Education reformers talk money, teachers

Education experts said America needs to start seeing a return on the resources the country invests in education.

A panel discussion at the Yale Law School Saturday evening titled “The Economics of a Great Education” explored the sometimes-low correlation between government spending and student achievement. Hosted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the experts on the panel unanimously agreed that, while the national school system suffers from lack of funds, structural problems also impede public education.

“New money spent wisely is better than new money by itself,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

Ramani Ayer, member of the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, noted that although Connecticut is one of the highest-spending states per child, every year 9,500 students drop out of the school system. Instead of earning revenue and becoming taxpayers for the state, these students usually remain unemployed and become a cost — not a good “return,” Ayer said.

He added that schools need to allocate their dollars more wisely, focusing on getting students to graduation.

While Connecticut pours resources into education relative to other states, the United States spends highly on education relative to other countries. Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson said too much of that money goes towards testing.

“The cost of doing nothing is something,” he said. “Let’s talk about the cost of doing something unstrategically.”

Robinson added that America needs to redefine what it means to be a teacher. Only 28 percent of teachers are from the top third of their class, Robinson said. The most talented students are encouraged to pursue careers in medicine, law and finance, he said.

David Johns, who serves as the senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, said his classmates at Columbia University were surprised by his decision to pursue a career in teaching. Very few people value the profession, he said, noting the income disparity between teachers and entertainers.

Derrell Bradford, director of the New Jersey advocacy group Excellent Education for Everyone, called the debate over money a “distraction,” agreeing that school systems should focus instead on hiring the best teachers possible. He argued that although there are great teachers who deserve to be paid more, there are also many others who are not performing well enough to earn their salary.

“People think it’s about all teachers, but it’s not — it’s about bad teachers,” Bradford said.

Budgets are tight, and states cannot afford to pay teachers who do not deliver, he said.

Ayer explained that although seniority among teachers should not be ignored, the most important factor in determining pay should be effectiveness.

Two parents and one public school teacher in the audience emphasized the need for immediate action.

“There’s a lack of urgency, from the standpoint of a parent going to underperforming schools,” said Mark Swagerty.

The panel was sponsored by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

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