::Literate Blather::
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Essay: Broken Down Education

We broke it; now we should fix it. I’m talking about American public education, which by most accounts, is in shambles.

The U.S. spends more than a trillion dollars every year educating children – from kindergarten to 12th grade. Despite spending more than any other country in the world, the U.S. continues to see its ranking plummet.

A 2003 study done by UNICEF ranked the U.S. 18 out of 24 developed countries in education. Other studies have shown the U.S. slipping in mathematics and science – especially as kids get to high school.

There is a lot to fix, but one problem with U.S. education is the way we pay for and structure our public schools. I’ll use my home state of Massachusetts as an example. Massachusetts consistently ranks at the top when compared to other states in educating children. In fact, Massachusetts ranked #2 in the nation (behind Vermont) in the recent Morgan Quitno Press 2006 Smartest State Award.

Yet, the state still struggles with public education. Recently, the town of Randolph had to end bus services to students to save money – after being forced to lay-off 27 elementary school teachers and 13 high school teachers among other cuts. Sixteen other Massachusetts school districts face action by the state government because low test scores have fallen below federal standards for the last five years.

This, mind you, from one of the best ranked states in the country.

Here’s one big problem: Massachusetts has 321 school districts. This means 321 different school systems all with separate curriculums, different teaching standards, different teaching philosophies, and different and varied funding. How inefficient is this? But this is the approach of most states – forcing the burden of public education on local governments.

This system puts tremendous strain on local resources and mandates that property owners foot the bill for public schools. So districts that don’t have solid local management – like Randolph – struggle to perform. It also means that property owners have the burden of funding education while renters do not. This puts the advantage to schools in the suburbs with higher property values than poor rural communities or poor cities.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to centralize education? Massachusetts should have one school district – managed by the state. This would allow for a streamlined approach to education with common goals and standards – and above all a mandated curriculum. The amount of money spent per child could be standardized across towns – meaning that rich communities like Weston would get the same per pupil costs as students from poor communities like New Bedford.

I can already see the hyper-privileged foaming at the mouth – worrying about their children getting the same education as the poor. But it’s the best system. Why should there be enormous gaps in what we pay for educating students from town to town? For example, in Massachusetts, the town of Savoy spends $7,900 per pupil while Edgartown spends $16,700 – a difference of $8,800!

Think of the cost savings public education would receive simply by the buying power one large entity would receive for buying books, pencils, and other supplies. Think about the savings in eliminating the support systems in place in every district – superintendents, payroll, accountants, lawyers, support staff, etc.

Centralized education is what makes countries like Japan, Norway, Denmark, and France so successful. They don’t have the headaches that come with a different school system for every town. This would shift the economic burden and also standardize teacher qualifications and curriculum.

Centralizing curriculum would force states to really think about how to educate children – to debate about what subjects are important. No longer would education be forced to conform to “local” standards. States would have a common consensus on what children should be learning at each grade level. Parents will no longer be held hostage by under-performing districts – or renegade superintendents.

Forcing small local governments to educate children is an out-dated model of a bygone era. It’s time to modernize, centralize, and standardize for the success of all children.

Read our essay on the Iraq War here

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