"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Close my school? No Way!!

Last Thursday evening I attended a "town-hall" meeting with two members of our local school board to talk about the proposals on the table to reorganize our local school district. No one denies that there is a problem with funding the schools. The teachers' association agreed last year to 0% pay increases, and increased insurance costs among other things. It's no secret that the Wall Street mess, coupled with the lack of competent leadership in the national and state legislatures and departments of education have put our schools, locally and across the country, in financial jeopardy.

Our superintendent, who was hired last year, has come up with five plans, none of which will make people happy. They all involve closing schools.

Nearly everyone agrees that closing schools is going to be necessary. We have too many high schools in our district, and our elementary schools vary from nearly empty to bursting at the seams. Redistricting also seems to be warranted.

We're one of the largest school districts in the state by area. Our children are rural, suburban, small town, and urban. We are a culturally diverse district with a large non-English speaking population (a recent influx of Burmese refugees). Our district faces problems with transiency, poverty, and unemployment. We have schools ranging from "Four Star Schools" (a honor bestowed by the state of Indiana) to schools on probation and facing state takeover and likely privatization (those with the highest poverty levels as you might expect).

The town hall meetings which have been taking place all over our 350 square mile district have revealed something very interesting though not very surprising. Most people agree...it's ok to close a school, as long as it's not our school.

The school board members informed us that this was the same feeling throughout the district. It was ok to close schools, but most people, in all areas of the district, wanted the closings to be elsewhere.

I was reminded of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallop Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, an annual poll tracking how people in the US feel about the schools. As has been the case for many years, people ranked the schools in their community better than the schools nationwide. 51% gave their local schools an A or a B as a grade as opposed to 19% for the nation as a whole. In addition, 74% of parents of public school children, who are the people who deal directly with the schools and know much more about what goes on in their local school than do their legislators, awarded the school their oldest child attended a grade of A or B.

At this point you might begin to recognize a pattern here. The majority of people, and a larger majority of parents, feel like their local schools are doing a good job. It's the "other" schools around the country that are so bad.

In a sidebar included in the poll results the late Gerald Bracey asks why the seeming contradiction seems to exist.
It’s a constant in the PDK/Gallup polls: Respondents say their local schools are OK but the nation’s schools are average to awful.
The reasons for this disconnect are simple: Americans never hear anything positive about the nation’s schools and haven’t since the years just before Sputnik in 1957. Think, A Nation at Risk. People who wax positive about public schools are so rare that the June 1996 School Administrator put pictures of all six of us on its cover as “The Contrarians.” Negative information flows almost daily from media, politicians, and ideologues. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a $50 million project, Ed in 08, inundated Americans with negativity through its web site, TV ads, and YouTube clips.
But what about the test scores? Don't they show that our public schools are "failing?" Again, Gerald Bracey...
In the 'Progress in International Reading Literacy Study,' American kids in low poverty schools stomped the top-ranked Swedes," he said. "Even kids in schools with up to 50 percent of the students in poverty attained an average score that, had they constituted a nation, would have ranked fourth. Only American students attending schools with more than 75 percent poverty rates scored below the international average of the 35 participating countries.
As long as politicians ignore poverty as an issue in the US our schools are going to be "failing." Who is doing the failing, though? The kids? the teachers? or those who continue to promote an economy with the largest percentage of children in poverty in the developed world?