Finding Answers to the Public School Crisis
By Michael Patrick, CBN News
-- The school year had just started, when a small family from Ohio moved into a tract rental house on our street. Driving past their home on the way to work, I could tell they were struggling to settle in. There were the telltale signs; barren rooms peeking out from blindless windows and cardboard boxes decorating the porch and garage.
Their pre-teen daughter, dressed in a freshly unpacked shirt and blouse, joined the throng of kids streaming on to the yellow school bus at the corner. She had not yet adopted the dressing style of a fat refugee that is the de riguer uniform of her neighborhood peers.
She never would. In a few, short weeks, the family sighed that they would be moving to another school district. Apparently, during their daughter's first week at her new school, she had her life threatened twice. The school system wearily shrugged and tried to sound convincing with talk of newly installed metal detectors and security patrols. The parents were looking for something better.
They are not alone. As the student body counts climb, the top educational concern of many parents these days is a fear of violence at school. Three of every four parents surveyed by Parents magazine say they fear that their child may be subjected to a violent act at school. For many school children, it isn't a question of getting an education, it's a question of surviving it. Holster those worries about spit-wads in class and firecrackers in the bathrooms; debates now rage over how to sensibly enforce "zero tolerance" for guns, knives and drugs.
Public schools are also reeling from a reputation for widespread academic failure. Our nation has never spent more money on education with so little to show for it. Two hundred and sixty billion dollars a year is buying us a whole generation of young people far less prepared for the real world than their parents or grandparents.
Such entrenched mediocrity in public schools has sparked a massive middle class exodus that has some educators worried. Home schooling is the fastest growing educational choice made by parents. Home schooling results commend it. In a nationwide study, most home schoolers ranked in the top quarter on the Iowa Tests. On one college-entry test, home schoolers scored consistently higher than all other test-takers.
The profile of home-schooling parents reveals that it is not just an odd fringe group choice anymore. Most home school parents have a college education; many have advanced degrees. More than half of home school parents earn incomes above $50,000 a year.
What can public policy-makers do to turn the tide of parents and their tax dollars now ebbing away from public schools?
The top four U.S. presidential candidates are rife with fiscal suggestions. Vice President Al Gore wants to spend $115 billion more tax dollars over ten years. Democratic challenger Bill Bradley offers up $175 billion more in spending during the same period. George Bush and John McCain are placing strong emphasis on school vouchers and local controls.
More money is the easiest answer, but not necessarily the best one. What makes many parochial schools competitive, where teachers are often more poorly paid than their public counterparts, and less is spent per pupil? What made the low-tech schools of many past generations much more successful in churning out children who could read, write, count and spell?
Meet a young public school teacher we will call "Amy." Her peers say she is one of the good ones, with a strong calling. But she works in a school where students openly curse their teachers, physically disrupt classes and dare the authorities to react. A student's trip to the principal's office is no big deal anymore. Discipline has nearly evaporated. A disheartened "Amy" is struggling with a decision to leave public education for an environment where learning is valued and teachers are strongly supported.
It takes more than a good salary to attract and retain good teachers. We suspect that there are thousands more teachers just like "Amy" who find it harder to keep up the pretense that all the so-called public school reforms are entirely on the right track.
Another public school teacher in our area recently broke up a gang fight in the hallway and reportedly told one of the troublemakers that he was behaving like a thug. The teacher is now on the defensive in a potential lawsuit from the young thug's family for hurting his feelings.
Whatever happened to the well-fashioned coach's paddle, euphemistically known as the "board of learning?" Generations of smart-alecks such as myself were intimately familiar with it. Our tender, young psyches suffered no permanent damage, but our aching backsides reminded us that reality has its limits. The problem with "Joe Thug" today is not a lack of self-esteem, but far too much of it. Joe is learning two lessons at home from his parents: how to be self-centered and how not to respect or prefer others, least of all teachers. That's a dangerous lesson for society to coddle and tolerate.
A core problem is that we treat public education as a right, not a privilege. How will students ever respect the opportunity to get an education, when we don't place enough value on it to enforce simple disciplinary standards? In a showdown with irresponsible parents, not enough school administrators and school boards will back up their teachers. We have abandoned basic principles. Public schools must rebuild a safe and respectful environment where learning can take place. In a society with fragmented, relative values of "right and wrong," the notion that the public must fund everyone's education regardless of their behavior and performance does not work.
Politicians prefer to lay the problem at the feet of taxpayers and teachers, saying we need more money and better teachers. For the most part, that answer is unsatisfying. The fact is that politicians can't get elected by identifying the "skunk in the garden party" that everybody smells -- there are far too many irresponsible parents living irresponsible lives and dumping their emotionally-abandoned, Ritalin-drugged children at the schoolhouse gate, hoping teachers can single-handedly repair the damage.
Certainly, problems are made worse by an education lobby that desperately clings to its failed humanist social agenda. But this rather sad lot of social engineers fills the gap that a community leaves open when it abandons its responsibility to govern its own schools. These venal lobbying bureaucracies will fall under the weight of their own weak-minded ideas where a community demands parental and student accountability along with academic standards, and holds fast to genuine values and proven discipline.
The Bible reminds us to "train up a child in the way he shall go, and he shall not depart from it." But first we must recognize, as the comic character Pogo said, that "we have met the enemy, and he is us." A good education is not a matter of money; it is a matter of character, discipline and respect for learning. Too many educational policy-makers are searching for help inside a narrowly defined, all-too-politically correct paradigm. They are not yet ready to look for proven solutions in the places where generations of Americans before them found the answers.
Michael Patrick is a Senior Analyst for CBN News.