We don’t need no public education

I’m reminded—frequently and recently—that you can’t solve the problems of public schools by throwing money at them.

The logic goes like this: Schools don’t need money, they need competent teachers who care. Competent, caring teachers don’t bother with such mundane details as salaries, numbers of students in the classroom or lack of textbooks. Competent, caring teachers are a dime a dozen—so abundant that you can ax all the crappy teachers in Nevada and hundreds of competent, caring educators will line up for those jobs.

The fallacy should be self-evident. Here’s a harder line of reasoning: Public schools don’t need money because public education is outmoded—a dinosaur in need of a fiery comet.

The answer, some say, lies in private schools and voucher systems. Groups like the Nevada Policy Research Institute spend plenty of time and energy convincing Nevadans that public education is a waste of funds.

The NPRI recently spent $12,000 to prove that public K-12 teachers are doing a lousy job in preparing students for college. Their study found that, every year, 10,000 beginning Nevada college students take remedial classes. Concluded Steven Miller, NPRI’s director of policy research: Nevada’s public schools and their one-size-fits-all approach are failing.

All would be well if we’d just turn education over to private endeavors, like religious schools or for-profit businesses.

Set religious education aside for now. Look at privatization of K-12 education in the United States. One example is Edison Schools Inc, which bragged they could educate students better and for less money than public schools. Edison nearly went bust in 2002. An unlikely investor bailed out Edison: the Florida Retirement System. This pension plan for public employees bought Edison for $182 million. (Read more in “How Edison Survived” in the March 15 edition of The Nation.)

Imagine. If the nation converted to “free-market” schools, humongoid media conglomerates could really help out. Time Warner’s already selling CNN Newsroom and Turner Adventure Learning. Viacom could enter the market with MTV/Comedy Central Middle schools, featuring Sex Ed with Janet Jackson and South Park Language Arts. Disney could pitch in with Mickey Mouse Math and Pirates of the Caribbean History. What’s not to like?

Let’s get back to the money-throwing thing.

A couple of voter initiatives are being proposed in Nevada—both with the interests of public schools at heart. Rep. Jim Gibbons’ Education First initiative calls for Nevada legislators to fund public schools before they fiddle around with other budget stuff—like the funding of baseball stadiums. Last month, the Nevada State Education Association kicked off a petition drive for an initiative that would fund the state’s public K-12 schools at the national average.

(Of course, who really knows what ties the state teachers’ union might have with the National Education Association—called a “terrorist organization” by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige.)

Nevada spends less on education, per-pupil, than just about any other state in the nation—ranking 48th, according to Education Week. Washoe County—faced with the demands of growth—cut its budget by more than $8 million in 2002 and then cut another $6 million after the 2003 Legislature.

You can throw money at some problems. You can lob a few hundred bucks at Midas and they’ll fix your brakes. You can fling a few grand at the orthodontist, and he’ll straighten your son’s teeth. But hurling funds at public schools? Hard to say whether if it’d work—since it’s really never been tried in Nevada.