Our Failing Public Schools, Part II: Politicians

Section 2: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Prior to the 1970s, local politicians and school districts had control of both budget and curriculum. Because these people had to answer directly to the local voters, the people generally got the educational system they felt their children deserved. While it is undeniable that more and more authority over the public education system has been given to the legislators by the voters thanks to both public lawsuits and the passage of funding bills, much more has also been appropriated by the state and federal government. There will be a lot more on this, including Serrano vs. Priest and Proposition 13, in Part IV of this series.

A couple of examples that spring to mind are former President Bush and his alleged “No Child Left Behind” policy, and former California Governor Schwarzenegger with his massive budget cuts in education and opposition to Prop. 98. When wielding that power, politicians should bear in mind that education is not their field of expertise (unless they were teachers before being elected), and should therefore tread cautiously when enacting legislation or determining policy that impacts the public school system.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of them really consider themselves experts in the field. When I was in private industry, it was exactly the same attitude with many businessmen. The attitude was: “We went through the educational system. We graduated from college. We’ve read a few articles, talked to a few educators. We understand it perfectly.”

Well, I studied history, government and a little political science. I’ve been governed and otherwise impacted by politicians all of my life. During my years in business, I talked with a number of politicians, some as high as the senate level. I still read and hear reports on the goings on of our government and the politicians on a near daily basis. I’ve actually read many political tracts (not counting “The Prince”), from theory to practical application. Therefore, I must be an expert in politics, and could start my career as a politician tomorrow, right? Of course not. Not any more than the average politician should consider him or herself an expert in education and presume to dictate the inner workings of the public school system. So make policies, be a “watchdog”, but don’t micromanage education.

It’s bad enough that many politicians seriously interfere in the educational system without really understanding how it operates or what its mission should be. What is infinitely worse is that many of them do not care. For many politicians, education is simply a “platform issue”, something that cannot be ignored during election time, but gets short shrift once they are in office—especially when determining budget. When they do become involved, it is often “politics as usual”, a tit-for-tat approach either brokering their vote in exchange for a pet bill of their own or writing some piece of legislation that will appease one of their powerful constituent groups—or, even worse, one of their wealthy lobbyist groups. In the worst case scenario, they support changes in the educational system that will financially benefit publishers, contractors, consultants, or other business concerns that make a profit from the school system. From looking at most of the impacts on how teachers are credentialed, textbooks are chosen, curriculum is developed and how programs are instituted, the last people many politicians seem to care about are those for whom the system was actually intended: the students.

Case Scenario: In the 1970s, English teachers commonly had one textbook for grammar and punctuation, and a lot of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Some would augment their curriculum with newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. While academic presses were very big in colleges because professors tended to write their own texts, K-12 teachers used the primary texts that the local school board deemed fit.

After the money shifted from local districts to the state, academic publishers got really interested in producing “classroom packages”. These packages include a dozen or more texts (main text, grammar book, workbook, teacher’s guidelines, variations for different reading levels, etc.) as well as CDs to do all of those things on the computer, as well as accompanying videos, test generators, etc. These packages were different for each grade level, and each cost the district thousands of dollars. If you taught English to three different grades, you got three different sets for you and your students. Most of these materials were so “overkill” that none of the teachers used them. Are the teachers of today more stupid than those of fifty years ago? Nonsense. A good teacher could still pick up a newspaper (if there are any print editions left…) and create a lesson plan for virtually any subject.

However, now that the decision making process has been centralized, it’s easier for the big houses, such as Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson Prentice Hall or McGraw-Hill, to approach the state board of education and a few key legislators (those who serve on education-related committees) to, um, convince them to buy their units, than it was to approach every single board of education in the state. Because they have such a huge investment in a package they had to produce before they could try to sell it, guess how much more they spend wining and dining the decision makers to choose them above the declining competition?

I will leave the last word on this blog to Jennifer Marshall:

“The Constitution does not provide for a federal role in education, and public schools have traditionally been under the jurisdiction of local authorities. Washington’s intervention seems to have brought out the worst in education governance. It has led to ever-increasing spending and bureaucratic bloat while undermining schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Federal intervention also creates a compliance burden, sapping time and money (an annual price tag to taxpayers of $25 billion) that could be more effectively deployed to achieve educational excellence.” Jennifer Marshall, “Freeing Schools from Washington’s Education Overreach”, The Heritage Foundation, April 6, 2011

Next: Our Underfunded School System

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