Digitas

It had been an ongoing attack on public education since the 1980s, perhaps before I just happen to become attentive at that time, that it is not doing enough to ensure the future of our children. Personally, I never bought that line. Since that time, conservative politicians have tried to sell the American people on the notion that we can have our cake and eat it too. Well folks, it is now more apparent than ever the cake they are serving remains sawdust at best. For over 30 years we have listened to these education hacks that money was not the answer. No!! we need only have more efficiency and better teachers. Frankly, we bought it. Now, Paul Farhi in his article the Five Myths about America’s Schools found here has shown us that all this talk of reform has had mixed results and uncertain foundational arguments. What a surprise!! There has been much that has occurred over the last 30 years to cause the problems in public education but there is much to look at with the obvious fact that the reforms have not worked out any better.

However, before diving into Farhi’s article, I do want to mention that one of the main reasons for the decline in public school funding remains the fundamental method in how schools are financed. Particularly, in most of the 50 states, schools are financed by the property taxes of the community in which they reside. Let’s not mince words. There is a direct correlation to the fact that since the late 1980s there has been a 50% decline in corporate taxes at the local level. This has to do with the great wave of mergers and offshore settlement of many of these companies who feel that their only social responsibility is their well-being. How else can companies make record profits and dividends while laying off workers. This is not a healthy business environment. When the CEO makes $5 million a year and the company makes money and now downsizes to make more money, this is disingenuous to those who make corporate America work, the workers. And who has had to pay for this decline in corporate taxes?? Yes, because there is a decline in taxes for them does not mean that the cost of running the Public School system has gone down either. It means the private property owners and small businesses have to pay more for the charity given to large companies.

Farhi has provided a balanced account of just where the Public School system is in America. He shows that there are no easy answers but many myths. First, the myth that the Public Schools are Failing. Indeed, that is a myth. While one cannot discount the problems of the Public Schools in large metropolitan areas where there remain an large body of poor and non-English speaking groups, Farhi shows that we are forgetting about the most important achievement. Since mid 1980s when I graduated, dropout rates have DECLINED!!!. Yes that is Declined!!!. The Department of Education shows that the percentage of 16 to 24 year olds who were not enrolled in school and had not earned a diploma or a GED has FALLEN to 8% in 2008. When I graduated from high school, that number was over 10% and in some places higher than 20%. That is not to say that there is not room for improvement.

Secondly, the myth that Unions defend bad teachers has come home to roost. It is true that more than a number of teachers 30 years ago were considered safe once they had obtained tenure. However, teacher unions are not like the unions of the manufacturing age. The National Teachers Union and at the higher education level the American Association of University Professors, have shown that they are more than amenable to removing bad teachers for cause. They know that their reputation is on the line as well as their members. Their argument, however, remains that teachers must have due process and the chance to improve. Is that not fair? Also, we Americans have to dispel the notion that Public School Teachers only work 9 months out of the year. That notion had been changing since the 1970s. Teachers now have to return to school in the summer for classes at the university at their own expense.

Third, that charter schools are the answer and will show the way for education, has now been shown in its true light. I will not debate the merits of charter schools. They have provided a good competitive answer for many students. However, the truth is hard to face. Recent tests have shown that charter schools have not performed any better on standardized tests. They have the same problem that the public schools have, funding and the need to show improvement for No Child Left Behind. Indeed, charter schools have pioneered some good methods in teaching. However, there have been many charter schools who have failed their children with broken promises of a premier education. Indeed, the problem is that charter schools take money away from the already strapped public schools. Instead of trying to create “show” schools, why not just try to create better public schools. That would make more sense.

Finally, that better teachers are the answer to the problem for failing schools, no this is not the entire answer. The problem remains that one has to have the funds to pay new teachers. If you want the better teachers, schools have to be able to negotiate the better salaries. Is that not what capitalism is all about? It is no wonder that the richer school districts have better teachers, they can afford them. They can also afford a better learning environment with the best buildings and the best facilities. While the best of everything does not ensure that a student will learn, it certainly offers better pathways and opportunities for students to learn.

As a graduate of the public school, I have watched this debate and saw the struggle for these issues for 30 years and it all boils down to 1 thing. It’s like my father always told me “you get what you pay for”. Americans had bought into that ideology that “we need to fine tune the system rather than raise taxes”. True, there was much that needed to be fine-tuned. That is obvious. However, what our conservative friends did not offer was what to do after all the fine-tuning was done. In the meantime, Americans had to face an increased invisible tax. That’s right INVISIBLE. When our town tax assessors and councils decreased taxes on the corporations by 50% over the last 30 years, the tax payer had to make up the difference along with increased property values. Now that our companies have done the American thing and moved overseas to not have to pay taxes, Americans now have to pay the entire bill. Some companies have not done this, but far too many have. Charter schools have provided a new window into alternative teaching methods. So let’s use those methods and some of the old reliable ones and merge these schools together. That would be great. Farhi’s article has shown that what may have been partly true 30 years ago is not the same now. All the old promises of conservative politicians, and some liberals too, no longer work. No Child Left Behind has left more children in crisis than previously thought. Charter schools have not provided the new path. They have offered limited success and taken more money away from the public schools that need the money. Public schools have improved. Proof? SAT and ACT scores have improved over the last 20 years. And US elementary and middle school students have improved steadily since 1995. We still have much to improve upon. But with an every shrinking pot of money, the time has come to consider several things at the local level for our public schools. Namely, merging the charter schools with the public and merging several public school districts together. It is also time to start demanding tax relief by demanding corporations pay their share of the burden to the communities in which they service.

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