Wednesday, April 6, 2011

School budget cuts threaten for-profit and non-profit programs

A little-known bit of No Child Left Behind, a law still inflicting harm well past its expiration date, was a provision forcing school districts labeled "low-performing" for three consecutive years to devote 15 percent of its federal funds to private-sector "supplemental education services" programs. It hadn't occurred to me before reading this morning's Greenville News that in a time when federal funds for public education are running out and none come from the stingy state to replace them, those private entities who profited marvelously only a few years ago from public funding might now be starving, too.

Today's News mentions a "privately funded organization" offering summer courses at Travelers Rest High School, and the organization's dire straits in perilous budget times. I have no idea whether the program, "Graduate Greenville," was one of the supplemental education service programs funded by NCLB, but budget cuts do appear to be negatively impacting its business.

Graduate Greenville provides graduation coaches in five high schools in Greenville County who help more than 200 students who were at risk of dropping out.

Whether it will be able to continue operating in that many schools, however, is in doubt, as the organization faces a shortfall in funding from foundations and private donors hard hit by the recession, said Ted Hendry, president of the United Way of Greenville County and a member of the Graduate Greenville board of directors.

"We have confidence that we will be in at least one school going forward," he said. "And we will be working from April to December to identify funding sources for beyond the 2011-12 school year."

Welcome to the world that public educators have inhabited for their whole lives. It's a sad day when the state's aristocratic ideologues stop funding their pet programs in the private sector.

Begun in 2005, Graduate Greenville was born out of a collaboration among the school district, the United Way and the independent, nonprofit booster organization Public Education Partners, formerly the Alliance for Quality Education. Its goal was to improve the high school graduation rate in Greenville County, said Marge Scieszka, director.
The program costs about $485,000 for five sites, $150,000 of which comes from the United Way, Hendry said.

That's a pretty penny for services already available for free through the public school system -- or that would be available for free if budget cuts didn't rule them out.

But this is a nice example of the ideology that opposes public education and its services. There is an element among us that believes any service provided at no cost by government agency could be offered by private enterprise instead, and garner a profit, if the government would remove itself from the free market.

What services are we talking about? The News outlines them when it mentions one of the enterprise's employees:

Perry works individually with each of his 54 students about once a week and meets with them as a group every few weeks, he said. He also works with their families, and their teachers, in addressing the issues that have put them at risk of dropping out.

He checks their attendance, grades and behavioral records and works with them to develop the communication skills, study skills and organization skills they need to survive in high school, he said.

If memory serves, this describes the very services offered by school social workers, when they were funded. I wonder what was the profit margin for the "privately funded organization" providing "Graduate Greenville"?

Some students who consider dropping out are dealing with problems at home, or financial problems, Perry said.

But "sometimes it's somewhere along the line they did not get the basics in math and English and it's very difficult for them," he said.

Beyond helping them get caught up on academics, he tries to show his students the possibilities for their lives and give them a sense of the value of sticking with school.

A sign on his classroom door gives notice that "No Slackers" are allowed and lists the positive attributes for success, such as being a "problem solvin', positive thinkin', example settin'" person.

The slangy jargon is an added attraction, I suppose. But I wonder what's meant when " 'no slackers' are allowed." Does the program give "slackers" the boot? I wonder what that's like, as public schools don't have the luxury to send "slackers" home.

But this is quite familiar:

"Sometimes just getting them to understand the importance of why they're here is the biggest part of my job," he said. "Motivation is a key factor, and it can be a very difficult thing to convey to a teenager sometimes."

Ask a retired public school teacher for tips. Better yet, pay a retired public school teacher for his or her advice. Since they're no longer public employees, I'm sure their expertise would be worth a retainer fee in the private sector.

The Graduate Greenville board will meet this month to decide what it will be able to fund for the 2011-12 school year, said Grier Mullins, a board member and executive director of Public Education Partners.

"We've applied for grants. We hope to get some," she said. "We do need to get more funding to continue the program at more than one school."

Good luck with that. The education business isn't what it used to be, back in the golden age when it wasn't a business.

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