Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Questioning school funding trends and mandatory attendance

Discussions about School 2.0 should not take place in vacuum. We need to be realistic about ways schools can and should be changed, and one of the most basic things we need to address is school finance. I addressed this briefly in my spotlight address at the National Educational Computing Conference in Atlanta in June, observing that the “seat time” we now pay for in most U.S. schools should give way to more equitable funding based on learning needs and not just whether or not students have literally “warmed their seats.” I referenced this point in Goodland, Kansas several weeks ago as well, in a remix of that same presentation on “reinventing School for the twenty-first century.”

The general tendency most governmental bureaucracies is to further centralize power and authority. The limited powers vested in the federal government by the U.S. Constitution have been expanded in many areas since 1787, and I am personally very wary of the idea of centralizing funding for education in our nation. Yet centralized funding is exactly what Jonathan Kozol proposed in a 2006 interview (“Jonathan Kozol Takes on the World”) published by District Administration. Kozol stated:

We need an entirely new structure of school finance in this country [the United States]. It should not depend on local property wealth, nor should it depend on the unpredictable dribbles of state funding that allegedly are intended to equalize, but don’t. Nor should it depend on private initiatives.

These kids do not go to school in America to be the citizens of Sacramento or Albany or Boston. They don’t go to school to be citizens of California or North Dakota either. They go to school to be citizens of the United States.

And ultimately I predict that by the end of the century that we’re beginning now, we will do what almost all modern developed Western societies do, which is to finance the education of every child in our nation on an equitable basis, out of national resources. All the money spent for public education in America ought to come from federal taxes that are equitably distributed with adjustments only for greater or lesser costs of living in various sections of the nation and the greater educational needs of certain children. In fact, we are seeing the stirrings of a movement in that direction, even in this conservative era.

I am somewhat aware of the funding inequalities which exist in the United States for public schools, and like Kozol, I am wary of the term “adequate resources” for education. “Adequate” in the minds of many today means textbooks and pencils, and I maintain those tools and resources are not sufficient for learners in the 21st century. However, if use of the term “equitable” suggests centralizing the funding for education under the federal government, I’m not sure the change in terminology is a good one.

Let’s be honest. NCLB has, in many practical ways, provided our federal government with centralized, pedagogic control over K-12 public classrooms around the nation. True, states are still able to determine and write their own high-stakes, punitive tests for students to take (a huge boon for test writing companies and those who invest in them, to be sure) and local districts still officially have “autonomy” and “local control.” Yet the effect of NCLB in narrowing the curriculum in many schools (particularly those serving lower SES student populations) is well documented, and the “teach to the test” mentality now prevailing in the vast majority of public schools with which and in which I now work is undeniable.

The trend line in public education does appear to be one of increasing centralization and federal control, as Kozol observed in 2006. My question is, “Is this a desirable trend for public education in the United States?” As a supporter of limited government in many contexts, including education policy, I’m inclined to say “no.” I do acknowledge that fundamental changes are needed in the ways our schools are governed and funded. Our present system of local school board oversight is highly conservative and reactionary in many cases, and does not generally support visionary change for learning 2.0. Does the answer lie in granting further powers of the purse to federal officials? I think not.

Like Thomas Jefferson and many others, I believe the future success of our republic relies upon education and the ability of our citizens to engage in civil discourse which will influence the course of public policy. At local levels, we need both informed leaders and an informed citizenry which can see beyond the fears of the moment invited by rapid, discontinuous changes taking place all around us. Providing equitable, and not merely “adequate” funding for our schools is vital, but we cannot simply change the source of that funding to the federal government and expect to enjoy better learning opportunities than those we see today in many public schools.

The founders of the United States who drafted our Constitution were right to distrust centralized government, and we should maintain a healthy dose of distrust today for centralized authority as well. This does not mean public servants are incapable of serving the greater needs of society rather than the limited needs of the wealthy and the lobbying elites, but it does mean they require vigilant oversight as well as scrutiny to insure the interests of the nation’s diverse learners are indeed supported.

The realities of school finance inequities are harsh and debilitating. While some continue to debate the meaning of “adequate” in the context of school funding, many communities continue to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new astroturf and other football facilities. Talk of school 2.0 is in short supply in many midwestern school districts, funding for football programs is in comparison easy to come by. The stark contrast in educational facilities provided in inner-city versus suburban schools is striking as well. Funding inequities are real. These are issues about which we should speak out, as should our students. The transparency which can be supported by citizen journalists (including students) reporting on and documenting inequities and injustices can serve as powerful catalysts for change. Inner city schools are unlikely to start offering even elective courses on citizen journalism, however, and school board approved budgets for football facility improvements are not likely to change dramatically in the short term either. What then, can move the agenda of constructive educational reform forward?

Perhaps instead of just thinking about school finance reform, we need to question an even more basic assumption about public education in the United States. Should public schooling be mandatory? The coercive nature of public schooling is one of its most persistent as well as problematic characteristics. Yes it is true, many kids don’t want to be in school. Would community leaders fear a rising local crime rate and a lack of employable job skills if school attendance become optional? I’m sure the list of objections to this idea is long, but I think the question is still worth asking. Perhaps if the way “School” was conducted changed in fundamental ways, so that learning was more relevant and engaging for students, their “desire to attend” would also change.

How are we going to fundamentally change K-12 public education to better meet the needs of learners in the 21st century? Yes, schools exist to serve broader societal needs and values, but they also exist to serve the specific and personal needs of learners. Those needs go far beyond acquiring basic levels of literacy to take up an entry-level job in a franchise outlet. If students (and particularly their parents) don’t believe they (or their children) are able to learn valuable knowledge and skills at the free, public school provided in their neighborhood, why should we force them to attend? If the learning opportunities available at that neighborhood school are inadequate for the information and literacy environment of the 21st century, how can the leaders responsible for that learning environment be encouraged to change their ways? I am NOT advocating a voucher model for public education, but I am suggesting that in some contexts (particularly larger communities) a new reality of competition for learners in the schoolhouse can encourage a constructive dynamic of progressive change.

I remember reading, analyzing, and criticizing John Chubb and Terry Moe’s article “America’s Public Schools: Choice Is A Panacea” in 1995 as part of my Masters program studies. Contrary to their article and the position of many advocating for “educational choice” via voucher programs, there are no silver bullets for the challenges which face education. In some rural communities where I now work, for all practical purposes students do NOT have a choice in public schools. The issue is not just one of “choice,” it is fundamentally about empowering and encouraging teachers and administrators to serve as positive, relational change agents in the lives of the students they serve. The potential of teachers to positively change lives should not be underestimated. As Kozol wrote in a more recent interview:

In the inner-city schools these classrooms are not simply the front lines of education: They’re the front lines of democracy. No matter what happens in a child’s home, no matter what other social and economic factors may impede a child, there’s no question in my mind that a first-rate school can transform almost everything. So long as the teacher is energized and highly skilled and her personal sense of exhilaration in the company of children is not decapitated by a Dickensian agenda.

Certainly a proposal to make public education optional in the United States would be disruptive. I am not suffering under a delusion that a simple mandate like this would encourage all teachers to have the sort of outlook Kozol extolled in the previous quotation. But isn’t a disruptive change exactly what we need in public education? Don’t we want to encourage a dynamic where all the educational stakeholders, from school district leaders to campus principals to classroom teachers are striving to engage students and provide them with meaningful, relevant, educative experiences? I’d like to think we do, but the honest truth is that many adults are content to see schools continue to serve as babysitting services for students between the ages of five and eighteen instead of workshops for personal and professional empowerment.

We’ve got to move beyond paying for seat time and mandating that kids “sit and get” in a classroom between the hours of eight a.m. and three p.m. (or thereabouts) every weekday, except in the summertime. How can public officials encourage constructive change in this paradigm? The answer is most likely NOT by centralizing funding for U.S. public education under the federal government. Perhaps a better way would be to change the fundamental reason for going to public school in the first place: Go because you want to go, and/or because your parent(s) want you to go.

If kids think they are “job ready for the world” with the knowledge and skills they possess today, I say, introduce them to the world of work. Let them “have a go” at getting ahead in our attention economy with their current level of literacy and education. After a brief stint in the work world, I think most kids (and most parents) would realize they really DO need additional knowledge and skills to become a reasonably paid, contributing member of the information society. Schools and educators should provide opportunities for students to acquire and refine those abilities. Rather than simply acquire “minimum” abilities to read and write, as measured by a standardized test, students need the opportunity to become energized readers and authors, students of the world and architects of the future. I know this is idealistic, but I will offer no disclaimers or excuses for this viewpoint. If we believe the next generation holds the keys to our future, and possesses the capacity to truly invent that future, we need to refine and support a change agenda which EMPOWERS rather than simply COERCES learners.

Without fundamental changes in the ways schools are funded, organized, and the assumptions we have about why students should go to school in the first place, I don’t think we’ll see the broad-based change we need in public Schools.

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Wanted: Visionary community leaders. Got vision?

The stakes here are high. The future of our republic is literally on the line. I’ll close with some observations from the original interview with Kozol I quoted at the start of this post. The first concerns the moral and ethical dynamics of this discussion over educational “outcomes” and “adequate” or “equitable” education:

In my book I quote one principal of a heavily test-driven school in Columbus, Ohio. And who at the very end of the visit, she took me by the arm and said something very poignant like, “I envy principals in suburban schools where they can teach critical thinking to their students.” She just touched my arm wistfully, you know. So an awful lot of very good people are being forced to do things they consider pedagogically harmful in order to cater to the strict accountability demands. And we’re gonna lose a lot of those people because a lot of the best principals tell me they are taking early retirement because they don’t like to betray their principles.

We are moral beings, and every day we make moral choices. Our school systems should not force professional educators to “train” rather than educate the students who come through the doors of the schoolhouse each day.

The next quotation addresses the issue of stakes and our need to speak out:

We do have to stand up to it. I mean if we won’t speak out, who will? We are the witnesses. We are the frontline witnesses. We see these kids everyday. We know very well that–I mean good principals and good teachers understand the major distinction that’s taking place in America now. They understand that we are educating the children of the privileged and most of the middle class to ask discerning questions, to read with comprehension and intelligent irreverence. To pose probing questions and to find intellectually capacious answers, while we are training another class of children, mostly minority, to perform predictably and provide answers that have been scripted for them in advance. So one class is learning to grow into politically sagacious and culturally rich adulthood. And the other is being trained to perform the least interesting and lowest paid economic functions in our society and essentially to accept the world order as it is dictated by the children of the privileged.

To me this is a bigger divide than the so-called achievement gap. It’s a larger gap than the achievement gap because it doesn’t have to do merely with, you know, how quickly you learn a constant blend, although that is important. It’s a much deeper thing. It doesn’t just have to do with your ability to fill in the right bubble on a high-stake exam. It has to do with your ability to function with authority and wise judgment in a democracy.

Marco Torres has a very powerful way of taking this conversation down to personal level in some of the keynote addresses he shares. When I heard him speak at MACE in March, he challenged all the educators in attendance to take a pledge, that they would teach every day like their own children or grandchildren were in their class. Education is personal, and we should take the responsibility for working to improve the learning opportunities our own children and the children of others in our communities have in Schools very personally.

What can you, a school teacher in the classroom, do with all these ideas today? Remind your students they have infinite value because of the human beings they are, not because of the ways they can or will perform on an examination. As Kozol says:

You give the test because you have to give the tests, but you don’t tell the children that these tests measure their real value. You don’t tell the children that narrow area of learning that the test measures reflects their value to you as human beings or–or as little intellectuals.

We live within a flawed educational system in a fallen world, but those perceptions should not dictate our behavior as a moral and ethical teachers and leaders. Whether or not school finance rules change anytime soon or public schooling becomes optional, if tomorrow is a school day you’ll still face those children. Be intentional in showing your care and concern for them, and let them know “the tests” don’t define their value. That’s a gift each one of us can give, and no federal or state mandate can bestow or take away. Strive to provide a learning environment which, in the words of Kozol, has a “a well-balanced mixture of…good skill teaching and genuinely inquisitive, deeply intellectual learning in which there is still joy in the classroom.” In today’s high-stakes testing environment, this may sound like “mission impossible,” but it must be instead “mission possible.”

While I can’t send you the technological resources Tom Cruise had at his disposal in the “Mission Impossible” movie series, I can send you my ideas along with hopes, prayers, and best wishes. On the front lines of education, in the trenches of the classroom, the fight for engaged learning and authentic literacy development rages on. Armed with love, your knowledge of children as well as engaged learning, and the supportive words of your brothers and sisters in “educational arms,” go forward into the dawning day to save lives and make a difference. Our collective dreams as a nation go with you.

Sunrise in Kent

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3 responses to “Questioning school funding trends and mandatory attendance”

  1. Fanning Avatar

    Questioning school funding trends and mandatory attendance

    Hi I just wanted to respond to your post on school funding and attendance. I definitely agree with you that attendance is not necessarily an indicator of comprehension. Also there is no way that funding should be linked to it. There are a lot of social factors to consider with funding and how those funds are distributed many urban areas have issues to consider that many rural and suburban schools. It’s a good possibility that those differences may make it nearly impossible to establish one set of guidelines to address the funding issues our schools face.

  2. Chris Lehmann Avatar


    Amazing, thought-provoking wonderful post that will resonate with me for a long time. Thanks.

    — Chris

  3. […] and take their required tests. This situation is part of the reason I’m starting to think we should change mandatory school attendance laws in our nation and make public schooling optional. If kids didn’t have to be in school, but could choose to come, maybe more legislators, […]