Baines, Lawrence, Chris Muire, and Gregory Stanley. Contemporary Education, Winter 1999: 18-24.14.
Public School as Wasteland
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images."
Over the past decade, some demographic and sociological trends have become
apparent that could significantly exacerbate the problems of the already
overburdened, underfunded public schools -- changes that could transform them
into holding tanks for the academically suspect, the socially outcast, or for
students whose parents cannot afford to enroll them anywhere else.
Among the most damaging developments are these:
1) the increasing costs of running a public institution that attempts to remediate social disadvantage while simultaneously providing children with access to emerging technologies,
2) the shrinking corporate tax base,
3) an aging population dependent on fixed incomes,
4) the proliferation of litigation against schools,
5) the changing nature of the neighborhood school,
6) the dismal view of schools held by much of the public, and 7) current educational reforms that emphasize minimal competencies.
At the same time that these trends have undermined the ability of the public school to serve its constituencies well, private schools (often under the guise of charter schools, vouchers, and other initiatives) have become increasingly viable and attractive. Already, about one-half (Golay 1997) to two-thirds (Stutz 1997) of parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so. Although private school enrollments have hovered between 10-15% of the student population for the past thirty-five years (Archer 1996), the flight from public schools over the next decade may likely expand their numbers to unprecendented heights. The danger is that if nothing is done to counteract the downward spiral of the public schools, these most democratic of institutions may eventually become obsolete.
Undeniably, public schools in 1998 are dramatically different places than they used to be -- more violent, more complex, further behind the technological curve than ever.
The money pit
Recently, some concern has been registered over how history will record Bill
Clinton's presidential achievements, his personal code of sexual ethics
notwithstanding (Newsweek 1997; Taylor 1998). Based on his second term campaign
speeches, one would have thought the president intended to build his legacy on
reconstructing the nation's decaying K-12 school infrastructure. He cited the
General Accounting Office study which estimated that $112 billion was needed
just to make America's school buildings habitable again and made frequent
reference to the possible uses of technology in schools. Unfortunately, the
price tag to get America's classrooms properly equipped is $109 billion and
growing (Power 1996). Thus, schools are currently in the precarious position of
having to spend $221 billion just to get their buildings up to speed. If votes
on such legislation are any indication of federal intent (such as the
soundly-defeated summer 1997 bill that would have reimbursed schools for only
about 4% of the costs for restoration of buildings), schools should not count on
additional federal aid anytime in the near future.
Despite booming state economies, many school districts continue to operate under extremely limited fiscal constraints, as legislators opt to fund technology and build governmental reserves rather than support the more mundane and unwieldy requirements of staffing and building maintenance. Thus, windows stay broken, heating and air conditioning systems remain unrepaired, and aesthetics become considerations in only the most affluent schools. In walking through the hallways of American public schools in 1999, it is difficult to believe that the U.S. economy is at an all time high. Indeed, "few schools are seeing big windfalls, except for court-mandated spending and targeted outlays in areas such as technology" (Johnston 1997).
In addition to the formidable economic challenges of a safe, well-lighted
building and modern tools, public schools must accommodate a slew of federal
laws mandating that teachers be trained in working with learning disabled,
physically disabled, and emotionally-disturbed students; second language
learners; the potentially violent; the possibly drug-prone; and the sexually
active. As schools grapple to fulfill their multitudinous legal
responsibilities, they must do so in the face of a forthcoming surge in school
enrollments, a projected increase of 4 million students, nearly 7% above 1995
estimates, over the next ten years (Gerald & Hussar 1997).
In most districts, special education costs usurp twenty cents or more of each instructional dollar. However heartening PL 94-142 might have been for the parents of special education students at one time, it has frequently siphoned off money that would have otherwise gone to reducing class size, offering elective courses, providing professional development for teachers, or repairing school buildings.
In Georgia, the 1997 budget allotted $33 million more to special education programs than to all regular high school programs combined (Georgia Department of Education 1997). As a whole, the nation spends over $30 billion on disabled students each year. In some cases, the annual costs to educate students have been in excess of $100,000 per child (Merrow 1996).
Unfortunately, one of the victims of the required additional spending on
special education has been America's brightest children. For example, in the
1993-1994 operating budget of Austin (Texas) Independent School District,
compensatory and special education accounted for approximately 31% of program
expenditures, while only one- tenth of one percent went towards programs for the
gifted and talented. In nearby Manor I.S.D., 37% of the budget was spent on
compensatory and special education programs, while three-tenths of one percent
was spent on gifted and talented. In Del Valle I.S.D., expenditures for gifted
and talented education almost achieved the 1% mark ( .8%). Still, almost as much
money was spent on compensatory and special education there (43%) as on regular
education (51%) (Texas Education Agency 1994).
Little wonder then, that parents of gifted and talented children who have the financial clout to do so, often have chosen to enroll their children in private schools. While no one with any sanity could call spending on special education students an extravagance, in an era of tight budgets, the truth is that relatively few dollars are spent on the above-average and gifted student.
The shrinking corporate tax base
Historically, schools have relied upon state and local tax coffers for most of their dollars. Yet, increasingly, states and counties are offering tax incentives to make their locales more appealing for corporations. Berliner (1996) and White and Johnston (1997) have helped document the extent to which operating funds for educational institutions have been traded away for the possibility of jobs and a more robust local economy. The precedent of downsizing, now entrenched as a common practice in business and industry, has meant that once monolithic corporations have spun off into smaller, more adaptable, and more aggressive companies. Most of these new "lean and mean" companies have the same agenda -- produce a profitable bottom line or face extinction. As a result, many companies have begun actively negotiating overhead costs--including tax abatements.
For example, despite Alabama's heavy reliance on tax dollars to fund education, Governor Fob James lead the effort to lure Mercedes Benz to the state in 1993 by agreeing to a $300 million reduction in property taxes. In a state where one-fourth of all students live in poverty, a third are minorities, and achievement levels are among the lowest in the nation, reducing the money available to fund schools would seem an odd choice. But, the trend of offering tax incentives is not confined to Alabama. In Louisiana, estimates of unpaid corporate taxes exceed $2.5 billion over the past decade. In a single year, Ohio's use of "enterprise zone" programs allowed billions of dollars worth of property to be left off of the tax rolls. In every state in the union now, the practice has been established that in order to attract business and industry cuts to the tax base must be made. Leaving billions of dollars off the tax rolls obviously means less money available for public schools. Sadly, the conditions in our nation's schools reported by writers such as Kozol (1991) seem to be proliferating.
An aging population dependent on fixed incomes
As the percentage of monies from business and industry have been declining,
tax rates on residential property have correspondingly escalated, sometimes
causing a rash of "tax revolts" by homeowners weary of ever-rising
taxes. In many states, anti-tax lobbyists have succeeded in holding the line on
almost all new appropriations and schools have been forced to adapt to failed
bond and tax referendums by holding classes in abandoned shopping malls;
dropping extracurricular activities; foregoing renovation plans; using portable
buildings as permanent structures; and dropping art, music, or other costly,
"non-essential" classes. In some instances, empty educational coffers
have meant shutting down schools completely.
Even lottery money, once thought to be a boon for K-12 schools, has not materialized in the fifteen or so states who use them (with the possible exception of Georgia where money is specifically earmarked for K-12). Besides being unreliable and sporadic sources of funding, at least 60% of lottery funds go to prizes and administrative costs. In Texas, the remaining 40% is placed into a "general fund," where schools must compete with all of the other departments of state for it. In California, a large portion of lottery money goes to community colleges, and state universities. In Florida, lottery funds are not even tracked.
Another problem in funding K-12 public schools relates to America's changing demographics. As life expectancy continues to rise and birth rates slow, the number of people over the age of 65 will increase proportionally (U.S. Department of Commerce 1997). Because many of the elderly live on fixed incomes, they often receive exemptions for various kinds of taxes, especially for residential property, the proceeds from are used in many sections of the country to fund public schools. Obviously, as the number of persons over the age of 65 increases over time, the impact of the elderly's preferential tax treatment will become more pronounced.
The proliferation of litigation against schools
Even as many states have settled long and expensive legal battles over the distribution of funds for education, special interest groups from all fronts are simultaneously suing for different kinds of apportionments. In addition to suits over apportionment, schools must defend themselves against litigation of all kinds -- from parents who want their child to be able to wear a pony tail (Bastrop, Texas) to citizens who consider a state-administered, standardized test racially biased (San Leandro, California; and many other localities). The effect of lawsuits brought by teachers unions, other school districts, irate parents, and state judges has been to drain school budgets relentlessly, sometimes to the point of debilitation.
An example of how a difficult situation can get worse rapidly is that of Dade County, Florida. With over 70 languages in the district, providing students "with educational opportunities reflecting their language needs" -- required by the 1974 Supreme Court decision in LAU v. NICHOLS -- would seem an impossible feat. As homeowners and businesses have abandoned the crime, violence, and public schools of urban Dade County, the tax base has dwindled markedly (Fields & Whitefield 1997) Consequently, Dade County now has one of the highest poverty rates in America and more than one in every four people there live below the poverty line. Among the 77 largest metropolitan areas in the US, Miami ranks 77th in median family household income (U.S. Department of Commerce 1997).
Although Dade County schools may have a shrinking tax base and a burgeoning poor and immigrant population, they must still meet all state and national requirements for the education of students, including the maintenance of expensive special education and second-language programs. Theoretically, if the district fails to provide any student with "the least restrictive environment," then they can be held culpable in a lawsuit. Whether Dade County eventually wins or loses a particular case may not matter as much as the expenses incurred through having to defend against the multitude of lawsuits filed by its constituents.
The death of the neighborhood school
The current drive among state departments of education is to publish the success and failure rates of public schools, usually measured through achievement tests of one sort or another. In Texas, the classification system is in terms of exemplary, recognized, acceptable, and low-performing schools. In New Jersey, a classification system for young children has been developed through the administration of an early warning test which yields results of competence, minimal competence, and not proficient.
Certainly, in areas where parents are free to choose among any school in the
district, the practice of searching for a home "in the right school
zone" has lost its relevance. As the achievement scores of students in
schools are made public, it is only logical that parents would want to pull
their children from programs that have been documented as academically inferior.
Already several states have begun implementing takeovers of low-performing
schools, which are, without exception, located either in poor, high crime, urban
areas or in rural areas of extreme poverty.
What is worrisome about the prospect of schools losing their neighborhood identities is that the community around a school may come to regard schools -- not as anchors of the community -- but as intruders. Indeed, at the same time that research is finding that community values and a neighborhood's cohesiveness can contribute to lower levels of crime and a higher quality of life (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), legislators are abandoning the concept of the neighborhood school for an experiment in the workings of a free market economy.
The dismal public perception of schools
Eighty percent of Americans perceive violence to be a problem in American
public school. In a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 12%
of students confessed to smuggling in a weapon to school within the past 30 days
and 7.3% of students said that they had been threatened or injured with a weapon
on school grounds in the last year (Horowitz 1997). Teachers also report
increasing problems in the areas of robbery and theft, and vandalism of school
property as well (Crime, Violence, and Discipline Task Force 1996).
In 1996, for the first time, more teachers cited discipline problems over any other problem as the reason for leaving the profession (Langdon 1996). To combat their growing negative image, many schools have responded by purchasing metal detectors and staffing large police departments within their own jurisdictions. With 280 sworn-in personnel, the police force of the Los Angeles United School District is larger than the police forces of many American cities. Sadly, those officers are critically needed. In the Los Angeles public schools in 1994-1995, there were 1018 arrests for possession of weapons, 959 arrests for drugs, 785 arrests for battery or assault, and 477 arrests for rape and other sexual offenses (Los Angeles United School District Crime Statistics 1998). While it may seem militaristic to require students to walk through metal detectors and to submit to spontaneous searches from armed officers, the current crime rates in some schools leave open few other options. Certainly, the dramatic increase in juvenile crime since 1986 has contributed to the emerging reputation of schools as unsafe (Snyder 1997).
Educational reform and minimal competencies
Most movements in educational reform attempt to tie student achievement to teacher performance and eventually, teacher merit pay. According to Guba and Lincoln (1989), these strategies have characteristics of returning to a "first generation" form of evaluation. The usual procedure is for states to begin with district assessments, which inevitably lead to school ratings, and ultimately, teacher rankings. In some schools, inadequate levels of student achievement translate into deductions in salary for teachers. Already, teachers in Rochester, New York know that delivery of 40% of their paycheck is dependent upon the achievement scores of students in their classes.
In Kentucky, teacher success is tracked by student achievement on a series of
performance tasks that ask students to solve "real-life problems."
According to their mission statement, the Kentucky Instructional Results
Information System is a system of accountability that "makes schools
accountable for how well their students perform, just as schools hold students
accountable for their learning" (Kentucky Department of Education 1998). As
a result of this philosophy, financial rewards are meted out to schools who
exceed baseline projections, while "sanctions," in the form of faculty
pay deductions and possible layoffs are the consequences for failing to meet
Surprisingly, teacher unions have not overwhelmingly objected to the practice of "pay for play," and, in some cases, teacher accountability has been exchanged eagerly for the possibility of higher salaries. Yet, in most cases, standardized test scores are not needed to help identify schools whose students will perform below the norm. One possible fallout of strict adherence to a "pay for play" philosophy will be that poor schools which are already experiencing other seemingly intractable tribulations, will be further punished.
The common response to the criticism that the futures of both teachers and
students could ride upon the results of test scores has been that, "if the
test measures useful, authentic learning, then teaching to the test is a sound
practice." Accordingly, the performance assessors pledge that their tests
measure "knowledge of the traditional basics." While one can hardly
argue with the need to be literate, the fear is that an emphasis on
"basics" will eventually nudge out everything else -- art, music,
literature, physical education, and extracurricular activities. Yet, from all
that we know about the kinds of activities from which students learn the most
and the activities that they like the best, the "basics" are not what
make coming to school worthwhile (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen
As schools continue to shape the school day around achieving suitable test scores, the differences between the daily routines of public schools and private schools will become even more pronounced. Freed from the copious ever-changing mandates of the state, private schools will be able to offer something more than a stark, mad dedication to basic skills. With a growing contingent of gifted and talented students in their ranks, private schools will post higher scores on state and national tests than the average public school anyway.
A recently released study (Forgione 1997) of the differences in schooling
between public and private schools noted a dozen possible advantages to private
schools, including higher levels of achievement and happier, safer students and
On the other hand, many of today's public schools are still trying to wash the graffiti off of the hallways and to locate some floor space for the multitudes of warm bodies still filing through the metal detectors at the front door to worry much about the subtle aesthetics of learning. Events such as the Jonesboro, Arkansas massacre and the tales of sex and death in Michigan public schools, which receive deservedly lurid treatment in the media, do not help build the case for continued investment in the public schools. So, superintendents invest in portable buildings, legislators push for vouchers, tax abatements multiply, and funds for prisons significantly outpace those for education (Education Trust 1996).
Despite the calamities of the past thirty years, public schools are among the
most steadfastly democratic institutions in the world. They are the only places
left where all ethnicities, religions, competencies, and castes are joined
together in common purpose. Yet, undeniably, public schools are in danger of
being abandoned by the very taxpayers whom they are supposed to serve. Unless
actions are taken soon to address the challenges of the twenty-first century,
support for the public schools will inevitably wither, leaving behind only a
wasteland. At the dawn of the new millennium, one marvels that American public
education has come to mean so little.
Archer, J. (1996, October 9). Today, Private Schools Span Diverse Range,
Berliner, D. (1996, November). Uninvited Comments from an Uninvited Guest. Educational Researcher, 47-50.
Crime, Violence, and Discipline Task Force (1996), Recommendations of the Crime, Violence, and Discipline Reporting Task Force. Washington, D.C.: National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES 97-581). Available: http://www.ed.gov/NCES/pubs/97581.html.
C-Span telecast (1997, August 6).
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented
Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge
Education Trust (1996). Education Watch, State and National Data Book. Washington, DC: Education Trust.
Fields, G. & Whitefield, M. (1997, August 10, 11, 12). Where are the jobs? Miami Herald.
Forgione, P. (1997). Issues in Focus: Public and Private Schools: How Do They
Differ? In The Condition of Education 1997. Washington, D.C.: National Center
for Education Statistics.
Georgia Department of Education (1997). Georgia Public Education Report Card
State Summary: Allotment Sheet for Fiscal Year 1997.
Gerald, D. & Hussar, W. (1997). Projections of Education Statistics to
2007. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.
Golay, M. (1997). Where America Stand. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Guba, E. & Lincoln, Y. (1989). Fourth Generation Evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Hendrie, C. (1996, October 9). 109 Chicago Schools Put on Academic Probation,
Horowitz, C. (1997, August 19). Controlling School Violence, Investors Business Daily, 1.
Johnston, R. (1997, July 9). Booming U.S.Economy Translates into Mixed Dividends for Education, Education Week. Available: http://www.edweek.org/htbin/fastweb?getdoc+view4+ew1997+1217+2+wAAA+%26%28.
Kentucky Department of Education (1998).
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown.
Langdon, C. (1996, November). The Third Phi Delta Kappa Poll of Teachers' Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, Phi Delta Kappan, 245.
Los Angeles United School District Crime Statistics (1998). Available: http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/police/crimstat/.
Merrow, J. (1996, May 8). What's So Special About Special Education?,
Newsweek (1997, August 18). Clinton: Looking for a Legacy?
Power, S. (1996, August 20). As Schools Open classes to Internet, Some
Question Value, Fear Its Misuse. Dallas Morning News, A1, A6.
Sampson, R., Raudenbush, S., & Earls, F. (1997, August 15). Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy, Science, 918-924.
Snyder, H. (1997, February). Juvenile Arrests 1995, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 1-12.
Stutz, T. (1997, March 2). Poll: School vouchers supported. Dallas Morning News, 47A, 49A.
Taylor Chris (1998, September 4) The president's getting sorrier. Time Daily.
Texas Education Agency (1994). Texas Public Schools, 1993-1994 PEIMS Fall
Collection of 1993-1994 Budget Financial Data. Austin, Texas: Texas Education
U.S. Department of Commerce (1997). Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census.
White, K. & Johnston, R. (1997, March 12). Schools' Taxes Bartered Away,