Superintendents want funding for Mission Impossible

Guest editorial

Three dozen school district superintendents signed an open letter to legislators this month in which they asked for more education dollars to accomplish a mission they claim “has changed from providing universal access [to a quality education] to insuring universal success for all students.” [emphasis added]

They need the same reality check many critics have wisely voiced in the face of President Bush’s federal education mandates: no amount of money or time will ever make it possible to achieve universal academic success. Period. There is no virtue in denying this reality. Utopian ideals may sound nice, but few things are more destructive than utopian policy.

Consider the cost of assuming that universal academic success can be achieved through state policy: short of complete control over all the factors contributing to a child’s ability to learn (nutrition, sleep patterns, relationships, family, habits, discipline, etc.), state education officials will never accept accountability for academic failure.

We see this happening already. State officials are not questioning their own policies in the face of stagnant and falling academic performance over the last two decades (as shown by every measure except the highly controversial and subjective WASL). Instead, they’re pressing for more money (claiming the current spending level of $125,944 per K-12 student is not enough) and more involvement in the personal lives of students and their families.

Our schools cannot and should not try to become all things to all students. Parents cannot and should not expect them to.

We need to adopt realistic goals like the one outlined in our state constitution, which says it is the state’s paramount duty to “make ample provision for the education of all students.” Understanding that student capacity and motivation are not something the state can control, it does not attempt to guarantee that every student will succeed. Rather, it says every student will have an equal opportunity to succeed by earning a high quality education.

We know the elements of an excellent education: high quality teachers, clear and rigorous academic standards, strong school leaders, and local control and accountability. These should be the foundation of our education policy. When they are, we’ll see the outcome we desire: a large majority of students who are proficient in reading, writing, mathematics and the sciences, and who have a solid understanding of our cultural, scientific and historical heritage.

The three dozen superintendents who wrote to legislators this month need to abort “Mission Impossible” and adopt “Mission Possible.” Until they do, the only thing they can guarantee is failure.

Marsha Richards is the director of the Education Reform Center.