Cutting Public School Costs . . . Intelligently. Can It Be Done?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
See also, Adam Smith Goes to School
Superfluous branches we lop away,
that bearing boughs may live.
--- Shakespeare, Richard II
Duplication of Effort
There are many communities sufficiently affluent to indulge themselves in duplication of services. Public schools, community centers, service organizations, and community colleges offer variants of essentially the same activities - often competing with each other, jealously guarding their own prerogatives to stamp their brand name on offerings to an oversupplied market. High schools offer courses in calculus, astrophysics, or jewelry making, competing with the local community college or community center for the same "customers."
One way to reduce a school system's budget that minimally impacts on the rest of the system would be to do away with twelfth grade. What would be lost that couldn't be picked up in the local community college or, for that matter, the freshman year in most colleges? The prom. The fourth year of high school football. The yearbook, the ring. These may be seen in the community as important benefits. Fine. Realize that at least one-twelfth of the school budget is being spent for them. Let's just stop pretending that the senior year in high school is all that important for the education of all the seniors.
For that matter, we might, in many cases, be able to get rid of eleventh grade, too. You can pass the GED test with a tenth-grade education. A GED will get you into college - perhaps not a prestige institution parents like to brag to their friends about. These "bragging rights" are, after all, no small thing. But why should they be paid for with public school funds? And what about the college admissions industry? This multimillion-dollar enterprise would collapse without the hundreds of thousands of high school juniors and seniors deluded into believing they have to jump through college-admissions hoops to further their education. Should public money be used to support a private-sector business, or the status strivings of a minority of the student population?
Why not take half the money saved and use it to improve the public schools up to grade ten? Let's put back music and art and school trips! Let those who want to further their education past grade ten use their own resources to pursue that education at a college or community college. Let those students who want to be out of school, if they are old enough, leave. Why waste money on babysitting? Heaven knows, we do too much of that in lower grades already. Let us stop pretending that the services of the public schools are aimed solely at the education of the students in them, rather than also supporting community traditions and adult conveniences. If people are willing to vote to spend public money for such things, fine. But let's not call them school costs or educational expenses.
The reality is that school systems are expected to do many more things than teaching students subject matter, and these things cost money. Maybe it's time for educators to speak up and say, "If you want our system to run a farm system for the professional football leagues, then you're going to have to pay extra for it and not expect us to do it under the cover of 'physical education.'" Perhaps it is time to tell parents that their tax dollars will be used to enhance classroom learning; that if they want to play status games with their neighbors by having their children compete for entrance into "prestige" universities, the local schools are not going to spend money on special AP courses for that purpose.
I fully realize that my suggestions bring up a host of political issues: making sure that the pain of cuts is shared. The high school astrophysics teacher and the teacher of calculus might find places on the local community college staff if they want to avoid teaching General Science or Algebra I. (Once the Chinese start building a space station, no doubt there will be Defense Department monies forthcoming to re-fund their positions - unless China, by then, has become a subsidiary of Microsoft. Even so, Chairman Gates might - as part of his giving program - give them jobs.
Good educational politics is a matter of forming useful coalitions. Around the Philadelphia area, for example, where I live, I am sure we educators could split the savings fifty-fifty with that increasing number of citizens who in their superannuation have come to realize that every dollar spent on the schools is one dollar less they have to offer the Goddess Fortuna in the casinos of Atlantic City.
Stop Chasing Phantoms
Forget "fullest potential." Educators have no business trying to educate every child to his or her "fullest potential." One: We don't know how to define human potential. Two: even if we did, we have no clue as to what its fullest state would look like. Three: even if someone did manage a definition, it is unlikely there would be a politically stable agreement on it. We try to do the best we can do in the circumstances we find ourselves in: no more can be fairly asked. We cannot guarantee success with every child, no matter how imploringly that child's parents beseech us, no matter how ominously that child's parents threaten us.
Unfortunately many of us live in states in which the legislature in its profound unwisdom put some phrase into the law about providing each child with a thorough and efficient education. New Jersey did this back about the early 70s; I was in a Temple University group asked by a New Jersey legislator in 1973 to help define "thorough and efficient education" after the fact. Despite our best efforts, he did not manage to get the definition, as vague as it was, widely accepted when he took it home. "Thorough and efficient education" requires some notion of "fullest potential" in order to give it bounds - we saw what the problem was there. If you want some idea why educational budgets expand to infinity, look to the pursuit of thorough and efficient education, even if not to the fullest potential of every student.
We shouldn't waste too much money on character education, either. That is like building a mud dike on the Mississippi. Preaching isn't teaching, and the other sixteen hours a day tend to overwhelm any influence the school has on a kid. Since the 1960s the Great Teaching Machine of Morality is not the school, but the TV. This is not necessarily bad, I suspect the "Bill Cosby Show" and MTV have done more for race relations in this country than thousands of classroom activities on cultural diversity. Self-esteem education, also, washes out as kids realize that perpetual "positive reinforcement" for trivial accomplishment is merely a device for the maniacally meddlesome to insinuate themselves into the kids' concerns.
Getting Back to Real Basics
By "basics" I don't mean that stingy notion -- offered by Overlord wannabees or Plantation Owner mentalities -- that imagines Readin' & Ritin' & Rithmetick to be a formula that nourishes body, soul, and intellect. Real basics is an early childhood education that nurtures human development according to the growth needs we have come to discover are really crucial. It is developmentally appropriate intellectual activity together with art and music and physical activity that only those most bereft of scientific knowledge can claim to be "frills." Real basics go beyond the delivery capabilities of the school to clinics where expectant mothers can be sure their children-to-be can receive proper care. Real basics speak to a welfare system that assures nutrition and medical services to kids at their most critically formative years. A program of real basics would allow schools to be and to do what they can barely do: pass on a body of knowledge, a culture, even if, in this pluralistic society, they can no longer pass on The Culture.
The alternative, in our increasingly geriatric population, seems to be an abandonment of the public schools to the children of the impoverished, and to the burned out or occasionally messianic "educator" who chooses to work in them. Our superannuated society might then look, not to the school, but to the casino as its emblem of future hopes.
The casinos are accommodating. When you visit these monuments to misplaced hope, you can play the slots with only one good arm. Indeed, you see the old and infirm, many in wheelchairs, pouring their pension checks, a quarter at a time, a pull at a time, into the machines. Why not? It's fun, and dammit! They've lived long and hard and they've earned it, as any you ask will tell you. And today, in the same way that the schools have made adjustments for the physically disabled, the casinos now adapt to the needs of these special people by providing "one-armed bandits" operated by buttons that a nose, a chin, or any appendage can depress with little body strength expended. That's inclusion!