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Two Americas, Two Educations

Brett Drugge

Talk of shortening the school year by five days, firing teachers and slashing teacher benefits, increasing class sizes, freezing monies for field trips, supplies, and arts programs in the wealthiest state in one of the wealthiest countries in the world should madden anyone who is concerned about the well-being of children and the future standard of living of California and the nation.

I can hear the naysayers now: Oh, but we can't do anything about it, they'll say.  Budgeting for schools predominantly relies on the tax base of local communities, and if the community is poor...well, there is nothing to be done, they'll say.  Plus, it's not really the money that can make a difference anyway, they'll say; it's the parents, the student's work ethic, and bad teachers.       

Senator McCain, during one of the presidential debates with now-President Obama, whined that "you don't just throw money at" education. But if the former headmaster of Crossroads School (Crossroads is a prestigious private school in Santa Monica, CA) is correct when he reports in his latest book, "Two Americas, Two Educations: funding quality schools for all students" by Mr. Paul Cummins, that Los Angeles County private schools afford, on the average, $26,000 per student, whereas public schools in LA County budget around $6,000 per pupil, it would seem that the rich do have it right and that you do just throw money at your child's education.     

However, Senator McCain is subtly making one correct determination regarding school spending:  when he says, "throw money", in part, he is really saying that there is an immense amount of wasteful spending in education. With this I cannot disagree. The LAUSD school board last year approved a per diem stipend of $2,000 to have consultants spend ten days at some of the lowest performing schools in the district analyzing their performance. Not long after this allocation did a professor of education from a prominent university join us for over a week and become a sounding board for teachers at lunch.

Teachers sat around this professor at her laptop and complained with the best of them as she sympathized with us and took notes.  At the end of her consultation, she gave us a presentation of her findings, and basically told us that we have too many "things" going on all at once, and that in order for our school to become more effective we would need to hone in on two or three best practices and make them a part of the entire school culture.

That's it? A vague, jargon-filled report for $20,000? It was unbelievable. To be fair, I'm sure she wrote a more substantive report and gave it to the administration with more helpful remarks and analysis, but how it has helped teachers in the classroom is beyond me.     

According to the teacher's union-the UTLA-non-school expenditures at the LAUSD headquarters have been swelling for years (16% increase over the last three years), while student population has dropped, and a lot of that spending is going towards, yes, you guessed it, consultants. In fact, just a couple of months ago, we had a representative from the district come out to give us a presentation on a new program that we are being required to implement. The firm the district has contracted is Pearson, Inc. According to Pearson's website, "The first year of the agreement between Pearson and LAUSD began July 1, 2007 and runs through June 30, 2008, at a cost of $2,888,103, with options to extend the agreement up to four additional one-year terms." The "Achievement Solutions" program, in effect and simply, has the teachers assemble together in teams in a collaborative effort to design and implement larger project-based lessons. 

Pearson's website touts this program by saying that "Based on 15 years of research, the Learning Teams model starts with the implementation of well-defined student instruction units, and includes teacher team meetings for periodic review and assessment of student performance."

What an absolute waste; it's an incredible loss when you hear of money being wasted like this, particularly when you substitute teach and you go from school to school in the district and you experience the desperate need at some school sites for more vibrant, state-of-the-art school environments, healthier meals, smaller student-to-staff ratios, and more opportunities for the students to create and experience the world outside the school.  (Just imagine the differences in the school life of a student from Harvard-Westlake-another prestigious private school with a 16 student-to-teacher ratio-and LA Academy-a public school in the LAUSD with probably a 32 student-to-teacher ratio.)

Pearson goes on, "Data from the Learning Teams pilot program in 15 LAUSD middle and high schools last year show high school student failure rates were reduced by as much as 19 percent."  You've got ocean-front property in Arizona to sell?  Head down to the LAUSD Beaudry building, immediately.  I've got 37 students crammed into a rodent-infested "bungalow" (c. WWII era), and yet Brewer, our former superintendent, is going to relax during his time of unemployment with a $500,000 bonus?  For good measure, let us throw in the recent finding that the district purchased a $13,000 sushi-making robot several years back; it sat on a school shelf, unused, for years.     

Matt Miller, an editor, author and a public radio program host, wrote about some of these issues recently in his latest book "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas" and in an op-ed to the NY Times, and he comes to the conclusion that we need to nationalize the funding of our schools.  He directly states that: 

"local control of schooling-which means local financing of schools-is an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it. Drive around Chicago, Detroit or most other big cities and you'll see dilapidated schools staffed largely by rookie teachers. The districts spend, say, $10,000 a child. Twenty minutes up the road you'll find suburban schools that sport Olympic-quality pools, Broadway-style (or maybe Off Broadway) theaters and the best teachers in the state. Those schools spend more like $17,000 per pupil. No other advanced nation tolerates such inequities."   

Two endless wars and a trillion dollar defense budget (Higgs, R., Independent Institute, 2007), including 700 military bases around the world, and we are seriously contemplating the cutting of five days during the year?      

The NY Times columnist Bob Herbert concludes his article "The War on Schools" from March, 2003, with words worth repeating and remembering: "It's an insane society that can contemplate devastating and then rebuilding Iraq, but can't bring itself to provide schooling for all of its young people here at home."    

Instead of "throwing" money at education, how about just offering it.

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Brett Drugge teaches 6th Grade English and Ancient Civilizations at Gage Middle School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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