In Paris last week, I met a senior minister from Uganda who said that not many years ago, 83 percent of Uganda’s education budget was wasted or stolen–not spent on education. I also met a Filipino activist who said that in his country, textbooks were often stolen or lost before they reached classrooms. Both countries have achieved enormous improvements by involving citizens in monitoring and assessing school budgets and administration. According to independent evaluations, 80 percent of education funds now reach schools in Uganda, partly because the money is tracked by citizens.
It occurred to me that in the District of Columbia, about 71 percent of the education budget is not spent on schools. Some of it may be properly used for such purposes as special education. But most of the 71 percent is lost in the downtown bureaucracy. The Washington Post has printed photos of stacks of textbooks that were never distributed to schools; electronic equipment is routinely delivered without software or support. These statistics and stories are very reminiscent of Uganda and the Philippines, and indeed of most of the world.
The obvious question is whether we could use public participation in the US as a tool to reduce serious corruption and waste. This would be a great achievement because …
1. One of the worst sources of disadvantage in our society is the dramatically unequal quality of education. An obvious way to improve education for Washington’s least advantaged students would be to seize some of the $7,200 per student that is currently being used/wasted in the downtown bureaucracy so that it could be spent instead on smaller classes and better facilities.
2. Getting the public involved in accountability might shift the attention away from test scores and toward administration. Today’s high-stakes tests are supposed to motivate teachers and students to work harder and more effectively–that is the main strategy for improving education. When students fail the tests, we start to wonder whether public schools can possibly achieve success (or whether our kids can possibly succeed). If citizens could audit or review the performance of their schools, they might shift the pressure away from teachers and students, who, after all, receive less than 30 percent of the budget in DC. Citizens might conclude that the marginal impact of reforming central school systems would be much greater.
3. Public participation would be an alternative to the main accountability measures that are currently used or contemplated in our schools today. We test kids and punish them for failing; and we allow parents to take their kids out of schools. In Washington, roughly half of the student body has already left, either for the suburbs or for charter schools; but we don’t see better performance in the public system–nor are the charters very successful. Maybe it would work better to get citizens directly involved in school reform.
4. Students could help to monitor their own schools, which would be a powerful form of civic education.
5. I believe that the Achilles heel of the American left is the poor performance of public institutions, such as the DC Public Schools. At some level, all of us–including left-liberals–know that such systems are deeply flawed. We lose political struggles, not because Americans love corporations, nor because voters are blind to social needs, but because they don’t believe that public institutions are effective and trustworthy tools. It would be politically powerful to acknowledge this problem and to propose innovative solutions that tap the energy of citizens, like those used in Uganda in the Philippines.