June, 2012

Receiver Jeffrey Riley’s plan to improve the educational opportunities for the children of Lawrence contains a few ideas that, if fully exploited, may improve performance.

That being said, the parents of Lawrence’s school children and the taxpayers that fund this educational debacle, were both left out of the process of creating this plan, and have every right to be highly skeptical.

Specifically, we are concerned that the unions will use every mechanism at their disposal to undermine the plan’s proposed reforms related to teacher accountability. Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin has already indicated that these changes will be subject to collective bargaining and the union has already greived the dismissal of the few teachers that Riley’s receiver-review process has determined were underperforming.

Riley’s plan adds 160 hours of class time to each school year. One can be certain that this will increase costs 10 – 15% (teachers don’t work for free) while doing little or nothing to raise academic achievement. We wonder if this extra funding – about $15 million – is the payoff to the unions for lack of teacher accountability. Regardless, the academic achievement of students depends more on a solid curriculum combined with high standards, than it does on class hours.

Our Plan: Throw out the education fads like spiral learning, fuzzy math, discovery-based science, and whole-word reading. Avoid the use of calculators and insist that students learn the basic mechanics of arithmetic, fractions, algebra and trigonometry. Eliminate make-work homework which elevates art projects over serious reading, writing, science and mathematics. Stop inflating grades and honestly report student achievement to the students and their parents. And finally, urge parents to become fully aware of and involved in their students academics.

One positive aspect of the plan is the involvement of outside educational organizations. Fresh ideas and perspectives are always of value. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the organizations selected were chosen based on an open process, that quantitative goals were set for their performance, or that they will be held accountable for results.

Even more important, it is not clear if quantitative goals have been set for school administrators or what the consequences will be for missing those goals. Government bureaucracies are known for “protecting their own,” not protecting the interests of their customers.

The only way to ensure that the schools are accountable to their customers – its students and their parents — is to provide the parents vouchers and let them choose between competing education providers. (See Dr. Ormsby’s plan published in our April edition and online at

The Riley plan is timid and unimaginative; especially given that it took six months to concoct. It might yield a mild and temporary boost to the performance of the Lawrence schools, but it definitely will be certain to raise costs substantially and permanently.

The lack of real customer control, exercised through vouchers, is the major missing element. Real and lasting reforms can only come when the power of the purse is transferred from the bureaucrats to the customers. Without this, it is inevitable that the plan will be a costly failure.