The Thinker

Education: Walk the Walk

Some years back I opined that there are few places where we are more hypocritical than in our public schools. Therefore, I was not surprised when I heard this story today on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday. Texas, like many red states, is getting high from continually sniffing that Republican glue. Common sense is taking leave of its governor Rick Perry and its legislature. Apparently, it is more important to stand on a dubious principle than to do what is right for the children of Texas.

For those of you who do not want to listen to the seven-minute story here is a brief summary: Texas has no income tax. Its main forms of revenue are the state sales tax, already one of the highest in the country (which disproportionately affects the poor) and the property tax. The Republican legislature in its infinite wisdom requires that the portion of property taxes devoted to education must be capped at 1.5% of a house’s assessed value. Most school districts have hit the cap, but the student population in Texas is growing at around 80,000 students a year. Of course, this means that many more schools that need to be built and more buses have to be purchased. In general, the costs just to maintain the status quo have gone up. However, with property values leveling off, even wealthier districts are getting the squeeze. Large numbers of teachers are being laid off. Some school system superintendents are convinced that if the crisis continues the Texas public schools will be reduced to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

So why would this be a problem? From our current president and former Texas governor, these things matter. (Actually, in Texas, high school football trumps everything else.) If necessary, science, music, the arts, even gym are expendable. It is important to know how to read, write and do math. It is apparently not important to teach our children about the humanities and certainly not important at all to learn how to think critically. How do we know it is not important? When push comes to shove, we will not pay for them.

The school funding issue is a hot button one in Texas. The Texas legislature is back in session yet again to try to cough up more money to fund the schools. There is some discussion that the sales tax rate might need to be raised. However, it sounds like with the “no tax increases ever” mantra from the Republican controlled legislature that even this proposal is unlikely to go anywhere. School districts are getting so desperate that they are petitioning the Texas courts, hoping the courts will step in where the legislature fears to tread. So far the courts have been hands off, expecting (probably naively) that the legislature and the governor will do their duty and find the money somewhere.

You do not need an HP calculator to figure out the Republican’s strategy for dealing with the problem. Yes, you guessed it: they are going to expect school districts to make unspecified efficiencies and cut out the waste to solve the problem! Argh! I do not even live in Texas, but it is enough to make me want to repeatedly hit my head against a brick wall. How can our leaders grow up to be so stupid? The reality of the funding caps is already playing out in Texas schools. Teachers are being let go. Class sizes are increasing. Trailers are taking over school parking lots. The list of elective subjects is growing leaner. Still this does not seem to be enough. The obvious result if Texans are foolhardy enough to keep charging forward can be found near where I live. In Prince George’s County, Maryland back in the 1980s voters put in place a property tax cap called TRIM. The result? Twenty years of substandard education in Prince George’s County. By limiting funds for the schools, students predictably dealt with larger classes, mediocre teachers and inferior facilities. The county has consistently placed in the bottom two Maryland counties for educational test scores. It is currently on a state watch list because it is having difficulty meeting the requirements of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

Perhaps the Texas legislature is apathetic because poor test scores are really not the big deal that they claim. While Texas certainly has its prosperous parts, it has many school districts that have always provided poor educations because they have never been adequately funded. Texas ranks 38th in teacher salaries ($32,426 per year) and 34th in expenditures per pupil ($5,267 per year). Despite the dubious “Texas Miracle”, Texas places in the middle of national educational rankings.

Nevertheless, Texas is hardly in unique in underfunding its schools. Nor is it unique in not doing much to actually prepare students for real life. I am willing to bet that you can graduate from high school in the vast majority of our states without ever learning how to balance a checkbook. I bet there is no requirement for students to spend time surveying the costs of independent living. As a result, I bet no student is required to put together a realistic financial and logistical plan mapping out their first five to ten years of adulthood.

Oy, this is but one of many egregious areas where students need some genuine education that they are unlikely to get from the public schools. Most school districts skimp on sex education. Students might absorb the practically compulsory lessons on abstinence but they will not know how use a condom should the need arise. (Why should it? When the times comes, the abstinence fairy will restrain their natural urges!) Moreover, there will likely be no classes on the psychological differences between men and women or relationship theory. There will probably be no course on personal finance, the dangers of credit cards and the wisdom of saving parts of your salary. Likewise, there will probably be no learning on early childhood education, parenting, insurance and financing an automobile. In short, a high school degree will continue to mean what it has always meant: a subset of skills that might make someone marginally marketable but will do little to prepare him or her for real life.

But by golly our students will be darn good at taking dumbed-down standardized tests. In my last entry I noted my wife’s experience teaching community college students. They want everything handed to them. And why shouldn’t they? Like Pavlov’s dogs, they know the drill. Have they not been heavily and repeatedly coached ad nauseum by their teachers so they could pass these standardized tests? When have they had the opportunity to apply any critical thinking or independent thought in the classroom? How many teachers have time for open discussions about the pros and cons of various lifestyle choices? How many of these students have learned from their parents and their churches that life is not squishy, only to find out in adulthood that real life is invariably complex and multifaceted?

We are doing serious injustices to our children who will someday run our country. Yes, it is good that they are at least getting some education. In many countries, there is no such thing as public education. However, we are not properly preparing our children for the real world. Reading, writing and arithmetic are foundations for learning, but they are not the result of education. They are tools used to allow us to engage and make sense of the rest of our complex world.

Like it or not we are sending some bad messages to our public school students. Do not think our students are not savvy enough to figure out the subtext. Here are some. Only the basics really matter because that is all we will give you. Low taxes for me are more important than giving you a quality education. We will expect you to be solid citizens and to manage your way in a complex world but we will not necessarily give you the straight facts or help you think through the complexities of the real world. Maybe your parents will help you and maybe they will not. Lastly, we will not give you many tools to deal effectively with the chaos into which you are about to be thrown. You are on your own. So do not be surprised if in adulthood that you bounce from one bad relationship to the next. Do not be surprised if you run up huge debts. Maybe if you are lucky in twenty years you will learn these for yourself. But we sure don’t care enough about you to warn you about these mega hurdles.

Sadly, our public schools have become a noxious experiment into which we inject our dubious values, philosophies and biases. Meanwhile graduate, here are ten dollars and a suit. Good luck, kid.


2 Responses to “Education: Walk the Walk”

  1. 12:49 pm on July 18 2005, Justin Scott said:

    Hello there. I think your blog is great, and most of your entries are engaging and well thought through. This latest entry, I must take issue with. I graduated from high school six years ago from one of the best school systems in the state of Florida. My high school had all kinds of exotic electives available such as Nuclear Radiation (with a radiation lab), Planetary Science (planetarium and all), and one of the best music programs in the state.

    What we didn’t have, however, were these “life readiness” classes that you seem to be scolding the schools for not having. I can attest that not once did a teacher show me how to balance a checkbook, prepare a budget, or have discussions about how to use condoms. We did have a course called “life management skills” that most people took as a freshman, but it handled issues like eating healthy and staying fit. The schools never gave me advice about credit, financing cars, or buying a house.

    Frankly, I think I’m better off as a result of their lack of “preparing me for the real world.” Why? Because that’s not their job. The job of the school is to teach the basics. Everything else is just fluff to help you decide what you want to do with your life. The real life skills came from where they should come from, my parents. It is the responsibility of the parents to instill things like financial responsibility, moral values, and the like. Yes, some people will have bad parents who will not care enough about them to bother with these things, and I feel bad that they will not be as prepared as the rest of us, but I don’t feel that public education is the proper medium for that kind of teaching.

  2. 2:52 pm on July 18 2005, Mark said:

    Hi. Actually I graduated from a Florida public school too, and I remember a course where I learned to balance a checkbook. But that’s not the case here in Virginia. My school district was in Daytona Beach and the schools were very shabby. It sounds like you were in a better funded school district.

    At the time (30 years ago) there were certainly no electives like you had. I heard the Tampa/St. Pete districts are very well funded. It varies across Florida as it does across most states. Also I believe Florida now has an income tax, which helps. Back in the 70s there was no such thing.

    I wish all parents were as foresighted as yours. Sadly many are not and children suffer as a result. I think the schools can help.

    Thanks for writing.

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