When we pay for something tangible, we own that thing and may use it, for the most part, as we see fit. This rule applies to our cars, our houses, our clothes, and on and on. If we want to paint all the windows in the house black, we can because we own it. Likewise, if we pay for a service, we expect to get our money’s worth. If we pay someone to paint the windows black for us, we don’t want to see any bits of light shining through at the end of the job. We have ownership of that service at that time and want things done our way. After all, we’re paying the bill. And when we get a product that we can’t adapt to our needs, or when we receive service that is less than we expected, we make our displeasure known through switching services or brands. But how do these ideas apply to public services like education? After all, we are the ones paying for education through our tax dollars, yet we seem to have little ability to control the use of those dollars to ensure that we are indeed getting what we are paying for. Further, if we are able to discern that our money is being ill-spent, we are hard pressed to fix the problem because of the disconnect between an entrenched educational bureaucracy and the common tax paying adult.

Our current system of funding and control seem to have the appearance of rationality and accountability on the surface, but if you crack open the lid on this jar of worms, you’ll find nothing but mismanagement, wasteful resource allocation, and an overall lack of common sense. The state and federal governments allocate a portion of their general or property tax revenues for general education funds, disbursed to pay for all the facility, instructional, administrative, and operational costs and apportioned by various formulas and guidelines. In the 2001-2002 school year, the national expenditures were $434,438,650,000 (yes, that is BILLIONS) or about $6500 per pupil per year. As of the last population census, legal residents of school age (5-18 years old) numbered about 55 million. (I know that the math for these numbers doesn’t exactly add up- 6500 x 55m does not equal 434b- but what can I say…government tables!) So what are we getting for our money?

Students are provided with textbooks, at an average cost of $50, maybe 5 per student. (Many of which are outdated or shared by multiple students at one time, preventing these books from being taken home for study.) Students are provided with teachers, whose average salary of $42,900 and average class size of 16 costs $2931 per student. (Many of who are becoming disillusioned with both students and administrators.) Students are provided with a facility in which to learn, that also requires administration and maintenance staff, supplies, and utilities. How much of the remaining $3569 is spent here? (The state of these facilities varies greatly though, due to their primary source of construction funding, local bond measures.) Students are sometimes provided with extra-curricular activities. (Often at an additional cost.) Apparently, more than half of the “cost per pupil” is being spent not on education, but on education infrastructure. Is this the return on our investment that we were expecting?

But really, $434 billion is a lot of money, and when we spend that much money, we expect to have some control of how it is being spent. If you thought the financial end was a bit jumbled, this gets really strange. To begin with, government falsely assumes that the money it collects in taxes belongs to it instead of the people. Taxes are not the property of government; rather government is entrusted with those funds to pay for the needs of society. This false assumption of ownership allows government to feel that it should have some control of the education process, rather than just being a conduit of shared resources. At the same time, we have demanded that government legislate laws ensuring a level playing field in society, so we have invited the government to the table insofar as school regulation is concerned. The people, however, recognize the fact that the tax money that pays for education is really theirs, and as such develop school districts and elect local citizen school boards to maintain their bit of control on the process. Yet those elections are not widely attended and the parents often remain unattached to these elected boards and their policies. What often results is an adversarial coupling when government makes mandates for education that the people don’t agree with. It would seem that we need to redefine the roles each should play in the educational process.

Where funding is concerned, we must come to recognize that simply throwing more money at school administrators and teacher’s unions is not going to change the state of our children’s education. The things that matter are the books and the tools and the instruction they receive. The formulas should be reworked so that teachers are at the top of the pay scale instead of the administrators and consultants. In fact, why couldn’t we turn over the administration aspects of schools to volunteer citizens who could manage these affairs on a part-time basis? The savings could be funneled back into classroom materials. Facilities would come next in line to assure that they are safe and clean, and consistent across the nation, offering all children the same opportunities according to their abilities. Streamlining our building efforts could save untold millions in construction and maintenance costs as well as alleviate uneven property taxes and unnecessary building bonds. Again, these savings could be used to support extra-curricular activities that are being cut all over the country. Absorption of school utility costs through minimal across the board ratepayer increases could further free up operating funds that could improve student-learning programs.

When it comes to providing an adequate learning environment, we must adopt those attitudes I discussed in the previous two essays: the necessity of parents to instill the traits of responsibility and respect in their children and for parents and teachers to work together to demand those qualities of their students, and the necessity of society to restructure its agenda to allow parents and children more time together so these traits can be taught through example. In order to further these goals, we should return more disciplinary control to our teachers and severely restrict the ability to sue schools or teachers for anything but the most egregious behavior. Our schools are inundated by lawsuit happy parents for slighting students or hampering their spirit or whatever other nonsense they can think of. The costs of defending or settling these kinds of lawsuits, and the insurance schools now need to pay for just strips away more of the dollars for real education. Students need to be clear on the fact that their job is to learn and their rights are dependant on their level of responsibility. Once we take away the “get rich quick” option, schools can go back to teaching and stop looking over their shoulders as they make a lesson plan.

Control of academic curriculum is usually what most parents are concerned about. We want to make sure that our kids are learning the basics of reading and writing and mathematics. We want to make sure that our teachers aren’t filling our kids heads full of false information, though at times, even this is subjective. But the government wants to impress an environment that is as equitable to all as possible, while expecting a minimum standard of achievement on certain general areas of knowledge. A solution could be as simple as delineating who gets to be responsible for what. Government, by nature, is best at providing a level playing field. Moving much beyond this simple task, at least in the area of education, is only asking for trouble. So governments role in schools should be limited to a few things: assuring the equitable redistribution of collected tax dollars for education; assuring equitable facilities for all student
s through oversight committees; providing basic standard criteria for teacher certification; and developing minimum required mastery levels for reading, writing, mathematics, civic responsibility, personal finance, history, and science. Local school boards would then be responsible for implementing academic courses of study that would serve their student populations and teach at least the minimum requirements according to that communities specific needs or methods; hiring and firing of all school personnel; procuring and distributing educational materials; and managing the day to day occurrences that arise. Each would abide the decisions of the other, but disputes would err towards to people in cases of curriculum and style or towards the government in cases of fairness or assessment.

Business could and should be encouraged to step up to the plate too, since they are big beneficiaries of an educated citizenry as well. They could be instrumental in developing instructional courses for areas that fall outside of the required minimum mastery levels. Specialized instruction in career specific areas could engender the right numbers of future workers for industries. An example would be similar businesses pooling their resources to form teaching guilds. The sports and entertainment industries could return some of their mega profits to society by funding community sports programs and arts education.

As with every new change, you can choose to phase the new ideas in gradually or adopt them all at once. In the case of education, it becomes even trickier to decide, since if the changes are really beneficial, you want to reach all the kids as early as possible. In this case though, I think we just need to formulate the plan, and pick a date of adoption and begin to implement starting with the kids first entering school that year. As the system evolves, preexisting kids could be brought into the fold, under the “better late than never” concept. Finally, adults should be offered some re-education opportunities as they need them to fill any gaps in their education due to growing up in troubled educational times.

The bottom line is that there is already a good amount of money being spent but no real control beyond who can make headlines with the latest lawsuit. An educated society is a shared responsibility and a shared asset. It’s time that government and citizens quit fighting over education and turn towards our respective strengths to provide a more efficient, and therefore, more effective school system for our children.