They say the way to boil a frog is to heat the water slowly, so the frog doesn't realize it's getting cooked. By the time it gets really hot, it's too late to get out. I stood in long lines for hours last week to register our two teenaged tadpoles for high school. Describing it later to my mother, I realized that, like a frog, I had accommodated without noticing the changes occurring in schools.
"Why were you even needed at registration?" she asked. "I never had to register you in person."
"Well, I had to pay all the fees," I said. The fees? "The textbook fees, the athletic fees, and 'consumable materials' fees," I explained. I had forgotten that there was a time when student fees weren't crucial to a school district's budget.
I found it particularly hard to wait in the long lines with my son, who is returning to a school of 2,000 students after studying spring semester at a Quaker school whose entire student body was 12 students. His complaint for years, that the school treats him like a cog in a wheel, was hard to forget as I watched parents moving slowly from Station 1 to Station 2, then Station 3 before waiting two hours to get to pay fees at Station 5 and get their child's picture ID made at Station 6.
Don't get me wrong. I passionately support public education, and overall, our family is grateful for our children's education. Most of their teachers have been deeply committed to their challenging and underpaid jobs. Some classes have been stimulating. But many are not, and tests suggest that more students are falling through the cracks.
A lot of what is wrong is not public education itself but more the lack of funding priority our federal and state governments give it. While No Child Left Behind has increased focus on schools' needs, the Bush administration's budget has consistently fallen badly short of its rhetoric. Although the NCLB law has arguably provided more information about school performance, its rigid measures of success have discouraged creative teaching and punished struggling schools with funding cuts.
States recently reported how they measured last year against the NCLB's "Annual Yearly Progress" standards, which consider numerous factors, from math and reading test scores to attendance and graduate rates. The number of Wisconsin schools failing these standards jumped from 87 to 156, and that leap (or plummet) reflects a national trend. Oregon schools not meeting the standards rose from 21 percent to 35 percent, while in Missouri only 25 percent of the schools did meet them.
Recent polls show 67 percent of the public wants major changes in No Child Left Behind or its complete elimination. But this law is not the sole culprit. States whose school funding formulas depend on local property taxes force children in less affluent communities to accept less-funded schools, and many states' periodic tax revolts have cut education to the edge.
I was grateful that former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner used his Democratic National Convention keynote to emphasize public education's crucial role in his own success and in the nation's plans for a prosperous future. The issue of public education should top the list of presidential issues. Barack Obama and John McCain have rather different plans to reform education. McCain supports private school vouchers allowing students to opt out of public schools, continuing the cynical strategy of impoverishing and then blaming them. Obama also supports increasing choice, but only within public schools.
The need for federal funding for public education is compelling, especially as state budgets spin into deficit. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that at least 11 states plan to cut funds for public education this year, ranging from talented and gifted programs to early education funding.
All of these cuts just keep heating up the water. Fewer, more crowded, and less varied arts and music classes. Fewer advanced biology classes. Crowded and dull history classes. Pretty soon, it's easy to forget what a really good educational system can be like, or that it's even a realistic option. Pretty soon, we're cooked.