Debating School Reform in Video-U Era

"This is about competitiveness." said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

Katz was talking about a recent proposal from the Greater Ohio Policy Center and Brookings Institution to reduce the number of school districts in Ohio by one-third in order to save taxpayers' money spent for schools.

At the national level we are presently discussing federal legislation ("No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top") mostly by talking about leveraging top-down reform through school choice, competition and accountability.

When I was on the Kent school board (1975 - 86) we all understood that schools were primarily about children, families and communities - not "competitiveness" - and that saving taxpayers' money was not a reason to forego needed actions or programs. We believed it was up to us to prioritize and economize to get the best outcomes for our kids and our community.

I still don't believe schools primarily serve an economic purpose; their mission is not to produce some quantity / quality of workers for "competitiveness" in the global marketplace, not to reach some level of efficiency or to balance costs with benefits.

It is also not the mission of schools to offer preferment for the children of affluent families, nor to provide privileges for some children at a cost to others. Public schools serve a social mission: to educate coming generations of society, so that all can participate in all aspects of society - as free, responsible, healthy, thinking, creative individuals, and as citizens and voters, as productive workers, artists and artisans, as parents, friends, colleagues and team-mates.

Americans have never quite resolved whether we want schools to reflect local community values and goals or meet national and international standards (especially in math, science and engineering) in order to be "competitive" in world markets. We don't agree about whether we want our schools to train docile consumers and obedient workers, or free, skeptical, community-minded citizens. We're undecided about whether we want to teach by authority, regimentation, coercion and punishment, or by open inquiry, exploration, dialog, and democratic participation.

Even worse, Americans are deeply divided over taxes - whether we should have taxes at all, who should pay them, what they should pay for, and who should decide about spending and policies for our tax dollars.

In Ohio, only about 8 percent of funding for schools comes from the federal government. The remaining 92 percent of costs are equally borne by state and local taxes.

To some extent this reflects our national political will (and political "won't"). I estimate that there is less than 10 percent popular agreement on any major national goals - for schools, wars, medical care, infrastructure, trade, etc. There is probably even less accord over what constitutes a good life, a good society or good government.

We criticize teachers and vilify their unions and professional organizations; we save our tax dollars by failing levies and firing teachers, or we pay teachers poorly and overcrowd their classrooms. Some of us demand that 'intelligent design' be taught as science; others try to ban certain books from school libraries or require prayers before football games.

Funding with local taxes gives local control; funding with federal taxes means federal control. Trouble is, most people want low local taxes and local control of education. And they want federal funding without federal control - except of course they want the federal government to be able to fire teachers and punish failing school districts, and dictate what can be taught in sex education classes.

In point of fact, public education today is an anachronism. Our children, and most adults attend daily classes at Video-U, where the curriculum is determined by advertisers and for-profit corporations, and where the teachers and administrators are not educated, certified and dedicated professionals but entertainers coached and paid by the same advertisers and corporations.

Today the average adult watches TV about 4 1/2 hours a day, children about 3 hours a day. Add time-shifted broadcasts, DVDs, online videos, video games, and viewing on mobile devices and that average is doubled: children aged 8 to 18 now spend an average of 44.5 hours per week in front of computer, television, and game screens.

The curriculum at Video-U primarily teaches self-indulgence in food, sex, and cars. It features the joys of war and revenge, explosions, crashes, and cruelties. "Reality shows" glorify pain, hardship and shame - a French producer is now re-enacting Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments in which volunteers give stronger and stronger electric shocks to subjects at the urging of authority-figures. The in-your-face style of talk-show participants has poisoned civil discourse at every level, and letters-to-the-editor, blogs and e-mails are rapidly degenerating into undocumented accusations, humiliations, mud-slinging, insults and personal attacks.

Meanwhile, in the last 40 years our schools and universities have produced hereditary elites who use their wealth and power to buy Presidents and Congressmen to spend the taxes of the rest of us on deadly weapons to kill poor brown people. They have produced hucksters who market violence and junk food for profit, bankers who gamble away the dreams of families, and managers who lack the moral and intellectual resources to see the cruelty of profiting from denying medical care to sick people.

Twenty years ago in Senator Glenn's office we often received phone calls saying "My taxes shouldn't pay for that [current issue] - the government should pay for that."

Are we any forrarder today?

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