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EDUCATING VIEWERS ABOUT EDUCATION FINANCE

School funding is a hot topic no matter where you live. Schools run on money--taxpayer money--and taxpayers are your viewers. But these stories are tough to tell on television. There are so many numbers, so much jargon, and so little video. These stories often wind up as a mishmash of file tape, sound bites and graphics. But they don't have to! School funding stories--while on the surface all about numbers--can also be great stories about people, children and communities. And even when they are focused on numbers, they can be fun to watch and easy to follow.

This tip sheet offers some suggestions, plus a guide to Internet resources on school funding.


Tell the Story Through Different Eyes

  • Find new voices, beyond the superintendent, school board official, PTA president and the head of the teacher's union. Talk to parents, individual teachers, and--most of all--kids. If teachers are upset about their pay, find out how one teacher manages, or find one who's quitting to make more elsewhere. Ask students to comment on what they know best: the reality of their daily lives, not "policy issues." Don't talk to them about the school construction budget, ask them about the bathrooms, and show viewers what they mean.

  • Find a retired teacher, administrator or superintendent to discuss funding. Or find someone who left your district to go to another one close by. Someone who is no longer embroiled in the system may be more willing to speak freely about the way money is doled out to the schools. Is the money distributed fairly across districts? If not, why?

  • Look for a fresh outside view of the schools, perhaps from the business community. Are there business groups with a vested financial stake in your school system? How would they assess the students coming out of the schools? Look for businesses that are partnering with schools to see what they're providing, and what they hope to gain.

Make the Numbers Count

  • Use "living graphics" rather than having graphics built to illustrate school spending. Write numbers in chalk on a blackboard, or ask a teacher to do it for you. Use a student's calculator to add up the totals, or see if you can use the cash register in a school cafeteria.

  • When comparing things like per pupil spending, make sure that you are comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges. Compare two schools in the same district, rather than a city school and a suburban school. Or compare spending in two similar districts. Be careful trying to relate student achievement (which is measured over time) with per student spending (which is a point in time variable).

  • Follow the money. Ask for a breakdown of where the money in the budget is actually being spent. How much goes to students, teacher salaries, administration? See how that matches up with what people think about school spending. How does that spending help children learn? If the system claims to have saved money, what effect has that had in classrooms?

  • Many schools will promote the amount of money spent on technology. But are other things falling by the wayside because of the new computers? How up-to-date is the library? Are textbooks being sacrificed for software? Did they slash the art and music classes to pay for the computer lab? Or did they eliminate teacher training and tutoring? How do students and parents feel about these trade-offs?

What Does This Remind You Of?

  • School construction costs can be compared to other building costs in the same area. In New York City, for example, the per-square-foot cost of new schools ran three times higher than the cost of luxury apartments.

  • School reforms often are added on top of previous reforms. The average big city school superintendent serves only three years, but leaves a legacy of "new ideas." Many teachers feel paralyzed by all the conflicting mandates. Could this be related to something viewers are familiar with? A child getting dressed to play in the snow--adding layer after layer of clothing until the child can no longer move?

  • Charter schools are public schools. They receive public funding and are open to all students. But they're run by private corportations or organizations. Are there other public institutions set up the same way that might help your viewers understand how charter schools work?

  • Are teachers being properly trained to keep up with the new theories and models of education? Or was the money for teacher training eliminated? Compare the consequences to those that might face a doctor or lawyer whose training is out of date.

  • What drives spending decisions in your district? Federal program requirements? Teacher contracts? Could you help viewers see each mandate as a string, tying the hands of administrators and limiting their flexibility?


Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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