So what's all this about anyway?

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Aug 16, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 Given all those diverse objectives, and all the corresponding clamor for legislative favor, you might suppose the time had come for an educational strategy based on autonomy: Everybody getting roughly what he wants -- athletes, better coaches and playing fields; academic seekers, tougher English classes; the academically distressed, more attention and less bureaucracy.

 An oft-bruited remedy is vouchers that recipient students could take to the schools of their choice, plunk down and use for the satisfaction of specific aims. The irony is that opponents of vouchers construe school choice as an attack on an education system that isn't, it turns out, educating very well. Why not attack such a system? Ah, because public education in the 21st century is the playground of political interest groups that see education more as a way of life than as anything else: a source of jobs and union dues; a source of votes from those who get the jobs; a source of public entertainment -- bread and football games.

 The will doesn't exist, insofar as anyone can tell, to make the schools uniformly encourage intellectual achievement. Which means, really, the schools aren't schools at all.

 And that's where Texas legislators, poor folks, came in this year; uncertain how to reform school finance due to uncertainty over what schools, as they are today, should be made to do.

 The repeated spectacle of failure in Austin has produced some belly laughs, nationally. Some assurance surely would be nice that, 50 years hence, Texas public school students will know a horse from, say, a union card.