Public Service Innovators -- Instituting Efficiency in Education: Jonathan Travers MPP 1998

July 6, 2001
Mary Tamer

As a participant in the national Teach for America program, Jonathan Travers spent three years in Compton, California, teaching third and fourth graders - 35 at a time - in substandard classrooms with leaky roofs and little resources. Not surprisingly, the his life, ultimately leading him to the Kennedy School and to his current challenge as budget director for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

"Things were so dysfunctional," said Travers. "If you equate the condition of DCPS to a human body, it was as if you were on manual life support, and you were just trying to keep the heart beating while you made other improvements. Now we have a new board of education, a new superintendent...so a new management structure is in place."

Though he initially anticipated a career in advertising, Travers now finds himself as the fourth DCPS budget director in four years, working 80 to 100 hours per week in an effort to repair and rebuild years of mismanagement. Among his proudest accomplishments to date is the "weighted student formula," a device that gives schools their budget based on student projections, while allowing those schools to allocate their funds as they see fit, an effort to keep class sizes down while offering more site-based management to administrators.

Travers implemented the plan conceived by former budget director and Kennedy School alumnus Myong Leigh, who brought Travers on board to the DCPS in 1999 as deputy budget director. When Leigh relocated to San Francisco, Travers stepped in as director in July 2000, overseeing a budget of $750 million for a system of 69,000 children and 12,000 employees.

Having worked in the struggling community of Compton, Travers learned the importance of allocating resources as well as implementing policy. With insufficient funding for the most basic needs, the focus was not always on what to teach. "It led me to believe that it is all about the teachers, but there's a lot that can be done to make that teacher as effective as possible." Smaller classes, he learned, was one step in the right direction. Working from the administrative policy end, instead of in the classroom, was another.

Slowly, Travers is seeing the reward of his work.

"I really didn't know what I was getting into when I did Teach for America," he said, commenting on his path to policy instead of a Madison Avenue ad agency. "But if I didn't have those really hard years in Compton...I think I'd be writing Bud Light commercials right now

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