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A Successful School, Under the Budget Knife

For those who missed it on the TNR home page, I have an article in our latest print edition about Durant Tuuri Mott Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. DTM serves a low-income, high-risk student population in the middle of one of the most distressed communities in America. But it’s kids are performing well on tests and, based on what I observed over a series of visits, those test scores are no aberration. The kids are really learning.

The article’s main purpose is to convey some first-hand observations about the effects of No Child Left Behind. You can learn only so much from one school, obviously, but the law seemed to be having a positive impact. None of the administrators or teachers I met were particularly enthusiastic about the law. But they told me they were using data more thoroughly and consistently to identify students most at risk of failing--and deploying more specific intervention plans to help those students along. If you want more of the details, you can read the full article--although, yes, you’ll have to subscribe to get access. (Reporting is labor intensive; it takes money to underwrite it.)

Of course, it's not like these staff and teachers were doing a bad job before No Child came along. On the contrary, it's clear that DTM's success reflects the work of the professionals behind it. It starts at the district level, where administrators have made a series of key changes, most important among them the adoption of a new, more rigid curriculum. Why would a more rigid curriculum be good? Because in a community like Flint, volatile economic and family circumstances frequently force children to change schools in the middle of the school year, sometimes more than once. The new curriculum means those students can pick up at the new school right where they left off at the old one. 

Then there are the staff and teachers at DTM itself--from the award-winning principal, Dan Berezny, to teachers like Suzie Hlavach (whom I mentioned in the article) and Cheryl Ulicny (whom I didn’t). I’ve been around enough schools to tell the difference between teachers who mail it in, teachers who work hard, and teachers who pour their hearts and souls into their classrooms. DTM’s faculty has a disproportionate number of the latter.

And all of that got me worried about the school's future.

Right now there's a lot of talk about allegedly overcompensated public workers and unions that protect their members at the expense of the public good. Some of that criticism has merit; teacher unions, in particular, have fought many smart school reforms. But if we're going to make teachers more accountable for results, as I believe we should, we shouldn't be paying them less. We should be paying them more. DTM's teachers are trained specialists who put in long hours, providing a much-needed public service. The market may set their wages far below what lawyers, investment bankers, and other professionals make. But I, for one, am not prepared to acknowledge that reality as just--or wise.

Of more immediate concern to me, though, is the funding stream for schools like DTM--and what's about to happen to it. As readers of this space know, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have proposed to reduce spending for the rest of the fiscal year by $60 billion. According to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a chunk of that would come out of funding for Title I, which pays for special education and schools that serve low-income communities. As I recall, Title I is what allows DTM to have not one but two "intervention" specialists, one for the lower grades and one for the upper. I'm not sure what will happen if some of that Title I money disappears.

And it’s not just the Republicans in Washington who want to cut education funding. In Lansing, the state’s new governor, Rick Snyder, has proposed to reduce state support for K-12 education by $470 per student. Partly he's reacting to the loss of emergency federal assistance, which conservatives in Washington have refused to prolong. But partly he's making room for corporate tax cuts that are, at the very least, of dubious value. (The Center on Budget also has the details on Snyder's plan.)

There’s surely waste in Michigan's public schools, just as surely as there's waste in school systems across the country. But if cuts of these magnitude go through, the staff at DTM will suffer and the students will too.

Photo courtesy Flint Community Schools