing the use of all funds for necessary expenses and regular operations as an accountable superintendent and their finance staff deem necessary. Shouldn't the role of the state be to ensure accountability rather than micromanage?" The state hardly micromanages money at the district level. The state funding system is in almost all its major components an allocation system, meaning that state funds are for the most part all green money when it gets to the district's door. The state provides a formula allocation to each district for pupil transportation, for example, but it does not require that that allocation be spent on transportation. It provides formula driven staff allocations for instructional, administrative and classified staff, but it does not specify how that money must be spent except for a few salary controls stating that districts must, for one, pay at least the salary for an instructional staff member at B.A. + 0 years of experience that is set in the statewide salary allocation schedule. And so on, but I don't want to take up too much space here. Use of Student Achievement Fund allocations is limited to the eligible uses specified in I-728, but these are really quite broad.
School administrators will complain about too many state and federal mandates, but there is little merit to the argument that they can't manage their schools because there are too many strings attached to the state funds they receive. That just isn't supportable.
In support of the too many regulations provision, please review the following:
1. The Common School Manual for Washington State, it is about the size of large city phone book.
2. The following studies:
Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffet, A. (2001). Trying to stay ahead of the game:
Superintendents and principals talk about school leadership. New York: Public
Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffet, A. (2003). Stand by me: What teachers really think
about unions, merit pay and other professional matters. New York: Public Agenda.
Howley, A., Pendarvis, E., & Gibbs, T. (2002). Attracting principals to the
superintendency: Conditions that make a difference to principals. Education
Policy Analysis Archives, 10 (43). Retrieved October 24, 2002 from
Hill (2003) at the UW has said the following about regulation:
Most state governments and big-city school boards impede the education of public school students by over regulation.
You may want to contact the Center for Reinventing Education at the UW to see if those are his current thoughts. The quote is from 2003.
WVH & stu -
I was struck by several of the things stu didn't disagree with.
E.g., "...superintendent and their finance staff..."
Finance staff? Yikes. Now there's something that really adds value to the education a public school system offers the children it serves.
Allocation formulas provided by the State for pupil transportation and staffing for instructional, administrative and classified staff. Sounds like something the State devotes quite a bit of time and energy to, and spends a lot of money on, to provide to the schools. But which the schools are nevertheless free to completely ignore.
Wow. Perhaps the State could just cut off about 99.9% of the resources currently being spent on those efforts. The remaining 0.1% could be used to reprint the old allocation formulas and distribute them..........and the schools could continue to ignore them.
All kidding aside, what a shame that money is being spent on things that contribute little, if anything, to the quality of the education being provided to the students.
This can only happen when the educational establishment has grown vast and bloated, and is well-insulated and distant from the people it is supposed to serve.
What if, instead, an enrollment ceiling was established for all public school systems? Something along the lines of not more than 2000 students per system. Such a system would inevitably be tied much more closely to the neighborhood it was located in, and I doubt that the parents would see any value in, or tolerate expenditures for, things like "finance staff", allocation formulas, or other such esoterica.
School boards (and "local curriculum"), and "summer break", are anachronisms that need to be eliminated.
Like most first world countries, we need a single, NATIONAL curriculum that encompasses the modern world, with strict rigor on math, science, foreign language, history, geography, etc.
Britain has an excellent example:
Local control allows NO benefit, and politicizes even the basics.
National, or large scale control WORKS. Look at the DoD schools for children of our military. They are not heavily funded, but they have tight curriculum control, high standards for teachers, and discipline. The DoD system WORKS, and produces very competitive kids.
So..get rid of school boards. And while your at it...lose "summer breaks"...at least for the 99% of kids that don't need to "bring the harvest in".
You snap off suggestions that imply that I am arrogant and critical. That I am neglecting some moral obligation to do more than point out the facts of how Seattle SD has been run into the financial rocks by over-promising to employee groups.
Yet you offer no facts to suggest that this is not exactly what has happened.
And since I do not live in Seattle SD, I cannot seek either position you have asked me to. Would you vote for me if I did? Would the employee groups allow me to win?
I’m not sure what your point is, but my mild assessment of the crux of the issue in SSD did not warrant such a response. I’m simply offering that the previously suggested changes of the SSD which do not address the problem of employee groups’ ability to get the district to over-promise will not solve the problem.
Oh, and when you do offer facts in your later comment they are twisted.
You said “how come the basic math pass rate is so Low in Bellevue”
Yes, Bellevue Math scores for 10th graders did slip—from 72% passing to 69% passing. While the state average climbed from 47.5% passing to 51% passing. Did you not know that Bellevue didn’t prove your point, or did you hide that fact?
26. Hey Folks, the reason I only post on education issues is that one risks being called a lame brained idiot if the thought is outside what many consider acceptable dogma on other threads and at ther blogs. The reason why finance people are needed is for accountability. There should be regular audits of how public money is spent. Regular audits mean those spending the money need assistance in making sure their accounts are correct. Seattle is example one of how failure to correctly account has devastating results. Shoreline is another example. This thread and most of the education thread(s) seem to be civil. There is a lot of heavy lifting which needs to be done by people of good faith in the education arena. If we can keep to rational argument it would be helpful.
There are various things I agreed and disagreed on with WVH on, but there's only so much space, and I don't want to impose on readers' patience by writing overlong posts.
I'm not understanding the substantive points you're trying to make. If the state were not to use allocation formulas to determine state funding levels for each school district, then what would you suggest? If you have a proposal for how state funding should be done differently, then please share it with us. Otherwise what's your point?
School districts manage multi-million dollar budgets. So obviously they have finance staffs. Again, a frivolous point.
WVH and knowsabit have useful and interesting things to say here. Readers are certainly free to disagree. But responding to their posts with little more than sarcasms is of no value to anyone.
As to the suggestion that district enrollments be capped at such a low number as 2,000 (117 districts in the state have enrollment of more than 2,000), it would certainly be much more expensive to operate that way. Whether we would get higher student achievement from such a set-up, I don't know. It seems to me that the school is the more important unit, rather than the district. But it's not something I've thought about seriously, and don't have a good opinion on it.