A Final Thought

Four Crisis

Each month, as I prepare to write this column, I consider the educational issues about which I might comment. Recently, I’ve written about closing schools, the need for community schools, the value, problems and misuse of charter schools, wasted money on school security and more. Those are all significant, but there are many other issues that I would like to write about — complicated and interwoven issues. I make notes about them, but before I start writing, three or four new ones arise that I’d like to write about. I hardly know where to start.

Recently, I was fortunate to be in an audience addressed by Harry Phillips, a member of New York State’s Board of Regents, the equivalent of a state board of education. Unlike so many members of state boards, Phillips is not a politician with an agenda. The only axe he appears to grind is an effort to promote, protect and expand public education.

Based on his experience, Phillips outlined four crises education faces today. By putting the problems into four categories he helped me, at least, organize my thoughts and suggest which ones deserved most attention and/or fit together. Because he is in New York, some of the issues mentioned have a specific twist in that state, but the concepts are the same everywhere. Those four crises, and some of the thoughts that they brought to me, follow:

Financing, defunding vs. rising costs. New York State has imposed an annual cap on how much local school taxes can be raised, a cap that forces school districts to cut educational programs because the cap does not keep up with mandated increased costs. In other states, legislatures have simply cut the amount of money they appropriate for education. I guess it’s good politics (“we cut taxes”) but lousy for education and children (who cannot vote). So financing is one major issue that continues to face education today. “Throwing money at schools” does not solve all problems and sometimes is wasteful, but making sufficient money available to support productive programs certainly helps.

Governance. Previously, Phillips pointed out, there was local control of schools with the regents (state) providing oversight. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is dictating what schools do. The Race to the Top dangled $7 billion (to New York alone) to force districts to go along with federal dictates, whether they made educational sense or not. New York got the largest amount of money, but the cost of getting it often out-paced gain. Phillips cited one district that received $16,000 in “Race to the Top” money, but had to spend more than $1 million on implementation.

Crisis in disparity. As Phillips put it, “Disparity in income is going to bring down this country and the disparity in educational opportunity will hasten that along.” I’ve often pointed out that financing education through real estate taxes increases disparities between school districts. Like it or not, the fact is that in most cities and often suburbs, neighborhood schools become economically and racially segregated schools. Those schools and children that need the most, often get the least. Phillips suggested that states should be providing more funding to poor districts — two to three times as much — to help them begin to overcome the crisis in disparity.

Crisis in public disaffection. Phillips cited the many parents and teachers in New York State (and elsewhere) who have chosen to have their children opt out of the myriad tests that federal and state programs demand. Too much testing, he said, is good only for publishers, not children.

Another area where there is public disaffection involves charter schools, especially those run by for-profit organizations. To qualify for federal Race to the Top money, New York was forced to open 460 charter schools, charters that are taking public money away from the schools that need it.

This is not a new issue, I’ve written often about the role that charter schools can and should play in improving public education by trying new ideas and programs and then, when successful, transferring those programs into the public schools. But that is not the role charters have been playing. Rather, they have chosen to become an alternate school system designed to complete with, and “show up” the public schools, and to take more and more money from them.

Four crises, each with many subplots. It’s impossible to cover them all — especially in 750 words — but taken together, they show the enormity and interweaving of the problems, many of which are not really the problems of education but the imposed problems caused by bad laws and poor thinking.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."