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Voices: Amendment 66 and V-8 engines

The vice-president of the Adams 12 Five Star School Board, Norm Jennings, argues that policymakers should learn from the failure of Amendment 66 that voters want to reform the school system, not the funding. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Supporters of Amendment 66 had plenty of reasons for why they felt the Constitutional ballot question was so soundly defeated. Some of the reasons given were: voters were distracted by the floods (that occurred a month before ballots were delivered in the mail); distrust of government competence to run a large program (understandable); federal government shutdown (???); and voter aversion to increased taxes (which really means Pro 66 folks think 65 percent of the state’s voters are just plain stingy).

Not one supporter suggested that perhaps voters understand something they don’t –- the assumption that more funding will lead to better student outcomes is wrong.

Most voters probably don’t know about the colossal failure of unlimited funding in the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD). A federal lawsuit alleging segregation overseen by a federal judge gave the KCMSD a blank checkbook and ordered the state of Missouri to essentially fill in whatever amount they requested. The request came to a total of $2 billion (on top of normal funding) from 1985 to 1997. The judge finally put an end to the spending orgy when that money failed to produce a meaningful difference in the academic performance of students. Scores were flat and achievement gaps were unchanged. The adults benefitted as district employees were given raises and additional staff were hired, vendors sold lots of new curriculum, and contractors built new facilities. As far as the students were concerned, they could have lined up along the banks of the Missouri River and watched that money float by for all the good it did them.

KCMSD should have been a warning siren that massive spending on public education just doesn’t produce results. In fact, the only result massive additional spending produced was a more expensive version of crappy.

We’d be a whole lot better off if we paid attention to the parts of KCMSD that were ignored –- the system. I believe voters know this intuitively.

Too many people have “bad teacher” stories. Everyone knows one –- the wasted year or class that voters suffered through as students themselves; the children’s teacher that just frustrated parents because their child wasn’t learning; the teacher that appeared to be performing on-the-job early retirement; the complaints they hear from nieces and nephews, cousins, grandchildren, neighbors, etc. Fortunately these “bad teachers” aren’t the majority, but there are enough of them that they are a drag on the whole system.

Why did an organized $10 million spend in favor of Amendment 66 still lead to a two-to-one defeat? Because voters know that no amount of additional funding will remove bad teachers from classrooms. Voters understand that no amount of funding will eliminate job protectionism that keeps bad teachers in classrooms. Voters suspect that eliminating job protection for bad teachers would not pose a financial burden on districts. Voters also suspect that more money in the name of “attracting and retaining great teachers” will also end up in the pocket of bad teachers and the cycle will continue unbroken but more expensive.

I have an analogy that explains the paradox that more money doesn’t produce better academic results. Education is like a V-8 engine that has three fouled out spark plugs and adding more money is like putting higher-octane gas in the tank. The higher-octane gas will help the five working spark plugs produce more power and mask some of the problems. But higher-octane gas is no substitute for replacing the fouled out spark plugs.

If we want to improve education we need to focus our reform efforts on the system –- not the funding. We need to replace those spark plugs.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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