April 08, 2006
Public School Education in the USA, a Profitable Business?
Quality education is dependent wholly on the amount of money spent per pupil by a district. This is a myth that has perpetuated the American psyche. “If money buys good public schools, New Jersey and New York are buying the best, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which said both states spend more than $10,000 per student each year, far above the $6,835 national average.” (USA Today). Yet, in a worldwide testing of high school seniors in mathematics and science the USA ranked 18 out of the total number of 21 countries that participated. A dismal performance, indeed, for a country that spends unimaginable amounts to educate its children, and this performance must have sent a message to any thinking individual that money alone was not going to revitalize our school system. As Whitman said after passing the CEIFA Act in 1996 that we need to focus on “textbooks instead of checkbooks” in order to make education ‘thorough’ and ‘effective’.
School finance though an important factor in providing quality education to our children, its importance has been grossly exaggerated. A well rounded and competitive curriculum, a competent faculty, a motivated and determined student body, and a supportive parent body are some of the other factors that make for a quality education, and some of these don’t carry a price tag.
As an educator one feels that imparting knowledge to our students and helping them develop life skills is no longer the focus of public education. The focus is now on how to manage the school budget in a way such that the voting public will not vote down the next school budget. “One way to gain control over the budget adoption process is to try to anticipate public concerns about the school budget”. (Dr. Hartley, Univ of Connecticut). So now it is the voting public that determines how much money is to be allocated to improving school education. The matter is no longer in the hands of educators, but money minded citizens whose only concern is that their property taxes not be raised. In this scenario, is it a surprise that we are among the lowest ranking schools in the world? Quality education is no longer a priority.
Education and educators have been sidelined to accommodate political and financial agendas, but nobody admits to that. Public school education is like any other business where the budget and the budget makers and managers call all the shots. Legislature such as the “No Child left Behind’ act, or the promise of a ‘thorough’ and ‘effective’ education have in no way improved the quality of our students who are still unable to compete globally. Are we then living a lie? Our children are in fact already ‘left behind’ due to the lack of a ‘thorough’ curriculum and its ‘effective’ implementation. Schools boards and administrators are busy politicking for more funding, believing that the academic environment of the school can be bolstered by pumping in more money into the system. Superintendents, who have a far nobler mission at hand of providing and managing an academically charged environment to mould the million dollar minds of tomorrow, see themselves as CEO’s managing million dollar budgets instead. Supervisors and administrators may talk about good teaching practices to enhance learning, but when it comes to class size, the ‘enhanced learning’ takes a back seat. The school budget does not allow for a new teacher to be hired, so class size has to be compromised, and quality education is once again put to the back burner.
"A child's education should be determined by the size of their dreams, not the numbers of their ZIP code," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who heads the Subcommittee on Children and Families. "We need to fundamentally change the way we deal with education in this country so that all children have the same opportunities and chance for a successful and productive life." Despite attempts like the QEA and the CEIFA to bring parity in our public school education, the gap between the wealthy and the poor districts has only widened. It is obvious then that money alone isn’t the determining factor for a quality education.
School finance plays an integral role in the upkeep of a school district, but it cannot be the master manipulator and take over the role that is realistically an educators. The children are in school to educate themselves, to gather knowledge, to learn to apply the new knowledge in various contexts, and to acquire skills that’ll make them globally competitive. To make this possible there are qualified and experienced educators hired by schools to bring about teacher-student and student to student interaction, the two dynamic interactions that determine a quality education, the prime goal of public education. All other interactions, those involving administrators, supervisors, and other non-teaching staff, play a secondary role; a supportive or maintenance role, one that is ultra efficient, unobtrusive, and friction free. School finance, as it exists in today, is none of the three. It is extremely obtrusive in that it rears its head at every school meeting. It is also not efficient in that money has always to be ‘found’ when a teacher makes an additional request for books or technology to meet the needs of her students. As for school finance being friction free, that is definitely not the case. The school budget being so contingent on property tax makes for battle ground between tax payers and the school budget. The scenario is no different between the state and the school districts.
School finance has taken on a larger than life role in the running of a school district, and in doing so it has undermined and deprioritized education. As an educator one can see where all this is leading to. In fact the first few reports are already in; we rank in the last five among high school students, we are doing poorly in our standardized tests as well, and as a nation we are losing the competitive edge we had in the past in the field of education and technology; ‘job outsourcing’ is a blatant example of this. Money may make the wheel go round, but not in the case of our education system; money alone is not going to set the near-stationery wheel of public education in motion, and our administrators and budget makers have to accept this truth.