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TribBlog: Charles Miller Has a Plan

If you were $10 billion in the hole, would you fork over $6 million for a chance at billions in savings? That’s the modest proposal that businessman and former chairman of the UT System regents is offering the state’s public education system.

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If you were $10 billion in the hole, would you fork over $6 million for a chance at billions in savings? That’s the modest proposal that businessman Charles Miller is offering the state’s public education system.

Of course, Miller’s not just anyone. He’s a former chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents and one of the architects of the public education accountability system in Texas. A Republican, he can claim a sizable chunk of the credit or blame for helping to enable tuition deregulation, the rise of charter schools and the prevalence of standardized testing.

Now he has a new idea. “We could literally change the way public education works today,” he says, “and open it up to change and innovation that would get us into the next generation.”

Currently, he says, every new idea the Legislature comes up with is merely piled on top of an antiquated system. “It’s just program after program after program, and we don’t measure it.,” he says. “We don’t have an accounting system today that can say, in detail, how we spend the money in the classrooms.”

The state needs to create a center for financial accountability and productivity, Miller believes. By his calculation, it would cost a minimum of $2.8 million per year — $5.6 million for the biennium — assuming one-third of the budget was used to pay four senior staff and four to five support staff. The center's purpose would be to collect data on where the money goes in public education after it has been invested by the state, to analyze that data and to present findings in the form of rankings, ratings and recommendations.

The financial times being what they are, Miller says the public has an enhanced desire to know the outs as well as the ins of school finance. “They’re going to demand that the money is being utilized best way possible,” he says. “If we don’t even know what that is, shame on us. That’s immoral.”

Miller plans to roll out the idea this week at a forum that his Institute for Productivity in Education is co-hosting with the the University of Texas' Institute for Public School Initiatives. The participant list for “Improving Productivity In Public Education" includes representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, state legislators, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott and two former U.S. secretaries of education: Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings.

The center is only the first part of Miller's idea. The second step would be to completely deregulate public education and allow school districts to reinvent themselves using the best practices discovered by the newly created center.  The result would be a reallocation of resources that corresponds to actual needs and the freedom to innovate. Those are Miller’s four steps: “unbundle, deregulate, reallocate and innovate.” In return, he anticipates hundreds of millions of dollars in savings in less than a year and tens of billions of dollars in a decade.

State Rep. Rob Eissler, for one, is sold. “If he can come up with a way to save the state billions,” says, Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, “I think it’s worth an investment.”

Texas has a track record of taking education seriously and has always put its money where its mouth has been, Eissler says. But he notes that the state has been weak on finding out how effective that spending is or how it translates into student achievement and learning. “This is an opportunity to put something in place that measures it ahead of time,” he says. “We’ve always been very careful: When in doubt, fund it. We can’t afford to just keep adding revenue to it. We need to be smarter.” Among the questions Eissler anticipates the center could answer: What’s the most effective anti-dropout program? (“We have tons of them,” he says.) How effective is pre-K? How’s the Texas High School Project doing?

Eissler intends to file the legislation that would get the ball rolling on the center, which has to be state-funded, Miller says, because a private entity lacks the necessary authority and fosters suspicions of bias.

Is this really the time to be spending state money — even if it is only a few million? “Right now, you say you want to start a new state agency, they say are you crazy,” says Miller. But he doesn’t like the alternative approach. “They are talking about cuts that are across the board — almost like desperation,” he says. “It leaves no room for innovation or change."

His message to legislators who might be skeptical: “If it works, you’ll have a gigantic success.  If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work — you’re only going to fund it for a biennium anyway.”

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