Posted by: schooleducator | February 21, 2009

Poor Harvard, Rich Mr. Duncan

Harvard’s endowment has dipped by $8 billion, down from $37 billion, and the university has placed a freeze on salaries for staff and nonunion staff members. In addition, Harvard has tabled expansion projects and offered early retirement packages to over 1,600 employees (New York Times, 2/22/09). If the wealthiest university in the world cannot balance its books, how are America’s poorest public school districts going to keep school going? Education Secretary Arne Duncan should be jumping with joy at the prospect of doling out upwards of $100 billion, as part of the stimulus package. Chester Finn, former Education Department official, has likened the package to Christmas. Of course, none of us in education want to see this “blank check” go the way of the one Germany gave Austria at the start of World War I. What Secretary Duncan chooses to emphasize will reveal a lot about the new administration and the future direction of education in America.

It is difficult to sympathize with Harvard’s plight and their circumstances mirror that of hedge fund managers who have watched their stock portfolios shrink by millions and in some cases, billions. The rich have gotten less rich, but they are far from poor. Harvard can still offer cutting edge programs and first-rate teaching, with no shortage of resources, even though the school of arts and sciences has slashed its budget by 10 percent. What will happen to schools that are underwater, or very close to the margin? Secretary Duncan has to weigh the needs of 14,000 school districts across the country, coupled with the budget mess of California, which has already cut significant amounts of education funding. In addition, the needs of under-served communities far outweigh the attention of suburban school districts, already buttressed by high property tax revenue.

Secretary Duncan should first call for an audit of all schools and school districts, and take a hard look at administrative office bloating. Many schools and school districts are layered with heavy administration, and fail to run their operations smoothly and efficiently. The last thing America needs is fewer teachers in the classroom, with class sizes already swelling beyond manageable, especially in under-served communities. Mr. Duncan needs to ask and find out from each school district what the smallest number of administrative staff are needed to keep a school running. This is not unlike the health care industry, where fee structures are overblown to offset administrative paper-pushing. DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has spoken loudly and frequently about the “egregious incompetence” plaguing central offices. In fact, she even went so far as to attempt, with DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, to rewrite the rules of schools, to give her greater leeway to fire incompetent central office employees. Her slash and burn tactics have alarmed the entrenched bureaucrats, but she is asking the right questions and demanding the right answers. New York state has already started the process and what they discovered is alarming – overpayment of employees, pornography visits on a state-owned computer, electricity waste, and theft (New York Times, 2/27/09). This is just the tip of the iceberg. President Obama wants to shepherd in a new era of green management and Mr. Duncan can start by creating a technology infrastructure for schools that minimizes the need for administrative staff.

Mr. Duncan would be remiss to pass over the efficient system President Obama utilized to run his campaign. Through texting, email, blogging, Facebook, etc., President Obama gathered and used so much data about his supporters that he could attend to their needs and wants in the campaign. Mr. Duncan should do the same, as he brings together a team to figure out how to disseminate these precious dollars. He needs to avoid the “well-worn” paths that Congressional financing has traveled and seek fresh pathways. The way to do this is to tap into the wealth of information he can gather in milliseconds with a carefully constructed electronic network engine. The current apparatus is akin to the limited integration of America’s utility system that Thomas Friedman describes in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Mr. Friedman shares that there are 3,200 electric utility companies in America and traversing the grid is like taking local roads on a cross country drive. Mr. Duncan needs to overhaul and find a way to integrate the 14,000 school districts into one unified vision of 21st century education. This is a tall task, but now is the time to do it. As President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to say, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

So, while Harvard wallows in self-pity at the loss of its endowment monies, Secretary Duncan can mobilize the country’s education system, find unity where there is discord, streamline administrative waste, and create new ways of running schools and school districts. President Obama’s campaign could do it and Mr. Duncan’s education team must do it now.


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