Tuesday, April 29, 2008

School Issues: The Playing Field


In 1986, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to James M. Buchanan, Jr., of George Mason University, for his theory that in the public sector actors make decisions based on their perception of their own best interests. In other words when you and I go to the polls every November, or when our senators vote in the United States Senate, or when our city council votes on an ordinance, we all opt for the choice that we think will do us personally the most good.

Maven, what does this have to do with Richmond Public Schools?

Loyal reader, be patient, there is more you have to learn.

In Fairfax County, where I lived when my offspring were wee little ones, to finance new school building construction requires passage of a school-bond referendum by the voters of the county. Western Fairfax County back in the early 1980s was experiencing a population explosion and was suffering from a severe shortage of schools. So, to construct the middle and high school buildings for my children to attend, the county proposed a school board referendum.

In some areas of Fairfax County the population was aging and the public schools were underutilized. In those areas of the county there was great support for a group of public minded citizens called the Fairfax Taxpayers Alliance. Now, there never was a tax, or anything resembling a tax, that the Alliance didn’t oppose. So, whenever the county proposed a bond referendum, the Alliance used all its powers to defeat it. The Alliance appealed to all the residents whose children had already graduated from the public schools, arguing that the referendum was unneeded and that it would incur county debt to help only one portion of the county. Well, even though we in the western part of the county badly needed those schools, the bond referendum was defeated.

Maven, you’re putting them to sleep!

Wait, let me put these things together. The proponents of the Fairfax school bond referendum apparently had not read Dr. Buchanan’s books. They did not realize that people always vote in their perceived best interest and that people who did not have children in overcrowded schools in the western part of the county saw no benefit to themselves in voting for the county to assume additional debt.

Dear reader, a constantly growing proportion of the population of River City does not use the services of Richmond Public Schools. Although the population of the city may have stabilized, the number of children in our schools is constantly plummeting. Census estimates had indicated that the population of Richmond dropped by about 2.5% between 2000 and 2006. However, a recent Times-Dispatch article by Michael Paul Williams stated that Richmond’s population is on the rise again.
Richmond population on the rise According to statistics from Richmond Public Schools, on the other hand, the population of students attending our public schools is constantly dropping. The Superintendent of Schools budget proposal for fiscal year 2008-2009 estimates that the school population will drop to less than twenty two thousand children by next year. In the school year 2001-2002 the enrollment was more than twenty five thousand. Statistics on the RPS website indicate that school enrollment goes down about 500 students each year. 1

If Dr. Buchanan’s Pulitzer-winning theory works in Richmond as it apparently worked in Fairfax County early in the 1980s, it means that the number of voters in the city who consider adequate funding of the public schools to be in their own best interest is shrinking. How many of the current members of the City Council represent a district in which the quality of and funding for Richmond Public Schools is really a make-it or break-it issue? Will the winning candidate for mayor in November really need to capture the parent vote to be elected?

Maven, this is getting pretty discouraging.

Not so, dear reader. There is another part of the story you need to hear. After the defeat of the school bond referendum in Fairfax, the pro school construction people changed their tactics. The following year, rather than a bond referendum that would only fund new construction, the county proposal included funding to fix and upgrade older schools throughout the county. Suddenly the number or citizens who could vote for the referendum as being in their best interest increased drastically and the referendum passed. My children got their middle and high schools.

What is the lesson for River City? We have to significantly increase the number of Richmonders who believe that providing the city’s children a first-class education is in their best interest. Based on the enrollment figures, the parents of children in our schools probably don’t have enough clout in the city to go it alone. They must be joined by the business community and the faith community and the civic community and our university communities and the people in the city who don’t have children in our schools. We must all join together as vocal advocates for the children in our city. We must make known to our political leaders that we will hold them accountable if they don’t provide sufficient resources for our children.

We also must act now! We cannot sit around discussing various remedies while our school population keeps dropping by 500 every year. Last year the “Richmond 26” wrote a letter to the mayor and city council about what they perceived as the “emergency” problems of Richmond Public Schools. At the time, this maven commented that although I don’t think that the condition of Richmond Public Schools is really an emergency “we need to deal with Richmond Public Schools as if there were an emergency.”
Fix Our Schools, Now.

In the past two years we citizens of Richmond have been exposed to the Superintendent’s “2015 Plan” and the School Board’s “New Direction.” Each was touted as the miracle elixir for Richmond Public Schools. Each seemed to stay as just a plan without any significant implementation. If Richmond Pubic Schools is to win the confidence of the parents in this city it has to stop announcing new plans and start doing something. We do not need to reinvent the wheel every year. We already know things that work elsewhere. Let’s try them here.

We need more AP and other honors programs in all our general high schools. We need more than one IB diploma program in the city. We must at least double the number of our IB middle years programs and must introduce the IB primary years programs in four of our elementary schools.

Will it be costly? Yes.

Will it work? We will never know unless we try.

I am a great believer in IB. I know of its effectiveness in providing a high quality education to all the students in schools where most students were considered at risk.

Do we need to set up further studies? No.

We need to discuss it with our teachers and with our PTAs and then we need to do it. The people of Richmond want action, not more talk or plans.

1 comment:

gray said...

I agree 100% with more IB programs. My younger daughter desperately needs an IB (International Baccalaureat program) at the first grade level. Now and until the end of the school year, June 17th, the kids will review, yet again, everything they have been tested on throughout the year to prepare them for the SOLS. My daughter has made straight A's on all work since day one of school and is bored out of her mind. She cries every morning I drop her off. She's sick of it. I've talked to all the right people repeatedly --the teacher, guidance counselor, etc-- about giving her more advanced work and they agree yet, for one reason or another, they are unable to give my child what she most needs and wants. I asked the guidance how come kids academically behind get the tutors and my child gets nothing. And yesterday morning I asked the teacher if my daughter could take the SOLS now so that I could keep her home with me for the rest of the school year. The icing on the cake: she is the most well behaved, polite, and considerate child. She waits patiently and quietly for the rest of the class as they struggle with the basics. My daughter suffers in silence. I told the guidance couselor that we will be forced to leave our district school if our daughter is not challenged and does not receive the education she deserves.

A little extra: The teacher said that they were given lower level reading books only and she didn't know why.

Sorry to go off like this, but I'm angry. My child is eager to learn and expresses this daily yet she is crying upon entering the classroom.

I want this to change.