EDUCATING VIEWERS ABOUT EDUCATION
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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