Opinion and Economic Analysis and Banking & Finance

HICKS: Education reform deserves bipartisan support

March 19, 2011

The eyes of the nation are on Indiana as we work through serious education reform. That is good, since the proposals before the Indiana General Assembly represent the emerging national, bipartisan consensus on the approach and goals to education reform.

Proposed policy changes in Indiana make it easier for school boards to hire good school leaders and remove poor ones. They would make it easier for principals to pay good teachers more and remove inadequate teachers from the classroom. They would free parents to change schools or seek out alternative schooling. The goal of the legislation is to give public schools more incentives to improve.

These proposals are exactly what President Obama’s secretary of education is pushing for at the national level, and is a preview of a coming decade of education reform. Such reform is to be heartily welcomed, but some well-meaning folks have legitimate questions.

First, should the state provide vouchers to poor children to go to private school? A good question, since many will no doubt attend religious schools. President Franklin Roosevelt evidently was unconcerned by it when he signed the national school voucher program in 1944. We call it the GI Bill of Rights, and it continues today to send public dollars to private and public universities across the country—including seminaries.

Second, doesn’t the voucher and charter school initiative reduce dollars heading to public schools? The answer is yes and no, since charter schools are public. But the argument is double-edged, since vouchers and charter schools also reduce the number of students in public schools.

There is an uncomfortable fact about the efficiency of public schools that those who worry about losing a student and the associated funding need to confront. The average cost of teaching a child in Indiana’s public schools is whatever the funding formula delivers. That is mere fact. If the incremental cost of teaching that student is less than the average cost, then an associated mathematical fact tells us the school is being operated inefficiently. Efficient or overcrowded schools should welcome the safety valve of vouchers and charters. It is only the inefficient schools that are hurt by losing a student and their funding.

Doesn’t this legislation target teachers, and aren’t parents the bigger problem? No and yes. If we had the same share of effective parents as we did effective teachers, our problems would be solved.

Sadly, too many Hoosier kids aren’t blessed with effective parents. We cannot fix that. We can and must get rid of bad teachers, since it takes only one out of 40 to demonstrably hurt a child.

Finally, there’s more we can do to involve parents. The IHSAA does not permit students with a D or F average to participate in sports. Beginning this year, Indiana will give all schools grades.

Athletics, like the arts, nurture learning and so we should encourage play. But, we should immediately ban all postseason team sports for schools without at least a C average. A winning team can no longer provide a salve to failing academics.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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