Good intentions are good. But they’re not enough, especially when it comes to using the taxpayers’ dollars. Unfortunately, thinking about public schools is awash in good intentions.

ECM, which publishes 15 weekly newspapers, recently ran an editorial on school finances. The editorial made a good observation — if the state makes payments to schools, it should do so in a timely fashion — but then scoffed at idea of schools cutting their costs.

While school districts have no doubt had to respond to the current fiscal situation of the state (arranging lines of credit and such), there’s so much more left to do. Here’s a short letter-to-the-editor that I submitted in response to the editorial.


While families, employers, and nonprofit organizations are trying to do more with less during these days, there’s a line of thinking that says public schools should be exempt. That thinking was evident in a recent editorial on school funding, which took Minnesota’s political leaders to task for delaying the aid the state has promised to school districts. Fair enough: If the state promises to deliver aid payments, it ought to do so in a timely manner.

But then the editorial says, “Some folks argue that costs should have been reduced and programs cut. Frankly, that sounds great unless it’s your child, now in school, who will experience the impact of these cuts.”

This statement makes a key assumption: Schools are as efficient right now. But it’s very unlikely that any organization – including your local school district – is as efficient as it can be. School officials, like any organizational leaders, work best to cut costs when they have a compelling reason to do so.

For too long, our attitude toward schools has been this: “Teachers love teaching, so let’s give schools more funding, and hope for the best.”

Our wallets cannot afford such an attitude. Neither can children. Instead, we need to free school leaders to be more efficient by giving them more flexibility in managing the money we entrust to them. The Legislature took a small step in that direction in its education bill by waiving some of the state’s micro-management rules.

The Legislature also cracked the door open to basing a portion of teacher and principal pay on gains in student performance. That’s good, but it needs to do more to let schools be more effective. Ending rules that make teacher seniority the key factor in job assignments or layoffs is one such step. Schools should not be factories, nor should they be governed by factory rules.

In other words, we need to be smarter in how we spend our money on schools. Cuts should not be out of the question, and neither should serious reforms.