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Commentary: Who says public schools need more money?

  • Story Highlights
  • Chavis: "All the money in the world" isn't enough to help poorly run schools
  • Author: I turned "worst middle school in Oakland" into a top-scoring school
  • D.C., Detroit, L.A. produce poor results at extraordinary taxpayer cost, Chavis says
  • Obama is right to require accountability in return for reform money, Chavis says
By Ben Chavis
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ben Chavis is the co-author with Carey Blakely of "Crazy Like A Fox: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City." Chavis received his doctorate in education and philosophy from the University of Arizona and served as principal of American Indian Public Charter School for seven years. Chavis has also worked as a real estate investor. Currently, he is replicating the model he established at American Indian Public Charter School in various schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Educator Ben Chavis says money isn't enough to improve schools run by incompetent administrators.

Educator Ben Chavis says money isn't enough to improve schools run by incompetent administrators.

(CNN) -- Teachers unions and politicians are constantly claiming that K-12 public schools need more money in order to produce good academic results. But does the data support the argument that our schools need more money to succeed?

The Oakland Unified School District had a budget of $602 million for the 2008-2009 school year, according to Katy Murphy, an education reporter with the Oakland Tribune. That budget, which includes $77 million spent on consultants, means that the district spends an average of $16,270 per student!

What have we, the public taxpayers, received for our exceptionally generous financial support of the Oakland public schools? According to the California Department of Education, the district's reported 2008 California Standardized Test scores show:

1. Of 707 eighth- and ninth-graders who took the California Standard test for general math: 1 percent tested advanced, 5 percent tested proficient and 94 percent failed by testing below grade level. See details about K-12 schools, teachers »

2. Of 2,506 ninth- and 10th-grade students who took the California Standards test in algebra: 0 percent tested advanced, 3 percent tested proficient and 97 percent failed the test.

How is it possible for a public school system to so liberally spend more than half a billion dollars and still fail to educate 94 percent or more students of all racial backgrounds? Does anyone believe providing more money to these public school systems will enhance these students' academic performance in mathematics?

During my principalship at American Indian Public Charter School, we spent less than $8,000 per student, proving that schools did not need more money. We served a student population that is on average 98 percent minority, with 97 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch and many who are non-English speakers and from single-parent families. AIPCS students spend three to four hours a day working on mathematics and English-language arts.

In 2009, they excelled in academics, physical fitness and any standardized test that they were given. The hard work of these students and staff has paid off with virtually all of our eighth-graders testing advanced in algebra, including 100 percent of our eighth-grade black students, Mexican-American students and American Indian students.

Before I became its principal, people called American Indian Public Charter School the zoo. The neighbors hated it. They couldn't stand the behavior of the students, who, with little supervision or control, wreaked havoc in the area.

Unfortunately, the students who decided to attend the school did not receive the academics and structure they so direly needed. The school was in many ways a failure, a joke, a sham.

When I took over as principal in 2000, it was the worst middle school in Oakland. I told the board I would take the job only if they let me go my own way and do what I thought was best. I implemented a golden rule at American Indian Public Charter School for staff, students and families: If you act like a winner, you'll be treated like a winner. If you act like a fool, you'll be treated like a fool. The charter school is now one of the top-scoring schools in the state and is nationally recognized.

The United States spends more money on public education than any other country in the world. Yet, we still have a secondary public education system that ranks with Third World countries in preparing our children in English-language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

Washington, D.C.; Detroit, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Kansas City, Missouri; and numerous other cities throughout the United States are producing the same poor academic results at an extraordinary cost to the taxpayer and a tremendous academic loss to our students and country.

I believe all the money in the world would not be enough to improve schools run by incompetent public school administrators. We need proven leaders who can prepare our children to be competitive members in a free-market society.

The American public has been conned into believing that public schools need more money. Have you ever met a public school administrator who said they have enough money?

President Obama is moving in the "right" direction by reforming public schools to be held responsible to the American public in return for more money. It's very clear that most Americans want to ensure that accountability be attached to the stimulus money that is being awarded to all institutions, including public schools.

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Next time you hear school officials or politicians begging for more money, ask them how large the district's budget is and how many students are enrolled in their district. Then you do the math. After all, it's your money they want to take.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Chavis.

All About Education IssuesU.S. Department of EducationCharter Schools

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