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1.SUTHERLAND CALLS ON STATE LEADERS TO INVEST IN ONLINE SCHOOLS

Authors of a new report from the Center for Educational Progress contend that national evidence and local experience indicate that online learning is a cost-effective way to educate children in Utah, and is likely to make the public education system more cost-effective over time.

 

Faced with continuing budget shortfalls, rising public school enrollments, and ever-increasing costs from employee salaries and benefits, school districts in Utah have laid off employees, frozen salaries, shortened the school year, and raised taxes in order to make ends meet. Perhaps even more troubling, some education policy experts point out that public education’s budget challenges are not likely to be resolved for several years.

 

Now is the time that state policy makers and education leaders should invest in online learning to improve the bang for Utah’s education buck.

 

In Money Matters: Investing in Online Education, co-authors John Merrifield and Derek Monson assert that online learning can enhance the ability of parents to provide the best education possible to their children and the capacity for public schools to provide a high-quality education in Utah.

 

“Online education will not be a silver bullet or a quick fix, and it is not simply ‘education on the cheap.’  It has its own set of costs,” they said. “But because of its unique cost structure, virtual schooling has the potential to provide a better education to children in Utah for a similar, or even lower, price tag than traditional public schooling.”

 

The Center for Educational Progress at Sutherland Institute recommends that education policymakers should require every Utah student to complete an online course before graduating from high school. Further, that school districts should be required to inform parents of all the online learning options available to them, including district or state-run online schools and online public charter schools. And state education funds should be allocated on the basis of how many courses are completed with mastery by students in public schools, with more funds provided for more costly courses.

 

For more information regarding Sutherland Institute research and recommendations, please contact Dave Kimball at dkimball@sutherlandinstitute.org, or by phone at 801-355-1272.

 

2.THE TRAGIC RESIGNATION OF MICHELLE RHEE

Michelle Rhee resigned from her post as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system on Oct. 13, 2010, in the wake of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat at the polls. Her resignation damages the hopes of D.C. public school students for a decent education and is a setback to a certain model for would-be educational reform.

 

In many ways, Rhee was a patron saint of America’s political and educational elite. Many establishment Republicans and Democrats alike would like to find a way to invigorate public schools before the last vestiges of functionality and public support evaporate, but without accommodating educational choice or otherwise rocking the political boat. A daughter of Korean immigrants, graduate of Cornell and Harvard, and participant in the Teach for America program, Rhee appeared to have the kind of intelligence, political connections, photogenic personality, and results-oriented management approach needed to rescue D.C.’s dismal public school system.

 

Rhee symbolized and embodied a distinct approach to education reform. Specifically, she advocated internal reform through leadership, modest curtailment of union excesses, accountability through management result metrics, reduction of administrative overhead and inefficiency, student testing, and replacement of poorly performing administrators and teachers. Importantly, she did not advocate fundamental structural change for the school system, and she maintained that vouchers were not a solution for D.C. schools.

 

Rhee’s model garnered a surprisingly broad range of powerful supporters and media cheerleaders: first lady Laura Bush, New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Mayor Fenty, NewsweekThe New York Times, the PBS NewsHour, The Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostTimeNational ReviewThe Weekly Standard, and thousands of desperate minority parents in the district who no longer have access to a federal voucher program. From 2007 to 2010, Rhee was cheered on as she took on the unions and attempted to validate a model for restoring basic functionality to America’s imploding system of urban public schools.

 

But with Rhee no longer at the helm, her reform efforts are in jeopardy and will be subject to the whims of her successor. In other words, they may simply disappear. If a charismatic, earnest, well-credentialed, centrist leader like Michelle Rhee cannot bring lasting change to public schools, even with the very broad backing of the political and media establishment, who can? What is the solution?

 

Sutherland Institute’s model for education reform provides the answer. Systemic reform of public schools cannot be achieved merely through charismatic leadership, replacement of inadequate personnel, fiscal accountability, political encouragement, student testing, or even implementation of performance metrics. To be sure, Rhee’s tactics are often important components of achieving improvement, in welcome contrast to more statistically discredited ideas that include increased education spending, increased teacher salaries, reduction of teacher-student ratios, increased numbers of certified teachers, expansion of the school year, or expansion of institutionalized early childhood education. But tactical maneuvering and marginal adjustments, even when sensible, have historically proven to be insufficient to achieve long-term improvement in student performance. Permanent, positive reform can be achieved only if certain structural changes to the public school system are implemented.

 

Educational innovation and reform really occur at three different levels. Permanent, meaningful reform in the pedagogical realm (what and how to instruct) and in the organizational realm (operations, culture, human resources, and general resource use within the educational institution) almost always depends upon prerequisite change in the civic realm (including the legally defined structures by which political and economic decisions are made and by which constituent families have representational input). If the civic part of the equation is dysfunctional, it becomes virtually impossible for any educational institution to instigate positive internal innovation, borrow useful innovative ideas from other external sources, and maintain a reform trajectory over the years in the face of inevitable political vicissitudes. Without civic reform, efforts directed at the other two levels of innovation – organizational and pedagogical – will simply wither and die on the vine.

 

The tragedy is that many (or perhaps most) well-meaning pillars of respectable society in the United States fatally undermine the effectiveness of their own sound ideas for reform by embracing a Platonic means to implementation. The Platonic governance of education is inherently dysfunctional, even when temporarily controlled by an intelligent, motivated, enlightened, well-meaning leader. Personalities come and go, the sensibilities of the general public vacillate, but the civic system and the interest groups stay in place indefinitely. The only long-term solution is a system structurally designed to directly empower parents by giving them ongoing, absolute and direct control over the public schools attended by their children.

 

Thomas Jefferson recognized this principle long ago. The prerequisite key to successful, long-term, sustained, meaningful educational innovation is a civic structure of parental governance for the education system that will actually permit genuinely innovative ideas to be considered, tested and implemented. In order for America – and Utah – to have the flexibility, accountability, representation and modularity required for ongoing improvement, we must utilize the educational principles explained by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The long-term well-being of students, families, society and teachers depends upon this – we will all lose if America’s educational system is allowed to implode beyond repair.

 

Sutherland Institute has described the educational principles of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin under the label of “Jefferson Charter Schools.” Readers who are interested in learning about these ideas in more detail can read Fostering Educational Innovation in Choice-Based Multi-Venue Settings and Government Single-Venue Settings, or a more condensed explanation at Fostering Innovation in Utah Schools: Common Elements of Educational Success.

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