Recently John Allison, new superintendent for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, was interviewed by the Wichita Eagle. The article reporting on the interview is at Great time to be superintendent.
In the interview, Allison mentioned “painful” budget cuts. The cuts that K through 12 education is facing in Kansas, however, are minor compared to what many other state agencies are facing.
We should also remember that many school districts have plenty of money, so much so that, as I’ve reported, spending advocates will challenge anyone who mentions just how much there is to spend.
Allison mentioned teaming with other school districts to gain economies in sharing services and purchasing. While the district should do this if it will save money, small reforms like these are merely nipping at the margin. What the district needs to do is look at big reforms that can save large amounts and improve educational outcomes.
One such reform is widespread school choice, implemented as charter schools and voucher/tax credit programs. School choice programs save money. Two years ago, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”
Some school choice programs would require a change in Kansas state law. I’m sure if the new Wichita Superintendent testified in favor of them, it would have a big impact.
Charter schools, however, require no new laws. All it requires is the willingness of the local school board to authorize one. Allison could take the lead on this.
Allison mentioned mandates which require “more resources and often more paperwork and administrative costs.” Some of these mandates, such as the federal No Child Left Behind law, are roundly criticized as ineffective. This is a problem that a local superintendent probably can’t overcome.
As a nation we need to examine these mandates along with their costs that Allison mentioned. Are they necessary? Do they add value? This examination is not likely to happen, as the public schools — at least in Wichita — operate with little real competition, and therefore face little pressure to control costs and allocate resources to what people really want.
The new superintendent also needs to take steps to assure citizens that the many years of rising test scores claimed by the district (and the state of Kansas, too) are valid and meaningful. In some states it’s been shown that the tests are being watered-down or cut scores manipulated to show the results that politicians want.
John Allison is taking over the Wichita school system at a dangerous time. The primary danger is that improvements like the expensive bond issue passed last year send the school district down a path that, while producing lots of shiny buildings, will do little to improve educational outcomes. It also sets up Wichita for much higher costs in the future as new facilities and classrooms come online.
Whether Allison will be able to — or if he even wants to — buck the traditional educationist orthodoxy is unknown at this time. But here’s a clue: Would the present Wichita school board have hired a reform-minded superintendent? Not likely.