Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Mandates

Speaking of what Illinois pays for... (see last post), one thing not on the list is state aid for gifted education. Three years ago, Illinois cut the funds it gave to districts to provide gifted education programs. While districts can still use their own general funds for this (and many do), others have chosen not to. See this article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

The most interesting issue raised, though, is highlighted in this quote:

"In education, there are so many things that are mandated, that have to be funded by law," said Mike Gray, superintendent of the East Alton Elementary district. "The last things you look at are the things that aren't mandated."

In general, I don't like big, broad and (even worse) underfunded mandates. In education, decisions are best made as close to the level of their implementation as possible. It's just more efficient for teachers and principals -- or maybe local school boards -- to choose what happens in a classroom than for the governor or president or congress to choose.

But... other education interests don't play by the same rules. Special education has been a mandate for decades. Schools have to fund it, often at amazingly high costs, even if local officials feel school dollars would be better distributed otherwise. Likewise, No Child Left Behind is a mandate. There's some flexibility -- states choose their tests -- but make no mistake. You have to follow that law.

So gifted education, which is not a mandate, doesn't happen in school districts that are strapped. It didn't necessarily happen well before the funding was cut -- the article talks about "pull-out" programs and such that are fun but seldom the kind of actual advanced academic work gifted kids need -- but it least it happened. Gifted education also doesn't happen in districts that are ideologically opposed to it.

Would the gifted education community be better served by trying to make gifted education a mandate? As parents of special education kids will tell you, the fact that it's a mandate doesn't mean programs are done well or meet children's needs. They can be very bureaucratic. A national gifted mandate could result in a lot of bad pull-out programs. It's also unclear that parents of gifted students would ever be able to convince legislators that gifted education deserves such treatment (and cash). As the article points out, people believe gifted kids can fend for themselves. I'm curious what people think about the mandate question.


Davina said...

In practical terms, according to a legislative expert at the NAGC, no legislation mandating gifted education would have a chance of passing, in our lifetime, because of the problems and expenses that have evolved from the IDEA mandate.

What if a statement such as "Every student will have the opportunity to learn in a public school" were inserted into the education legislation?

Laura Vanderkam said...

Davina- it's a nice statement, and one that wouldn't be too controversial. Of course, the question is, what teeth would it have? I could picture someone saying "Every student already has the opportunity to learn in a public school. It's not our problem if you find that learning insufficient."

Davina said...

If a student has the opportunity to demonstrate that she already knows the material being taught, couldn't that be evidence that she does is not being given an opportunity to learn in school? Wouldn't it require the school to give her a more challenging curriculum?