What a Shame: Legislators are misguided about fixing our schools.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been looking at and analyzing data on school construction. The result — School Planning & Management’s 17th Annual School Construction Report — can be found on other pages in this magazine.

The data was compiled by Market Data Retrieval, a Dun & Bradstreet Company, and it not only identified construction projects, it provided a one-line text description of what was being planned and its status. Reading those one-liners, I began to discern a disturbing pattern, especially in regard to retrofit projects.

The project purpose was often described in terms of need — “replace roof,” “safety,” “clean drinking water,” “handicapped access” but in almost half of the prospective projects the tag line was “the project is on hold pending funding.”

What a shame. It has been three years since legislation was proposed that would have made federal dollars available to help fix up schools, hospitals, bridges and similar deteriorating public-use structures. School districts across the nation identified their problems and prepared plans to fix them. All that was needed was Congressional approval of legislation everyone could support. After all, such construction programs would not only create jobs, they would also result in improvements to public facilities in every single congressional district in the U.S. Every sitting member of Congress would be able to stand in front of an improved facility and take credit for it. A win-win situation, one would think.

But the legislation was never passed and the deteriorated facilities remain as they were.

While Congress could never provide dollars to fix buildings, its members have plenty of time to determine how schools should teach. And that, in my view, is not a good thing.

American education is in trouble today, and the trouble has nothing to do with comparisons to the education systems of other nations, or with the number of engineers and scientists being produced by China. American education is in trouble because politicians and others with no knowledge of education, of children or of learning processes are setting the school agenda and funding that agenda.

Thus, all of education waits with bated breath while members of Congress sit in Washington and argue over whether we should have a Democratic or a Republican way to educate children when, or if, “No Child Left Behind” is extended.

The fact that both ways depend on testing systems that are contrary to what is best for children is not even a consideration. Nor is there any serious discussion at the political level of the ridiculousness of a system that penalizes struggling schools (usually in poor neighborhoods) by taking resources away from them. Whatever the politicians decide, the schools apparently will have to do.

Politicians in Washington and most state capitals have another agenda that is at least as serious. Having stated — with few independent facts or figures — that education in America is failing, they are finding more and more ways to take taxpayer money that has sustained our public education system and put it into private hands. We now have examples of public school systems that have essentially been bankrupted because of laws that force them to fund private, for-profit, charter schools. And federal regulations are pushing states to create more charter schools, despite study after study showing that, at best, they provide no better educational outcomes than do the public schools serving the same student populations.

Why this support for charter schools? Two obvious reasons come to mind. First, creating them provides an aura that governors and legislators are “doing something” about education. Second, it puts public money into private hands — it is a step toward privatization of public schools — and in those private hands, some of the profit, at least, might find its way back into the political process.

Another disturbing trend — Some legislatures and governors are now also dabbling directly into curriculum, dictating what should be taught in such areas as evolution, climate change and sex education rather than leaving it to the people who are expert in the subjects.

 As a person who has worked with the public schools for more than 50 years, I’m very concerned by the trends I see, and equally concerned by the failure of the organizations that represent administrators, teachers, professors, school planners and involved parents, to come together as a cohesive force to take back the educational initiative in our nation. If they do not do so, and do it quickly, the supposed deterioration in American education will be a fact and will accelerate, as people with little knowledge set America’s educational course.