Fixing Education

AUSTIN, Texas -- Sometimes, a breathtakingly bad idea bursts upon us full blown, such as advertisements on baseball uniforms. But more often, we seem to keep spinning our wheels as we debate the same-old, same-old. And the topics we are most likely to get mired in are those that politicians have to lie about because the truth is political poison.

For example, there's the truth that the War on Drugs is a colossal failure. Or that if we are ever going to improve public schools, we will have to spend a lot of money. A. Whole. Lot. Of. Money.

Yes, I am perfectly familiar with the statistics purporting to prove that we have spent ever more money on public education while test scores declined, kids got dumber, and discipline went to hell.

It's hooey.

Test scores declined (kids did not get dumber), and discipline went to hell in some schools because of bad teachers, bad administrators, overcrowded classrooms, low standards, low expectations, bad books and bad buildings.

You may think that even our most retrograde grumps would hesitate to argue that we should therefore spend less money on the public schools, but you would be wrong. "Spend less money, and bring back the lash and McGuffey Readers" is the actual educational platform of many elected officials.

But far more common than the retrograde is the politician who avoids the unhappy truth by concentrating on unessentials. Like President Clinton's proposal for school uniforms or President George W. Bush's stand against social promotion. These are not the central questions in American education.

Between one-third and one-half of the school buildings in the United States are somewhere between dilapidated and flat falling apart. The best estimate is that it will take about $100 billion to fix the physical plants alone. Then, we have to address the twin keys to better education: better teachers and smaller class sizes. If think you can achieve either without spending more money, you are wrong.

There are, in turn, two keys to better teachers: higher salaries and better schools of education.

A large part of what happened to American public education is the history of women in this country. For years, our public schools ran on the brains and backs of very bright and very poorly paid women who had few other options. And now they do.

They can become airplane pilots, investment bankers, astronauts, corporate lawyers and real estate brokers -- all of which pay more than teaching. Large-item retail sales also pays more.

So it's pretty simple: If we want good teachers, we'll have to pay them decent salaries. No, we don't have to match investment-banking standards, and there will always be people who teach for the love of it, if we allow and encourage them to. But we do need to pay more -- and demand more. Of course, teachers should be tested -- and given updated training.

Schools of education were notorious for many years as the easiest way to get through college. ("Kiddie lit," a credit course on how to read aloud books on the level of "See Spot Run," was particularly famed.) When Ross Perot was in charge of Texas' blue-ribbon commission to fix the public schools back in the 1980s, he wound up particularly targeting schools of education.

Perot's really fine report on what we needed to do for the public schools was short-circuited when the state went broke during the oil bust. No-pass, no-play is almost all that remains of it, and as you know, the Legislature even jellied on that.

The other major piece we know that works: smaller class sizes. Most good private schools run to 15 to 18 kids a class. We should be aiming for 20 kids in a class, max. And that costs money, too -- more classrooms, more teachers.

The implementation of higher standards could, in theory, be done without huge expenditures, as is suggested in Marc Tucker and Judy Codding's book, "Educational Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them and Reach Them."

But as a practical matter, to get an entire school system ratcheted up, you'd need retraining seminars and better testing and accountability procedures, all of which require money.

None of this is impossible, but it does require political will and money.

Rather than face that reality, our politicians are now talking about draining money out of the public school system and putting it into private and parochial schools, which seems to me such perfect folly that I am hard put to see how anyone could justify it.

"Well, the system isn't working" is their argument. In fact, most public schools do work fairly well -- you find people trying to get their kids into good schools and good systems all over the state. Those are the ones where they spend a lot of money, you notice.

Of course, we have public schools that don't work, that aren't educating children adequately. Let's fix them. Why take money away from them when it is precisely the lack of money that makes them bad schools in the first place?

The most disingenuous argument in the whole debate is that "competition" will improve the public schools. Taking money out the public schools and putting it into private and parochial schools will not improve the public schools. Can there possibly be any serious question about that?

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