Tuesday, December 30, 2008

more thoughts on public schools

As a followup to my earlier "engine" post...

There are two huge problems with public schools that must somehow be remedied:

1) Lack of funding. The way we fund our schools, through property taxes, is wrong-headed to begin with. Then we under-fund them and complain when programs are cut, and students under-perform. With competition from Charters, etc. the funding issue becomes even more difficult. This has to be addressed.

2) Waste. Part and parcel with the funding issue is the amount of waste in many of our school districts. I was speaking recently with a life-long teacher from Oregon. In her neck of the woods there are several very small towns up and down the central coast of Oregon. They are within a handful of miles of one another. Once upon a time, one Superintendent managed all these little towns and villages, under one School District. Somehow, over the years, though population didn't increase much, they broke this one district up into several districts, and hired 6-figure income Supers for each one. So now you've got several districts, all paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative costs--one must figure in all the other assistants and bureaucrats that go into running each of those districts.

Then they complain about funding problems--can't pay their teachers well, have to cut programs, etc. etc.

Now, this is not always the case. In my home town we do not have the same problems with waste, but we do with funding and competition. Charter schools have so bloodied the public schools that we are in fact shutting down an entire high school and moving its remaining population to the other two in town.

Still, from my days in high school to now, we've seen most art, theatre, and music programs cut completely. Even some history classes have been shut down. Athletic programs have grown smaller. I substitute taught at my old high school a while back, and the entire place had just changed--I'm not sure how to describe it. It hadn't been terribly long since I was there, but the atmosphere was different.

A new ubiquitous sort of apathy hung in the air. I think to myself--what would my high school experience have been like without the "unnecessary" programs? Without the theatre--yes, I was an actor then, and did my time on the stage--without the art classes? The extra stuff for bright or creative kids, or the technical stuff for the technically minded, etc. etc. etc.

I didn't need to go to private school then to get an amazing education--though I was a self-starter, and was quite good at occupying any down time with some activity or other. I know some kids need more direction than that, but surely an efficient, well-funded public school could achieve this...they have in the past.

Waste not, want not. First step seems to be, cut back waste--not art and theatre programs, but unnecessary administrators. Teacher pay isn't so huge an issue as some would think--but it is time we started, as a society, to start paying the respect teachers deserve. Finland is a good example of this, where teachers are paid a little better, but are considered professionals just like doctors or lawyers and so forth.

Then we need to do away with inequitable funding of public schools. If property taxes are the best way to fund, we should at least pool and evenly distribute those funds. And there should be transparency. The public should know if the bulk of their tax-dollars is going to pay some overpaid administrator, and that's why their little Picasso can't take art class anymore.

It's time for the system to be held accountable, for its own sake...