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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
26 July 2004

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 5, No. 31

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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The Problem with Our Schools Is Us

by Jerome F. Winzig

The early-morning report on WCCO television featured a guest from Chicago who shared tips on getting kids ready for school this fall. Instead of a digital camera, he said, buy your child a less-expensive ($40-$50) Polaroid camera. Provide your kid with a $125 to $500 digital radio--the kind that can download music at 99 cents per song, so he or she can listen to music between classes. Cell phones are a must; every kid has to have one these days. But get the kind that also works as a walkie-talkie with kids carrying a similar device.

I thought I was on another planet. At a time when there is deep concern about dropout rates and how well our schools prepare children for their adult roles in society, we were being told to prepare our children for the coming school year by giving them electronic gadgets.

It was a reminder that what ails our schools can't be fixed with money alone. Everyone I know who is involved with schools or works with young people is troubled by something far more fundamental and more difficult: disruptive unprepared children and unsupportive parents.

Minneapolis reports that only one in four students entering kindergarten know how to hold a book or realize you read from left to right. Many incoming kindergarteners do not know their first and last name.

Listen to the high school teacher who tries to cope with a perpetually tardy student. One day the student comes to class ten minutes before the end of the period and immediately demands to use the bathroom. When permission is denied, she has a temper tantrum in front of the class, grabs the classroom telephone without permission, calls her mother, and stomps out, leaving her books and materials behind. At the end of class, the teacher neatly piles her books by the door and continues with the next class. In mid-period, the student's mother shows up at the classroom with her child in tow. She refuses to wait until the end of the period, but instead loudly berates the teacher for mistreating her child and her belongings, this time in front of another class.

Listen to the workers at a city park who have to call the police to break up a fight between two groups of teenagers. The police send the kids home. After the police depart, the two groups of teenagers return to the park, carrying baseball bats and accompanied by their mothers, who urge them to resume the fight, screaming, "Kill them! Kill them!"

Listen to the suburban high school counselor who dares to confront disruptive behavior in the hallways and succeeds, but finds that the school's administration is not at all supportive. Listen to the city grade school teacher who never knows whether she'll find a sympathetic ear or a torrent of obscene and abusive language when she contacts a parent (or grandparent) about a student's behavior in the classroom,. Listen to the suburban high school principal who says that the first thing he often hears from the mouths of parents who are called to school because of their child's behavior is, "My kid didn't do anything."

Perhaps we should ask this question. Are some parents taking their kids out of public schools not because they are dissatisfied with their kids' teachers but because they are tired of the behavior of other students, who disrupt the classroom and make it extremely difficult for even an accomplished teacher to succeed? It's not a question that gets asked very often.

Instead, the difficulty in our schools is often blamed on lack of money. But the facts indicate money alone is not the problem. In the state of New York, per-pupil public school spending tripled from 1982-83 to 2001-02, and school aid rose even faster for New York City, which hired 75,000 new teachers and other professional staff.

Education spending has been climbing steeply for 60 years. In 1945-46, U.S. public primary and secondary schools spent $1,214 per pupil in inflation-adjusted 2001 dollars. Ten years later that figure had doubled to $2,345. It doubled again to $4,479 by 1971-72 and doubled again to $8,745 by 2001-02. Here in Minneapolis, per-pupil spending for 2004-05 will be $10,226.

Now, every teacher I know can point to the lack of money for essential supplies and textbooks. This spring our church teamed up with several other churches to purchase and deliver thousands of dollars of supplies to half a dozen local public primary schools, supplies that were warmly welcomed by grateful, hard-working teachers.

So what's going on? Perhaps we also need to examine how we spend our educational dollars. Years ago, Peter Drucker, the legendary management expert who stresses the need for organizations to focus on a clear mission, asked whether schools were losing their focus. Is it our schools' mission to serve meals and provide health clinics? Does it even solve the problem?

Should there be any limits on mainstreaming special-needs students? Minneapolis spends $44,119 per pupil on its 148 most severely handicapped students, but is reimbursed at $15,662 per pupil. Transportation for special education students averages $3,000 per student per year, compared to $450 for other students. The deficit generated by special education in Minneapolis is almost $25 million and is made up by taking money from the general operating budget.

To fix our schools, we need to ask some hard questions, and most of them are aimed at us. As parents, are we condoning inexcusable behavior? As neighbors, are we fostering a climate that encourages and values education? As citizens, are we too accepting of MTV, or silly back-to-school suggestions? As voters, are we making sure school districts spend tax dollars wisely? They are questions that deserve answers.

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