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Follow the You-Know-What


We're building a house right now and guess what? It costs a boatload of money to build a house. A really big boat--a freighter, maybe.

We are faced, daily, with the quality vs. economy equation. It would be folly to cheap out on the features that matter most: beautiful wood floors, oversized glazed windows to capture the lake view and--this being Michigan--high R-values for the insulation under the metal roof.

On the other hand, we are not the Waltons (referring here to Sam, not John-Boy). The copper claw-foot bathtub will remain a dream. We've got our priorities and functions straight, but we also know that this home is an investment--not in the "make big money over time through real estate" sense (another dream that's circling the drain), but creation of a long-term asset, putting resources into something of great value to our family.

The balance between genuine quality and economy is at the heart of School Reform Costs Money--Claus von Zastrow's perceptive take on the unsurprising revelation that genuinely improving Locke High School in Los Angeles has cost an additional $15 million over four years. You can argue endlessly about minimal spending levels necessary to pull schools out of the dumpster--how much per student to raise those scores?--but the fact remains: America seems temperamentally inclined toward short-term, slash-costs thinking.

We've been reforming schools forever (my personal frame of reference begins with Sputnik)--but we're also bent on doing it on the cheap. Lately, a lot of glossy rhetoric is papering over the realities of this kind of bargain-based, quick-fix reform:


• If we create an exciting, competitive "leadership" program for talented college graduates, who promise to relentlessly pursue achievement data as teachers in our worst schools and then bow out in three to five years, we'll keep staffing costs low in perpetuity.


• If we establish policy favoring dynamic entrepreneurial education initiatives--charter schools-- we'll draw venture capitalists who believe they can manage discount schooling, and reduce the number of well-paid, unionized teachers. We can use public funding as our base, and also provide high-visibility outlets for hedge fund managers to make charitable contributions supporting the education of poor kids!

• Let's create high and rigorous standards for all children in America, raising the bar (and giving test developers and education publishers a nice boost). Standardizing tools and processes is cost-effective for public schools--or will be, once the common assessments and materials are created. And don't forget personalized computer-based tests--they're so 21st century!

6-7-10 windows.jpg Not that we can't run schools more efficiently. But efficient has become synonymous with inexpensive, and from there it's a short leap to substandard and even miserly.

There's reform--and there's investment. Two different things.

If we're building a serviceable, comfortable and attractive home, we choose goods and services carefully and for the long haul. We look forward to living there.

If we're building a serviceable, comfortable and attractive public school system for the 21st century, we can't delude ourselves into believing that the lowest-quality options are the best choice.

Our public school systems must be fully funded. Invest now, in facilities and especially human capital--or expect to pay later, at $15 million a pop. Plus inflation.

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