Thursday, August 29, 2019

Is It Really That Simple?

Some days I look at the landscape of educational issues, and I think that all our educational problems boil down to one, simple, two-part problem.

1) We don't spend enough money on education because

2) We don't want to.

We could erase the pockets of educational underserving, by spending the money necessary to fix the buildings, provide the resources, support the students, create a safe and effective learning environment. We could coax people back into teaching by raising the pay and providing supports to make the job more attractive (imagine a school with, for example, a secretary for every department). We could provide a better array of support staff-- nurses, counselors specifically for personal issues, post-high school planning, in-school issues. Hell, we could do simple things like provide school-issued pencils and backpacks and paper for each student, and if we thought uniforms were important, we could provide those, too.

But we don't. We propose solutions that aren't solutions, like school choice, which proposes that we take the same money that isn't enough to support a single system and spread it around among several systems, which is like Daylight Savings Time to create more sunlight or pushing your lima beans around to make it look like you actually ate them.

No, we stay stuck tight to a system of districting and funding that is welded to housing, which all but guarantees that schools will reflect the same segregation of students and resources that we find in our housing system. And we back that up with an attitude of "I've got mine, Jack," and a side of "I'm not going to pay my tax dollars to build a school for Those Peoples' Children. And some folks further shut down the conversation by declaring, "Well, we can't just throw money at education and after all, we threw a bunch of money at it and look where we are. Harumph."

Yes, yes, yes, I'm a taxpayer, too, and I'd rather hang onto a couple of bucks and not be treated like the government's personal ATM. I get that. And I know that the obvious model for unhesitant spending-- the US military-- is really not a good model, as it shovels tons of money into private machinery that somehow takes better care of corporate honchos than actual US soldiers in the field.

Still, if being devoted to the care and education of children were suddenly an international crime, would there be enough evidence to convict the US?

Yes, I'm feeling a little cranky today, but dammit, why do so many education policy discussions end up really being about questions like "How can we do the barest minimum for the tiniest cost" or "How can we change this system so that somebody can actually make some money off it" or "How can we change this system so that the right people are threatened and punished" or "How can we make a buck off some of the byproducts of the system?"

Yes, there are plenty of people working in education or education policy or education policy kibitzing who have basically accepted this limitation and so move forward asking "How can we squeeze more blood out of this turnip, because nobody is going to give us anything but this single turnip to work with." And the teaching profession is composed primarily of people who make do as best they can with whatever they have, no matter how too-little that is (right up until the quit or change professions, that is).

And, no, I don't imagine that there's a magical money tree growing somewhere in this land of the free and home of the trillion dollar deficit. I don't imagine that our politicians are going to wrestle with this, and we could blame them, but the fact is that if we were all demanding they wrestle with it, they would, whether they cared or not. If there's anything politicians can be counted on, it's their willingness to fake care about whatever they think the electorate wants them to care about.

That's what really gets me some days-- we have an education system that systematically, purposefully underfunds all schools except those located in wealthy communities, and we're really pretty much mostly okay with that. Oh, there are people who care, but mostly what we get are solutions that aren't solutions-- Common Core, vouchers, charters, data hooping, high stakes testing and teacher bashing ("Let's root out all the bad ones and then just replace them with great ones from the Great Teacher Tree") are all ways of trying to make things look better without actually addressing any of the underlying structural issues.

The real problem is intractable, so we fuss around with proxy problems and we argue about shit that is just shit.

What would it look like, I wonder on grumpy days like this, if there was an actual attempt to envision a school system without worrying about the how to pay for it part. How many things would we figure out that we could go ahead and do anyway.

Rant over. I'll eat some ice cream, go to rehearsal, have a good night's sleep, and come back in a cheerier place tomorrow.


  1. It would look like your first big paragraph. That's exactly what is needed. The trouble is, our society is so F'd up, there are so many things to fix, education is way down the list. If we could get in lawmakers who were public servants instead of corrupt, if we could make a society where the well-being of everyone were more important than a few people's personal profit, we could get started on the list.

  2. Underfunded schools is a hard sell to the average taxpayer when the (deceptive) "cost per pupil" in NYC is $24K.

  3. My school district has a lot of money but spends some of its operating money on consultants and buying online products like Amplify. One teacher said teachers were worried about the online software because if teachers were kept in the future, they would be facilitators. My district also has students taking a lot of assessments, at least some of which do not appear to yield better outcomes. Some or all of these assessments cost money. There are also highly paid administrators who manage far fewer people than the school principals, who get paid far less and work more evening hours.