Friday, March 20, 2009

Stewardship of Stimulus…What Will Education Agencies Learn from Private Enterprise?

It has been a while since I posted to this blog. That is in part because I’ve been waiting to see how the change in the U.S. presidency would change the education environment, and in part because I’ve been busy with some very interesting work. In October I posted thoughts on short-sightedness of bailing out financial institutions while failing to address the long-term needs of our education systems and workforce capacity. The world has changed a great deal since October 2008. An abundance of economic stimulus money is flowing to the public education system and federal priorities for improvement are tied to those funds.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is about to dump about $100 Billion dollars into the public education system. The federal government plans to release about 95% of the funds in the next six months. The money will be spent quickly, but the funding is meant to be more than a short-term stimulus. The hope is that this money and the federal priorities tied to it will make the U.S. education system better able to equip citizens for the globally competitive workforce with 21st century skills.

But with so much money coming so fast, and so many people trying to get their hands on it, there is a strong possibility that much of the money will not go to the lasting improvements that are needed. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel pretty confident in my prediction that in the coming months we will be hearing stories of fraud and improper use of taxpayer money. Recently public outrage has been over corporate executives receiving multimillion dollar bonuses from bailout money. Soon we can expect the outrage to shift to leadership of one or more public institutions that will have been found to have misused the stabilization funds. The private sector does not have a monopoly on greed.

Some intentionally improper use is inevitable when so much money is being handed out so quickly, and some of those stories will make headlines. What may not make headlines are many ways in which the funds will used. Some uses will be highly effective and deliver a good return on investment for tax-payer dollars. Other uses will be inefficient, wasteful, or not achieve intended results.

I hope that education industries don’t follow the example of some private sector bailout recipients, but when it comes to making sure that the money is used to its greatest potential there are a few things that education agencies can learn, and are learning, from private enterprise. Good stewardship requires more than good intentions. It also requires knowledge about how best to manage entrusted resources and a will to put that knowledge into action.

Management systems first developed in the private sector are being adopted by public sector education agencies to ensure that the effort of the organization is focused on the right things and that resources are used efficiently.
Harvard University and the University of Virginia have formed partnerships between their graduate schools of business and the graduate schools of education. These partnerships are working with state and local education leaders across the county put proven business methodologies into practice. Tools such as the balanced scorecard, process management, and project management oversight process are proving highly effective in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education organizations.

Return on investment is different for education. The bottom line is not measured in dollars, but in student learning. The products of highly effective education organizations are well equipped students, ready to enter the global workforce and participate as contributing citizens in their communities, the nation, and the world.

The investment being made by the U.S. taxpayer through the stimulus funds should bring about long-term improvements, moving our 19th century education system into the 21st century. We look to the leaders of our public education agencies. Some will follow the bad examples from the private sector. Others put to work what can be learned from private enterprise, practice good stewardship, and maximize the return on this once-in-a-lifetime investment.

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