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California's Public Schools

November 19, 1988

The column by David Barram must not go unanswered ("California at the Bottom; Picking Up Public Schools," Opinion, Oct. 30). Although our schools are producing unsatisfactory results, throwing more money at the problem is not the remedy. Our schools need much more than to be repaired, refurbished and fueled with increased resources and effort.

Our public school system is structurally flawed, inadequately equipped with teaching talent, grossly overloaded with entitlement programs, and drowning in unionism. It is no wonder that schools are seen as an unworthy cause by the increasingly graying majority at the tax and bonds ballot booths.

Like our once great railroad system, our system of educational institutions has become unresponsive to its clients and is rife with resistance to change and featherbedding. Perhaps parts of the school system can be retained for niche missions. But a whole new system must be created for transferring knowledge and conducting wisdom-building experiences. This is especially true when the requirement is to cover the educational needs not only of K-12, but also of vocational, college, and lifelong learning, as well.

The basic fact is that no consensus yet exists on the objective function for our public school system. That is, we do not agree on how to measure the effectiveness of an educational entity, let alone the productivity of its processes. Without an objective function, any attempts to improve or better manage a system this large and complex are as likely to be wrong as right.

But even if there is no clear measure of results, such as profit nor return on equity, at least the business executives on the Commission on Public School Administration and Leadership should have been able to evaluate the health of the system's overhead expenses--for example, administrative and "resources" inventory expenses. No enterprise is fixable if its overhead is too high and cannot be reduced. And they should have recommended an immediate initiative to better articulate the objective function. Otherwise, it looks rather transparent for business executives, particularly ones serving education markets, to call for increased school system funding.

Hooray for the premise that education is for everyone. Hooray for the premise that local leadership is necessary. Unfortunately, the trend is toward more centralized control of the educational process.

And hooray for the premise that trust begets progress. But note that it is still two "sides;" teachers and administrators learning to trust. Teamwork is far better than trust. But teamwork cannot be had until we understand what game we are playing and how to win. And that takes us back to the lack of an objective function.

So thanks to the commission members for their efforts. But let's not waste our money until we know what we are buying.


Redondo Beach

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