Failing Grades

When It Comes To Education...Hey, Kid! Take That Compass Out Of Your Nose!

By Michael R. Schreiber

JUST TAKE ONE look at the problems the Legislature has been having with the new school finance plan and you'll be a little bit closer to understanding why the United States ranked third from last overall on the international math and science exams (we managed to come in ahead of Cyprus and South Africa).

Pretty soon there's going to be a new bumper sticker floating around. It's going to read: "I'm the proud parent of a student who is just as educated as kids living in shanty towns with no running water."

Before I address the failings of the new school finance plan here in Tucson, I'd like to take time to illustrate just how poorly U.S. students did on this test.

Currents I'll start with geometry because it's a class that every high-school student takes, and it's one that's an important building block for students as they begin to develop more advanced conceptual skills. Besides that, I never liked math much in high school, but I managed to do fairly well in geometry, and as my education continued into college I found the skills I learned in geometry to be valuable.

The United States came in last on the geometry sub-scale on the recent international test. Statistically speaking, there wasn't even a nation whose score was significantly similar to ours. The closest score to ours was achieved by Austria, and they were a full 38 points ahead of us. We were 76 points behind the international average, and a whopping 124 points behind the geometry winners, the Russians.

I took a look at a sample geometry question which asked students to write a proof for an isosceles triangle. It was a relatively easy question. There were a few ways to solve the problem, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of geometry could figure it out. I was surprised to find that the international average for this particular question was 48 percent. It seemed that perhaps the whole world might need a little help in geometry. Be that as it may, I was reminded of the relativity of these figures when I found that only 19 percent of U.S. students managed to answer this question correctly.

Before I continue, you might want to grab a stiff drink. I looked through pages and pages of sub-scales of this test and I couldn't find one statistic which indicated that the U.S. performed above average on any single measurement. Apparently our only excuse is that we don't give a shit.

It seems like every couple of years we are treated to a new international test or survey which further documents the decline of our students, yet we do nothing about it. We talk about family values and the responsibility of parents to foster proper ideals in their children. We talk about the decay of inner cities and how drugs have robbed our children of potential. Ironically, the country that performed the best overall on the international test was Holland. This little European country, which so many Americans consider to be morally adrift because of their coffee houses and red light district, has kicked our asses right across the Atlantic.

I wonder if the Coalition for a Drug-Free America is going to feature that information in their next piece of propaganda. For us to blame the sorry state of our schools on drugs is absolutely ridiculous.

Blame isn't even relevant. What is important is how we are going to get our asses in gear and make our schools the best in the world.

DON'T LOOK TO your legislators and representatives for that answer, because over the last weeks, as they've debated the school funding plan, they've made it clear they have no idea what the problem is, much less how to solve it.

The bureaucrats have been arguing about two main issues: 1) where the school money should come from, and; 2) whether enough money has been allocated.

As for the first point, it seems that the state has had a history of allocation problems. In December the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the previous school-finance plan unconstitutional because it relied too heavily on property taxes to fund school construction. Boy, would I like to throw some rotten fruit at the guy who came up with that idea. Only an idiot would base the needs of a particular district on property values. It means the poorest districts, the ones with the least money, who are usually the ones with the worst schools, have the least resources. This should not be happening in this country, and, thankfully, the state Supreme Court didn't let it continue.

Unfortunately, the Court's only suggestion was that the Legislature set "adequate standards," whatever that means. The latest plan released states that "only a minimum adequacy standard will be established," but the problem is that no one has stipulated just what that minimum will be.

Who are these geniuses?

Opponents have warned that the amount of money allocated to schools will be based upon whatever money has been budgeted, whereas it seems to me that the money allocated to any district or school should be based upon how much they need. It's ridiculous to think that we can allocate a sum of money to education, and then divide it up and hope there's enough to go around. I wonder how our representatives would have done on the international math and science test (something tells me they'd do worse than Cyprus).

By the same token, it's equally ridiculous to assume that any tax group should be exempt from funding education. The new plan shifts the tax burden from commercial to residential property owners. Though this may appear to be a more responsible policy, in reality it's just plain selfish. If we want to pull our schools out of the international gutter, everyone is going to have to pay, not just a little, and they're going to have to contribute all they can.

Businesses particularly reap the benefits of a well-educated population, certainly more directly than a household. Selfish business owners who lobby their way clear of school funding are shooting themselves in the foot. Their misguided attitudes will turn this country into a third-rate power if we're not careful. In 20 years Russia will be a formidable economic power, and their kids already know how to write a proof for an isosceles triangle. If we want to keep up with them, we're going to have to dump a good bit of our substantial wealth into our schools.

If we don't, then in 50 years we can all look back at the misers of the late 20th century, whose short-term goal of financial solvency depleted their capacity for insight and vision to such an extent that they were willing to forgo the education of their children.

No one wants to pay for education, and because of that, there's not enough money for education, and because of that, the only kids in the world who are less educated than ours live in Cyprus and South Africa.

THIS IS NOT about missing American values. Generally, people in this country are as good or bad as the people in any of the other 20 countries who participated in the international tests. Some of these countries even managed to outperform us soon after cataclysmic societal changes. The problem here is that we're not supporting education as we should be--that is, without restraint. If we want our kids to do well, we're going to have to foot the bill. If we want to raise our standards, we're going to have to raise our taxes. There's no way around that.

When it comes to education, every single tax group should be taxed as much as possible, or at least until schools are able to do all they want and still have a surplus. If we don't, we'll regret it down the road. It's tempting to think that our status as leaders of the free world is forever ours, and that our power and insight will be naturally passed down to our children; but no matter how solid our foundation seems to be, securing a place of leadership for America of the future will take more work than we're currently investing. We must do all that we can because we all have the obligation to provide not simply an adequate education for our children, but superb future for this country. TW

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