EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions: David Kirp on School Funding, Paying For College and Stories Worth Telling

(Interview conducted and edited by Emily Richmond)

UC-Berkeley professor and author David Kirp, a member of President Obama’s 2008 transition team, spoke with the EWA about fresh angles on familiar education stories, how family nest eggs can help parents and children learn fiscal responsibility, and his new book (“Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future”).

1. In your book, you advocate that parents start savings accounts specifically for their children’s postsecondary education and tout the benefits of public-private partnerships that offer matching funds for every dollar saved. How does this fit with the current debate over whether a college degree is worth the cost?

Let’s be clear – this is a debate that goes on every 40 years. The arguments we’re hearing today are the same ones we heard in the 1970’s. It’s Groundhog Day in American politics. We are in a tough moment and nobody’s doing well, but I don’t think anyone is going to argue a high school diploma is going to give you the skills you need to do well in this economy. A four-year degree isn’t always necessary. But you’re going to need something beyond high school, and that something is going to cost money.

If you are a middle class or poor parent, you are generally not thinking about higher education; you’re thinking about just getting your kid through school. What we do know is that when families participate in these savings accounts experiments, it changes the way parents think about their lives and the way kids think about their futures, and that’s a huge leap.

The matching grants have a profound effect. The evidence is that even the poorest families are going to save. Those savings account statements come in the mail quarterly and the kids read them, and suddenly for their birthdays the families are asking grandma and grandpa to make a contribution and not to buy yet another toy.

2. There are some controversial incentive programs already in the schools – I’m thinking about programs that reward students financially for perfect attendance or doing their homework. What are your thoughts on that?

Getting the students in the door is great, but it’s not the end of the story. There are many reasons why a kid doesn’t show up, and one of them could be that the school is terrible. To the student, the school could be disconnected from anything that might be happening in their lives. Showing up might keep youngsters from getting into trouble on the streets, but it would be better if good attendance were coupled with people really thinking seriously about the caliber of the education students are receiving once they’re there.

3. In most major polls, people list education as a top priority, yet districts nationwide are reeling from deep budget cuts. At the same time, nonprofits are struggling to provide necessary support services to schools. Why is there such a disconnect?

Most of the people in the ‘kid world’ are wonderful people doing important work. And most of them couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag. It’s not a knock against them; it’s much harder than it looks to do it right.

In “Kids First,” I argue for five game-changing strategies. There needs to be a system of support—NOT yet another program for a small number of kids, over a finite period of time, followed by a cliff where the kids and parents fall off and there is nothing else for them.

My hope is that nonprofits that serve kids will start thinking about synergy and building relationships across existing organizations.

Every foundation I’ve ever talked to says if a group is thinking systematically –and not programmatically – and they come to us, we’re going to give them more money. Do you each want $25,000 checks? Or do you want a $500,000 check to work together? This has to happen on a wider scale.

Fifty years ago, seniors were much worse off than they are today when it came to federal dollars. Kids were actually doing a lot better than seniors. The one big change: AARP mobilized seniors. This is an organization with just three items on the agenda: Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs. Everybody’s got the AARP message. There is nothing in the universe of children’s advocates that even comes close.

4. There’s been some criticism of the Race to the Top grant program for its shift toward competitive funding, compared with the more traditional model of awarding federal dollars based on per-pupil headcounts. Do you see any equity issues there?

You can’t run an entire education system on competitive grants – the core of the federal funding formula remains intact. But if you’re a policy person and you want to nudge a system that’s been notoriously resistant to being nudged, Race to the Top is going to make that happen.

The bigger question relates to the criteria for awarding those dollars. When it comes to the criteria for the $500 million early childhood education grants (recently announced), I’m biased since I worked on the development of that program. When it comes to Race to the Top, though, I have my concerns. Do we really want to lift the cap on charter schools, given the underwhelming data we have so far on charter school performance? That seems like heading in exactly the wrong direction. We want to make sure charter schools are really good, not just that there are more of them.

5. What stories are education reporters missing?

Journalists are pack animals. These days the story is the cheating scandals, testing versus anti-testing, or as I call it “Waiting for Superman” vs. Diane Ravitch in a 15-round fight. Getting people to care about the range of issues I write about in “Kids First” is an uphill battle.

There are ways to tell stories about what’s working in schools and programs that can easily be shared with other communities. Look at the community schools, like the Children’s Aid Society public schools in New York City, the 150 schools in Chicago and hundreds more across the country. That’s one of the underreported success stories. There’s also an incredibly effective initiative called Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) that has had enormous success worldwide and is now in the United States. The program works with doctors, principals, ministers and social services—anyone a parent comes to – in order to support families. The goal is to make good parenting programs as widely accepted as a well-baby checkup. How many stories have been written about it? 

Almost everywhere, a little bit of enterprise reporting will find you something great out there in the midst of the scandal du jour. People really do like stories about what works. Your job is to sell your editor a story that’s really worth telling.


This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.