- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2012


At a time when school districts like the District’s are considering closing dozens of schools and making sure the cap is tightened on the red-ink bottle, Americans who participated in a report released Thursday by the Fordham Institute have a few curt messages.

Be cautious about labeling students as “special needs,” close or combine schools with declining enrollments, and lay off teachers who don’t excel, they said.

Respondents said far more than that, according to Fordham’s report “How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education,” which looks at how our economic downturn turned the smiles that once represented school systems flush with public dollars upside down.

And sure, the Obama administration continues to toss our money up in the air with programs like Race to the Top and by granting state after state an exemption for failing average yearly progress, a tough-love mandate of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law.

But that’s precisely why the thoughts of the 1,009 Americans in the poll are so interesting.

How’s this for a game changer? Seventy-four percent said teachers with poor performance should be “laid off first and those with excellent performance protected.” Just 18 percent want to have “newcomers laid off first and veteran teachers protected.”

This one reflects a huge support for brick-and-mortar schools. Thirty-two percent view virtual schools as a bad idea, while 40 percent see them as a good option, but only for students who have difficulty in traditional schools.

As for saving money by trimming staff, 69 percent support “reducing the number of district-level administrators to the bare minimum.”

And here’s one that surely interrupts the peaceful grave of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and the No. 1 advocate for special education funding. Seventy-six percent of respondents believe that “too many students are being mislabeled as having special needs when they just have behavior problems or weren’t taught well in the first place.”

And here’s my favorite because it surely will ruffle feathers from California to Michigan to the nation’s capital. Sixty-three percent support closing or combining schools that have declining enrollments. The same percentage of respondents also said merging small school districts so they share things such as the superintendent’s office, transportation services and clerical help is a good idea.

Proposals to close or merge schools rarely sit well in urban areas.

A few years ago in Pittsburgh, for example, emotions poured out to keep open the doors of long-standing sports powerhouse Schenley High School (whose alumni include former Washington Redskins running back Larry Brown). Schenley’s doors are now shut.

In the District, residents are already raising a ruckus over a worst-case scenario that could see the doors of more than 30 traditional public schools shuttered in the near future.

The goalpost for that possibility was set in a study commissioned by Mayor Vincent C. Gray, but the die was cast more than a decade ago when parents began choosing public charter schools over regular neighborhood schools.

The bottom line, said Fordham Institute President Chester Finn, is the public wants “dramatic changes.”

Do you agree?

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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