1/02/2014

5 Reasons Why State Funding of Education is a Terrible Idea

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It's ironic that after decades of legal, social, and ethical conflicts over the right of all children in the U.S. to receive a fair and equal education, we are in some respects still as far from achieving this goal as we were back in the Civil Rights era.  Why?  Because - besides requiring that every student receive a "Fair and Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) - the federal government pretty much leaves all other decisions affecting the quantity and quality of said mandatory education in the hands of local and state governments.  For about a hundred reasons this is a TERRIBLE idea, but here's my list of 5 of the most obvious.  (Lest readers imagine that I am exaggerating some of these impacts, I've included links that connect to sources that substantiate some of the more seemingly outrageous claims.)
  1. Inequality of Funding.   Nearly half of the funding for public schools in the United States is provided through local taxes, generating vast differences in funding between wealthy and impoverished communities.  How does this harm students?
    1. Quality of teachers.  You get what you pay for.  Qualified teachers will find work in states that pay them a fair wage; those accepting jobs that pay less than a fair wage are far more likely to be unqualified/underqualified, inexperienced, and ineffective.
    2. Quality of textbooks/educational resources.  The days when we could prepare kids for the real world with the help of a few slabs of slate and chalk are over.  Teachers need access to copiers and paper, educational materials (math manipulatives, etc.), professional development opportunities, and computers; students need access to books (TONS of books), textbooks, computers, and online resources.   
    3. Availability of programs to support the needs of exceptional learners.  Availability of funding absolutely impacts the extent to which the following programs are available: full day kindergarten, Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate/gifted & talented programs, advanced math & science classes, special education programs, ESOL programs, remediation for students who are not meeting grade-level expectations
    4. Availability of enrichment activities.  Availability of funding also impacts the extent to which schools can offer access to vocal music, instrumental music, drama/speech, information technology, vocational studies, foreign languages, health, and after-school enrichment programs (ex: Model United Nations, Future Business Leaders of America, newspaper/yearbook, literary magazine, chess club, speech/debate, math/science/academic Olympiad teams)
    5. Quality of educational experience.  Class size makes a difference.  Adequate HVAC  makes a difference.  The presence or absence of mold in classrooms makes a difference.  School environments that are safe and violence/gang-free make a difference.  All of these are directly impacted by the amount of educational funding available
  2. Inequality of Expectations.  Until recently, every state was free to decide what should be taught in each grade.  For instance, one state could decide to teach fractions in fourth grade; another could decide to defer fractions to 7th grade; one state could decide to teach critical reading starting in 2nd grade, while another state could decide never to teach critical reading at all.  This inevitably impacts students' ability to access and succeed in higher education.  I did say this was the case until recently, because unless you've been living in a cave like a troll, you'll know that the federal government recently bribed 45 of 50 states into adopting a Common Core Curriculum - a long, long overdue attempt to address these disparities.  Watching states struggle with retraining their staff and restructuring their course schedules to accommodate this core curriculum is proof positive - if proof was required - of just how vast the disparities were between state curriculum standards.  So - if the federal government has "fixed" this problem, why am I still including it on this list?  Because simply adopting common standards doesn't mean that states/localities have actually resolved to follow them, as spelled out below.
  3. Poor Oversight/Accountability.  The federal government may have finally stepped in re. standards, but they've allowed states to decide how to measure whether students have achieved those standards.*  See the problem?  That's like asking employees to do their own performance evaluations ... and then (thanks to No Child Left Behind sanctions) firing them if they give themselves less than a "superior".  It's obvious what this leads to: state tests that are "dumbed down" to the point where the requisite percentage of students are able to pass them.  I've been a teacher in my own state for over 7 years now and can tell you that there's no way the requisite percentage of students today could pass the cumulative assessments we administered just 7 years ago.  So while Core Curriculum may be raising standards, states are simultaneously simplifying the assessments that "prove" that students have achieved these standards.  (*FYI, there IS a federal assessment that is used to produce a "national report card" - the National Assessment of Educational Performance - and that does expose the inequality of educational attainment state-by-state, but pressure from state/local governments will ensure that it is never used to assign consequences.)
  4. Vulnerability to Social Agendas.  There are dozens of ways in which school districts with social agendas can inculcate these into impressionable students.  Some methods that locally/politically controlled school boards routinely employ:
    1.  Requiring the use of textbooks and materials that contain biased or incomplete information -  for example, science textbooks that teach creationism, civics textbooks that celebrate the Confederacy (or actually go so far as to claim African Americans fought for the Confederacy, as happened in one recent and particularly infamous instance), and family life education materials that teach homosexuality is unnatural.  
    2. Controlling/limiting access to resources - for example, books, magazines, websites - that might contradict or undermine the social agenda
    3. Creating curriculum standards that include or exclude specific knowledge/skills/processes - for example, implementing civics standards that promote libertarian attitudes towards government
    4. Mandating the use of pedagogical methods that reinforce the social agenda and disincent other behaviours - for example, stifling critical thinking activities in favor of activities that foster unthinking compliance
    5. Hiring administrators and principals that can control cultural/social activities of the school - from promoting prayer at school functions to determining which clubs (gun clubs, Young Democrats/Republicans clubs, gay/lesbian student associations, Muslim student associations, etc.) are/are not permitted. 
  5. Vulnerability to Political Agendas.  I admit, this is the one that scares me most of all.  Because one thing corrupt politicians have understood since the beginning of time is that their worst enemy is an educated populace - thus incenting them to preserve their electorate in a state of ignorance.  Just ask Texas teachers what they discovered when students from New Orleans, dislocated by Hurricane Katrina, flooded into their school systems: students who barely knew how to read and who had been raised to believe that any indignity (pollution, exploitation, crime) is justifiable if the end result if jobs and other political favors.  Talk about putting the cookie jar in the hands of the children!

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