Can $50 billion improve US schools?

The US federal budget for K-12 schooling for the 2011 school year is approximately $US50 billion dollars.  This doesn’t include the expenditure of state governments who have prime responsibility for schooling.

It’s no wonder there is vigorous debate here on the level of expenditure particularly with the release of Waiting for Superman. One thing is clear, no matter which side of the debate you are on, everyone agrees that US schools are underperforming and change is needed quickly.

You can’t open the newspapers or turn on TV without someone expressing an opinion or proferring to fix the ailing education system. As the country prepares for mid-term elections on November 2, the policy differences are brought into sharp focus.  

The Republicans are calling for less central control by the federal government but the Democrats want greater control. Opinion is spread along a continuum defined by these two opposing views.

 Jennifer Marshall , Director of Domestic Policy Studies for The Heritage Foundation was on TV this weekend imploring the federal government to remove themselves from schooling.  She even suggested the US Department of Education be abolished citing that only 60 cents in the dollar reaches schools – the rest covers administration costs.

Marshall compared Roosevelt’s Education policy (less than 30 single sided sheets) with the Bush Administration’s 600 double-sided pages No Child Left Behind  act.  As you can see, the point that education policy and expenditure are focused on compliance and justification was well made. 

Marshall argues that this is a result of a lack of understanding of ‘accountability to who and for what’.  Too often decisions are based on whether funding applications are correct instead of whether they meet the needs of students.

Amid much of the debate there were two very important observations which both sides agreed on. The first was that whatever policy is adopted, the central principle will be to drive the education dollar as close to students as possible.  The second was, “we need education policy based on the needs of students not the demands of adults!”  What a powerful policy position.

There was heavy criticism of teacher unions for being focused on the demands of their members and adverse to change and innovation.  It would have been interesting to hear the unions’ response to this claim. 

One thing that strikes me about public policy discussion in the US is public access. There are many media sites helping to shape and influence public understanding on these matters such as C-Span, CNN Schooling for Success and NBC Education Nation. 

These sites are having an increasing influence on the shape and direction of education policy but I believe debate must be balanced.  We don’t seem to have anything like this in Australia and my concern is that our strongest advocates and best practioners don’t have the same opportunities as in the US to be heard.

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