Bill Murchison

Texas can't seem to solve its school finance problems. But, then, what state seems able to?

 Lately ridiculed for muffing another special legislative session centered on the schools, Texas leaders and lawmakers aren't quite the klutzes they seem. Close to it, perhaps, but not quite; the reason being that Americans, including Texans naturally, lost sight long ago of what they want their public schools to do.

 If you asked the average American what the public schools should do, he'd say something like, prepare the kids for life. That's where the fun starts. What does "prepare the kids for life" mean? What does "prepare" mean? What, for that matter, does "life" mean? Politics has produced radical disagreement over what students need. Small wonder we can't agree -- as in the Texas Legislature -- on how to pay for it. We don't understand what we're buying.

 Basic skills, like writing and multiplication? That would be part of it -- a far smaller part than was the case 50 years ago. A larger and larger part of "basic skills," it seems, is athletic proficiency -- winning, in other words. Most school districts could finance huge investments in the classroom just by abolishing -- or even sharply toning down -- sports competition; but that won't happen, because sports are what the communities, or anyway the parents, love.

 Another thing that many want is job security. The federal government 40 years ago began injecting gas -- i.e., federal cash -- into a balloon that has yet to deflate. The hiring of many more teachers, but also of "curriculum supervisors," "counselors," "teachers aides," assistant superintendents and assistants to assistant superintendents, brought enormous payrolls and benefits costs without commensurate upticks in student performance. We have noticed, in Texas, that the bill meant originally to iron out school finance problems has become, more than anything else, a vehicle for raising teachers' admittedly subpar pay -- without specifying the effect of the raise on academic advancement.

 The schools likewise guarantee -- in theory -- the upward mobility of lower-income students and, in a racial context, the integration of non-whites into the larger society. Except that the public schools have become overwhelmingly non-white; thus not much integration goes on. Nor -- such is the commitment to bilingual education and the jobs it creates -- do the schools provide tools to understand the people who run the country.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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