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November 25, 2010

Education Redux

Norman M. Covert

Education isn’t what it used to be – and it never was, modifying the words of homespun philosopher/humorist Will Rogers. There is an outside chance of improvement. We are throwing enough money at it, considering Frederick County Public Schools’ more than $500 million operating budget.


It may be time to return to the neighborhood school concept, at least for elementary grades. Our county schools could easily realize a significant savings in the transportation budget – everyone would be a walker.


Parents at one elementary school here see nothing out of the ordinary spending more than 20 minutes in the lineup of cars waiting for school to be dismissed. They seem resigned to the responsibility and expense of transporting their children each day.


Not far from the parent lineup are school buses, representing a huge expense picking up and delivering students throughout the large district. Some children spend as much as three hours on the school bus each day.


The 2011 Frederick County Public Schools’ budget shows a mandated purchase of 16 buses (including three special needs equipped) at a cost of $1.37 million; Oakdale High School bus expenses of $442,000; Linganore High and Carroll Manor transportation costs totaling almost $100,000; and liability insurance of $50,000.


That’s the cost of doing business, the world of school overhead. It existed on a much smaller scale in metropolitan areas until 1954. The Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka, KS, Supreme Court decision banned segregation in public schools. It was a bombshell that was long in coming, but whose implementation over the next 20 years opened the door to the wacko liberals, who would hamstring educators and do away with the neighborhood school.


In Frederick, implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision was completed by 1966. The court allowed extra compliance time for many Southern states, which had “separate, but equal education” facilities and programs. They were required to come up with a plan that would merge these schools, some only a few blocks apart.


The neighborhood school concept, primarily among elementary grades, requires construction dollars, but smaller facilities with the advantage that children could walk to school. However, in separate decisions, the most recent in 1971, activist courts ordered the busing of inner city students to suburban schools and vice versa. That was overturned in 2001.


Although well intentioned, the decision determined the extended financial burden of buying and maintaining a huge fleet of buses for school systems nationwide. That was good for the Blue Bird Bus Corp., leading U.S. manufacturer of all types of buses – not so good for taxpayers.


Another growth industry has been in teacher salaries. They no longer rank at the poverty level as they did in the first half of the 20th century. Teachers are generally well compensated with full benefits, including a generous retirement, the latter a financial never-never land and coming budget buster.


The National Education Association (NEA) and its surrogate the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA) have been in the forefront of the annual cash demand for education. Its mantra has been primarily that higher salaries and benefits ensure quality education. That supposition is highly debatable, with apologies to the many successful teachers to whom salaries are only a necessary evil.


The NEA is the nation’s largest organized union, bar none. Its income for 2007 exceeded $350 million. A spokesman at its 2010 annual convention admitted the NEA goal is not education, but taking care of itself first, members second. Money is the key to its existence.


The NEA has been in cahoots with education elitists, who continue to tell us what is good for our children, in addition to taking control of the textbook publishing concession. This year the Texas School Board approved controversial changes to history, economic and social studies textbooks. The board eventually revised its approval when critics pointed out virtual rewrites of American history, which ignored seminal events and personages.


Former Education Secretary William Bennett’s effort to rein in the impact of his department during the George H. W. Bush Administration (1989-1993) was summarily reversed by President William J. (Bill) Clinton. The well-intended No Child Left Behind program, signed by President George W. Bush, is a two-edged sword, probably hindering more than helping education.


I am always curious at the seeming large size of middle and high school staffs. I looked at my now-closed high school in Virginia and for school year 1960-61 counted 1,250 students in grades eight through 12.


The ratio of teachers to students was 1:23 in grade 12 and 1:33 for eighth and ninth grades. The principal and assistant principal were not required to teach. One teacher doubled as dean of girls, another earned extra pay as head of the guidance department, augmented by other dual role teachers.


The school office had one secretary (and student aides); a school nurse; an athletic director and five coaches whose primary task was in the academic classroom – championship competition was also important to management.


Driver education was part of the health curriculum and required learning manual gear shifts and hand signals. Classroom sex education was a clinical approach without graphic displays and language. We used chalk boards and home-crafted show-and-tell aids. Good mathematics students mastered the art of the slide rule.


The above describes a school administration before the NEA took hold, including implementation of one-size-fits-all education. It is unrealistic to compare the old and new systems because of the distance of time and technology. The caliber of students in my school, though, was consistently high.


The cost of doing business in the world of public secondary education will continue to grow, with personnel costs and facility upkeep at the top of the trough. The challenge is to find local efficiencies which are out of reach of federal and state regulators and the unions.


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