. . . Monday June 7, 2004

Education Funding: Connecting the Dots

When I taught high school in Brooklyn, I assisted another teacher who ran the school’s mock trial team. It was a great program. Students who felt disenfranchised from the legal system, from other more successful schools, and even from the island of Manhattan, threw on their borrowed suits and went head to head (often successfully) with students from some of the best schools in the city.

Today, thousands of students from poor districts are witnessing another kind of legal battle. In more than half of the states in the nation, poor districts are suing their state legislatures for more funding. In part, this mass movement was brought about by the President’s No Child Left Behind Act. Districts leaders argue that they are being held to a certain level of testing standards while not being given the resources to succeed in that effort.

Money, it is often said, doesn’t solve the problem. On the other hand, the problem can rarely be solved without money.

I’d like to see states and cities adopt a philosophy similar to the one held by William Bratton and Mayor Rudy when they successfully brought down the crime numbers (with a little help from a demographic shift) in New York City.

One of the ideas that guided Bratton and company was an incredibly simple notion. Officers looked at a map of the city that included red dots wherever a crime had been committed. The sections of the city with the most dots were isolated and targeted. The theory was that if you let a continual series of crimes happen in a neighborhood, then those crimes will only increase in number and severity.

So they put the cops where the crimes were.

Makes sense, no?

Those who hold the educational purse-strings should employ the same strategy. Get a map. Find the districts and schools where students are performing poorly (this effort will likely have a double-benefit as the places where the schools are bad and the kids are “left behind” will almost always be the same place on the map where the crime dots will congregate).

Once the map is completed, start directing funds (and human resources) towards the problem areas. And political leaders here should follow another lead offered by Giuiliani and Bratton. The Squeegee rule.

In New York, one of the first groups that the Mayor targeted were the aggressive squeegee wielders who had been, for several years, intimidating drivers into having their windows washed (you sort of have to had lived in NY to relate to this oddity). The idea was that the police should target even minor, quality of life issues because those are the kinds of things that can lead to more serious crimes.

Bratton began his career as L.A. Police Chief by trying to do something about broken windows on Hollywood Blvd.

Educators must also find the broken windows and the places where the crime level makes concentration of any kind, let alone educational excellence, seem like a distant dream. A broken window here, an unsafe environment there, and before you know it, you have kids who have given up.

If one needs incentive beyond altruism (and one usually does), look at this way. Kids who have given up are the leading cause of red dots in neighborhoods across this country.

Food programs target the most hungry. Crime programs target the areas with the most crime. Educational policies and funds – not just number two pencils and multiple choice bubble sheets – should be directed towards the kids who need it the most.

Feeling like they were worth as much as the children of doctors and lawyers was a rare and enlightening experience for the kids who participated on our mock trial team. They shouldn’t have had to take two subway trains to get to that point. It should be available in every classroom.

Concentration is important!