The War on Schools
By BOB HERBERT - NYT, march 6, 2003 - original
There's something surreal about the fact that the United States of America, the richest, most powerful nation in history, can't provide a basic public school education for all of its children.
Actually, that's wrong. Strike the word "can't." The correct word is more damning, more reflective of the motives of the people in power. The correct word is "won't."
Without giving the costs much thought, we'll spend hundreds of billions of dollars on an oil-powered misadventure in the Middle East. But we won't scrape together the money for sufficient textbooks and teachers, or even, in some cases, to keep the doors open at public schools in struggling districts from Boston on the East Coast to Portland on the West.
In Oregon, which is one of many states facing an extreme budget crisis, teachers have agreed to work two weeks without pay, thus averting plans to shorten the school year by nearly five weeks. A funding crisis in Texas, where the state share of school financing has reached a 50-year low and is expected to go lower, has local officials preparing for cuts in everything from extracurricular activities and elective subjects (like journalism) to teachers, counselors and nurses.
"Districts across the state have been in a cost-cutting mode for a number of years," said Karen Soehnge of the Texas Association of School Administrators. "When you continue that cutting over a lengthy period of time, you're cutting to the bone. We're concerned because in Texas we have increased standards for student learning. So we have increasing expectations and diminishing resources, two irreconcilable forces."
Similar stories can be heard in state after state. In New York, more than 1,000 students, teachers, administrators and activists traveled to Albany on Tuesday to march against proposed state budget cuts that are so severe they mock the very idea of the sound, basic education the state is obliged by law to provide.
Among the banners and signs waved by the students was a placard that showed an American flag and said: "Public Education — An American Dream. A Dream That No One Wants to Pay For."
The superintendent of the Buffalo school system, Marion Canedo, was among those who traveled to Albany. When she talks about the cuts she's had to make and the cuts currently being considered, her voice has the tone of someone who has just witnessed a chain-reaction auto wreck. "It's the worst thing I've ever seen, and I've been in the district 35 years," she said. "I mean we're looking at crazy things, like a four-day week, no kindergarten, no pre-kindergarten, no sports."
If Gov. George Pataki's proposed cuts are enacted, the Buffalo schools will be in a $65 million budget hole, with no viable solutions in sight.
"I've done everything I could think of," Ms. Canedo said. "I've closed schools. I've suspended service at schools. It's been horrible." There is no way to overstate the gulf between the need for funding and the reality of funding in urban school districts. And that gulf is widening, not narrowing.
Ms. Canedo gave one example of the many extraordinary needs. "I have students who come here as maybe sophomores speaking no English whatsoever," she said. "We have to make sure they pass the English Regents or they're not going to have a high school diploma. Our job, our core mission, is to educate, not to warehouse. So we need to give that student extra English all year long."
Education is the food that nourishes the nation's soul. When public officials refuse to provide adequate school resources for the young, it's the same as parents refusing to feed their children.
It's unconscionable. It's criminal.
The public school picture across the country is wildly uneven. There are many superb school districts. But there are so many places like Buffalo (including big and small cities and rural areas), where the schools are deliberately starved of the resources they need, and those districts are the shame of a great nation.
When it comes to education financing, the divisions among federal, state and local government entities are mostly artificial. It's everyone's obligation to educate the next generation of Americans.
It's an insane society that can contemplate devastating and then rebuilding Iraq, but can't bring itself to provide schooling for all of its young people here at home.