Bill Murchison

Just after Easter, the Texas Legislature convenes in special session to address -- yes, again -- the state of public education hereabouts.

Our lawmakers have their eyes specifically on the overhaul of school finance: a really, really good idea, inasmuch as the old finance system has been partly invalidated by the state Supreme Court! But that's only our latest venture into educational improvement.

We've been "reforming" the public schools for two decades -- ever since Ross Perot, in early messianic mode, wrote and partly dictated a plan meant to make schools more accountable and, therefore, successful. More recently, our lawmakers have played with school finance (the Robin Hood plan for transferring big bucks from "wealthy" districts to "poor" ones) and established statewide uniform testing.

Now, as I say, it's back to finance, with -- possibly -- some reform thrown in. A fall date for school board elections is one notion that keeps surfacing, the idea being to encourage more voter participation. Hardly radical stuff, when the impression grows that some radicalism of the right sort would find a welcoming audience.

A researcher for the Texas Public Policy Foundation says that "Approximately half of all students in ... (Texas) universities and colleges need remedial classes. Meanwhile, 35 percent of entry-level job applicants do not meet eighth-grade skill levels on a competency test administered by Texas Instruments ..." Last year's National Assessment of Education Progress found just 31 percent of Texas eighth-graders proficient in mathematics, and just 26 proficient in reading.

Ross Perot, call your office ...

It's hard to be glib -- and it's no fun -- in terms of the sorry state to which public education has fallen in the whole United States, of which even a state so grand as Texas is only one part.

What strikes me as the underlying problem is that public education is so, well, public.

That is to say, it's government-owned and government-run. This government stuff used to work, generally speaking. That was back before the chief commitment of government was to the servicing of short-term voter wants and demands. Government wasn't yet an instrument for the leveraging of social change and economic redistribution. It was likelier to give voters what they needed (roads, postal service, meat inspection, sanitation, education) than to pass out goodies and social uplift to organized blocs.

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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