Additional Topics

The other night, during one of our marathon budget workshops, we heard from a woman who had started a ?walking school bus? pilot program in one of our schools.? It's part of an anti-obesity grant and she had a wealth of information about the benefits of walking to school. She warned, ?We are raising a generation of kids who are afraid to walk.?? As soon as she finished, several hands shot up; parents worried about ice and snow, worried about roads without sidewalks, worried about kidnappers?..? My board colleagues immediately ditched the notion of cutting back on busing.? And it occurred to me that perhaps we are already well into the second generation of kids afraid to walk.? And so the obesity epidemic continues, with its many deleterious physical, emotional, and economic effects.? As a Times' headline today has it, Heavy in School, Burdened for Life. Three social scientists write that ?obesity affects not only health but also economic outcomes: overweight people have less success in the job market and make less money over the course of their careers?.? ?The researchers find that fat women are more prone to educational and economic disadvantage than fat men, but the point is that ?obesity is occurring in children at younger and younger ages, so prevention needs to start as early as primary school.?

Get out of the school buses, folks.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

Liam Julian

Louis Menand offers opposing views of college in the latest New Yorker. On the one hand, he writes, college is basically ?a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious?no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense?those negatives will get picked up in their grades.? And at the end of it all graduates are ranked, scored. The G.P.A., in this perspective, is a really just a judgment ?that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.?

Menand's second theory of college's purpose is not so purely practical. ?In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards,? he notes, ?people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.? Literature and music and art, then, will go mostly ignored. A student ?will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.? In such a world, college is the one place where such knowledge and skills can still be passed on, even to those pupils who would rather finish their business classes and get on with it. Through this process college ?socializes,? taking ?people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs? and instructing them in ?mainstream norms of reason and taste.? Thus does campus function...


Our recent study on trends in the special education population was only able to get at the costs of special ed obliquely. But with some states spending two or three times as much per student as others, it seems clear that districts and states could find savings in this $110 billion-plus slice of overall school spending without negatively impacting kids. Some districts are now turning to private companies to provide services at a lower cost.

The role these businesses can play seems to be twofold. First, they are more flexible than districts at providing services where and when they're needed, reducing the amount of time kids are pulled out from their normal classrooms and getting past rigid staffing formulas. Second, because they are a level removed from the difficult politics of special ed, they may have more power to say no to services that are not effective.

Outsourcing these services is no walk in the park, of course. Shady operators will have every incentive to overcharge and underdeliver. Districts must consider which services they're outsourcing, and to whom. The need for careful oversight is a given.

However, serving a population of students with very diverse needs using a variety of outside providers with narrow specialties and an incentive to help children overcome their challenges for good (if possible) is a worthy approach to try. It could both save money and provide a path to more individualized instruction for all youngsters.

- Chris Tessone...


In this Fordham Institute paper, analysts examine public data and find that the national proportion of students with disabilities peaked in 2004-05 and has been declining since. This overall trend masks interesting variations; for example, proportions of students with specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, and emotional disturbances have declined, while the proportions of students with autism, developmental delays, and other health impairments have increased notably. Meanwhile, at the state level, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts have the highest rates of disability identification, while Texas, Idaho, and Colorado have the lowest. The ratio of special-education teachers and paraprofessionals to special-education students also varies widely from state to state—so much so that our analysts question the accuracy of the data reported by states to the federal government.

Last summer, New Jersey's Star-Ledger ran a hard-hitting piece about the condition of education finance in the Garden State. It bemoaned a dismal school-system budget in which teachers had been laid off, extracurricular activities scrapped, and free transportation curtailed. But one budgetary category had been spared: special education.

?This is an area that is completely out of control and in desperate need of reform,? said Larrie Reynolds, superintendent in the Mount Olive School District, where special-education spending rose 17 percent this year. ?Everything else has a finite limit. Special education?in this state, at least?is similar to the universe. It has no end. It is the untold story of what every school district is dealing with.?

And so it is. Special education consumes a caloric slice of the education pie, comprising an estimated 21 percent of all education spending in 2005. That slice is growing, too. Forty-one percent of all increases in education spending between 1996 and 2005 went to fund it.

As Superintendent Reynolds indicated, special education is a field in urgent need of reform. Not only is its funding widely seen as sacrosanct?due to federal ?maintenance of effort? requirements, strong lobbies, nervous superintendents, entrenched habits, and a collective sense that nothing is quite enough for these kids?but America's approach to it is also antiquated. Despite good intentions and some reform efforts, the field is still beset by a compliance orientation that values process over...


The saga of Wake County, NC continues. This week, district superintendent Anthony Tata (formerly of the U.S. Army and then of DCPS) released two plans for Wake's new school-assignment policy. (Remember, Wake County, once a poster-district for socio-economic integration, saw its program scrapped in recent months by the district's new school board. Since then, the community has been struggling to find a middle ground?one which will neither ?resegregate? schools nor force students to bus over an hour to schools in order to fill quotas.)

The first plan, the green plan, or the Base Schools Achievement Plan is similar to the current assignment model?but with a twist. Students would be assigned to schools by achievement level (instead of by family income). No one school could have a concentration of low-achievers. This would, it is assumed, offer low-achievers access to some of the districts best teachers while reducing the number of high-poverty schools. A novel concept, but one with questionable feasibility in the long-term, especially as Wake County's population grows or declines.

The blue plan, aka the Community-Based Choice plan, elementary-school parents would choose between four to six schools, each linked to a middle and high school. Students get priority based on proximity and sibling enrollment, but the district has the right to factor in achievement balance when assigning schools. This plan would allow for long-term flexibility (though transportation costs from year to year would be difficult to budget) and offer stability of school assignment, but could potentially...

Liam Julian

Peter Thiel founded PayPal and was an initial investor in Facebook (cha-ching), and last September he announced creation of the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program through which twenty people under the age of twenty are awarded $100,000 and?introduced into a network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. Each?awardee?is to spend his two-year fellowship?developing?his own startup or project. Today, the winners were revealed, and some of them have educational aspirations. Dale Stephens, for instance, is head of UnCollege, a ?social movement? that believes ?unschooling??in other words, an entrepreneurial approach to education?in which individual students take charge of their learning by involving themselves in a mixture of self-directed projects, readings, introspection, etc.?should be an integral part of ?higher education.?

Nick Cammarata and David Merfield, according to the Thiel Foundation website, ?are working on OPEN, a project that aims to flip the industrial-scale classroom experience. OPEN is a tool used by teachers to create and share online lessons designed to be viewed at home by their own students, leaving class time free for more engaging activities.? Thiel was asked by Forbes if two fellows without a college degree could possibly reinvent education. Thiel replied, ?If you haven't been educated you have no credentials, if you have been educated you're a hypocrite for not encouraging people to do the same thing. It's a crazy catch 22.? He continued: ?What we somehow need to do is move away from this obsession with status, it may not be possible to get rid of status...