Innovation, Not Debt, Key To Better Schools

As Americans head to the polls for the November election, we will be choosing new servants to head our federal, state and county governments. Easy to overlook, but just as important, will be bond packages presented by local taxing authorities.



Bonds are not free money. They are instruments of debt repaid by tax levies over a defined period. A vote for issuing the debt – “for” the bond – is, consequently, a vote to impose a certain level of property taxes until the debt is repaid.

The advertising in support of such bonds is often predicated on the notion that new debt will provide better schools. But is that really what taxpayers are being asked to buy? The implication is that the debt-financed spending is for the children.

One thing is certain: the debt levied today will still be there for the children to pay off.

In many such bond proposals, a fifth-grader this year will enter her 30s and still be paying the debt. She perhaps had nicer buildings, but was her education improved?

The question really isn’t about supporting or opposing any particular bond; rather, we must decide if expensive building projects actually provide a better education.

Let’s try spending more money in the classroom, rather than simply on a classroom.

First, it is important to remember taxpayers aren’t just being asked to repay the debt listed on the ballot. The nice bankers who loan school districts money want to be repaid and make money off the deal. Taxpayers are on the hook for repaying the principal (the bonded costs) and the interest.

Taken over a 20 or more year period, the interest payment can rival the amount loaned; effectively, the cost to taxpayers is double the amount noted on the ballot.

But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s not worry too much about the debt. (Though it should be noted Texas is only barely trailing New York and California in terms of total state and local debt.)

We should instead confront the common claim made by proponents of school bond proposals: that it will make schools better. It will certainly make the buildings better, or at least more expensive. But will schools, the education provided, be improved?

Despite the hoopla, a new coat of paint, or even new walls, won’t ensure a better education. Only parents and teachers can deliver that.

When looking at the total spending reported to the Texas Education Agency, school districts only spend about 50 percent of your money on instruction. Building more buildings won’t improve that statistic, or produce better academic outcomes.

One thing that can immediately improve education is putting more resources – a greater percentage of school money – directly toward instructional expenses, and less on administration and non-teaching positions.

Let’s try spending more money in the classroom, rather than simply on a classroom.

Rather than hire a plethora of new administrators or pay a bevy of architects, let’s raise the salaries of our best and brightest teachers. A lot. While they are at it, school districts should base pay-raises and bonuses on merit, not seniority.

School districts should bring in top charter-school managers, and let them offer a primer on efficient operations.

Meanwhile, let teachers and parents turn existing campuses into in-district charter schools, thereby freeing them from state (and local!) bureaucracies.

Finally, school boards should allow full in-district public school competition, letting parents pick which campus best meets their kids’ needs.

Legislatively, we should demand that lawmakers free teachers from the mandates and regulations that – intentionally or not – are interfering with the professional creativity they need to effectively reach and teach the children in their classroom.

Better buildings, or better schools? There is a difference. Simply voting for new bonded indebtedness will definitely provide school districts with some measure of better buildings. Better schools will come only when parents and teachers partner for the benefit of the children.

Before spending more, let’s govern better. Building buildings is fine, but fostering innovative academic communities should be our goal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael is president and CEO of Empower Texans, and its premier project, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. A graduate of Texas A&M, former newspaper reporter, one-time Capital Hill staffer, think tank vice president and an Eagle Scout, Sullivan is married with three children. He divides his time between the Metroplex, the rest of Texas, and Austin.

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