Op-Ed: Report confirms need for reforms in Newport schools, more options for parents

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The following op-ed is written by John Garen, Ph.D., BB&T Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Kentucky and a Bluegrass Institute scholar. He can be reached at [email protected].

Kudos to ReNewport for its recent report on the Newport Independent School District. 

ReNewport – a nonprofit focused on community development in Newport – recently released its second report on Newport’s public schools. 

The report is a clear and fact-based assessment – a significant accomplishment considering the high emotion and turmoil regarding public schools these days.

But it paints a decidedly bad picture. 

It shows that Newport Independent Schools have performed very poorly with, for example, low percentages of students achieving proficiency in reading and math – much lower, in fact, than state averages – and low ACT scores. 

Additionally, it finds a great deal of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover along with high levels of administrative spending. Yet Newport has one of the highest funding levels of any district in the state at over $20,000 per pupil. 

Sadly, this pattern is repeated often in many Kentucky public school districts, leading to long-term statewide stagnation in overall student performance while per-pupil funding has almost continuously risen. (See my paper “Facts and Trends Regarding Performance and Funding of K-12 in Kentucky,” published in December 2020.)

ReNewport’s study argues “that incremental or ‘continuous’ improvement cannot produce the sweeping change needed to raise the culture and performance of the Newport schools.” 

It recommends raising academic standards, retaining and recruiting good teachers and improving their salaries and working conditions, developing school leaders to implement changes and improving accountability. 

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All are sensible recommendations. But a key to attaining them is assuring that the system doesn’t keep funding school failures; rather it should fund school success. This is the essence of accountability. 

Reformers frequently rely entirely on political accountability for change, i.e., political pressure on state and local governmental organizations. While this is worthwhile, too much reliance on political “solutions” to problems in public schools has led to the current disappointing results. 

A far superior form of accountability is embedded in the demands of the marketplace: poorly performing organizations lose their clients and their revenue. Applying this to schools means:

  • Funding “follows” the student, and the family chooses the school the child attends. An important companion to this is encouraging the opening of new schools so that parents have a wider range of schools from which to choose. 
  • Poorly performing schools lose students (and revenue) to better-performing schools; more of the latter can open and the former must reform or close. 
  • Schools are held accountable (and incentivized) for good performance. 
  • Good performance requires characteristics recommended by the report, including recruiting/retaining better teachers, high standards, a healthy school culture and good leadership. 

The best way to attain market-like accountability is through the adoption of education savings accounts or vouchers, where each family is awarded funds to be spent on their children’s schooling, whether public or private. Another good option is a healthy set of independent and innovative public charter schools which parents may choose. 

In this setting, there’s little reliance on parents having to “play politics” by schmoozing school officials to gain the type of schooling they want for their children. Instead, if their child is suffering in an ill-suited or poorly performing school, they simply move them. 

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Some commentators claim parents cannot be trusted to make good schooling decisions for their kids, especially low-income and poorly-educated parents. I dispute that claim. The top-performing charter schools in New York City have tens of thousands of applicants for whom there’s no space. These applicants are from the low-income, low-education demographic noted above, but they know which schools are best for their kids. 

It’s noteworthy that Newport Independent and every other school district in Kentucky could embrace more choice for parents and encourage education innovation by allowing a wide set of charter schools to open in their districts. Sadly, I doubt many districts will do so. 

Unfortunately, it looks like it will take state government action to establish a voucher-like option or broader charter school program to accomplish more choice, accountability and better-performing schools

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