Dunces of Public Education Reform


No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately. -- Montaigne

Defaming public education has become a national sport for a handful of cranks whose agendas range from closing public schools to tapping the money for personal gain.

The critics can't be confronted unless their motives are known. They generally fall into three categories:

First, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wants taxpayers to fund parochial schools. Period. According to Dr. Henry Levin's pioneering study at Stanford, that would suck $33 billion out of public school funds the first year.

Second is the religious right, a polyglot group of religious fanatics who swear public schools are teaching a religion called secular humanism. They want to fund home schooling and "Christian" schools with public school dollars -- although public education already is the ninth most poorly funded among the industrial nations of the world.

Third are the rabid antiunionists -- Republican conservatives (Bush, Gingrich, [Daily Oklahoman columnist Pat] McGuigan, [Oklahoma Gov. Frank] Keating, Limbaugh, ad nauseam) who deplore the right of teachers, administrators and support personnel to bargain collectively for their rights and responsibilities.

Public education is far from perfect, but the virulent propaganda being used to defame it by this venomous crew is beneath contempt.

Here are some the allegations, followed by the truth:

TV Preacher James Kennedy: Test scores have gone down every year since prayer was abolished in public schools.

The truth is, student test scores are up, the number of test takers is more diverse, and students are taking more difficult courses. The results of three major tests of educational achievement -- SAT, ACT, and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) -- have shown steady gains over the past two decades.

The math and science portions of the SAT are at a 25-year high; the ACT is up across the board over 10 consecutive years.

In addition, fourth graders made impressive scores in math and science, outperforming their counterparts in most other countries, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Prayer was never "abolished" in the public schools. The US Supreme Court held that the school administration could neither lead nor require prayer.

Televangelist Pat Robertson on the 700 Club: "Is it any wonder that parents are abandoning public schools for Christian and home schooling?"

The truth is, public school enrollment in grades K-12 reached 46,353,000 students in the 1997-98 school year, an all-time high. (Source: US Dept. of Education, Projection of Education Statistics to 2008)

Ex-Reagan Education Secretary Lamar Alexander: The USA spends more money but get less bang for the buck than any other country in the world.

The truth is, the average expenditure per pupil enrolled in public school grades K-12 is $5,889. That ranks America ninth in the world among industrialized nations. (Source: UN Development Survey, Public spending on primary and secondary education as a percent of GNP, mid-1999s.)

Talk Radio's "Doctor" Laura: Our dumbed down public school teachers produce dumbed down kids.

The truth is, today's public school teachers are better educated and have more classroom experience than their predecessors. Virtually all hold a bachelor's degree and almost half (45%) have a master's degree. Half have been educators for at least 15 years, and more than one-third (38%) have taught for two decades. They are better educated than private and parochial school-teachers in America. (Source: The National Center for Education Statistics, 1999; NEA, Status of the American Public School Teacher, 1995-96)

Rush Limbaugh: The greedy teachers unions are running the schools.

Teachers are dedicated professionals who spend an average of more than $400 a year of their own money to meet classroom needs of their students. They work an average of 49.3 hours a week, some 13 hours more than the average school contract requires. They are paid the lowest wages in the industrial world. (Source: Status of the American Public School Teacher, 1995-96)

Total number of public school teachers for grades K-12 is 2,682,000. Two million new teachers will be needed over the next 10 years to replace an aging teacher force and a growing student population. (Source: Projections of Education Statistics to 2007)

Arkansas billionaire John Walton: Americans are ready to end the public school monopoly in favor of vouchers.

The truth is, the American public supports public education. According to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, most Americans believe their local schools are doing a good job of preparing children for jobs of the future.

There are 87,125 public schools operating in this country and while the quality varies, all but a handful are enormously successful. (Source: US Dept. of Education, Digest of Education Statistics 1997)

The Conference of Catholic Bishops: Catholic schools can do a better job on less money, a $3,200 Catholic school average vs. public school average of $5,800.

The truth is, if private or parochial schools had to meet public school mandates. the price differential would evaporate instantly. No private school is mandated to provide special education, counseling and dropout prevention, vo-tech education, alternative education, bilingual education, compensatory education, student transportation, health and psychological services, food services or decent salaries and fringe benefits. Public schools are not permitted to pick and choose the students they will educate. (Source: Economic Policy Institute, Where's The Money Gone, a major national survey)

William Bennett: The public schools have failed our youth.

The truth is, the dropout rate is at an all-time low (11%), the college attendance (67%) and graduation rates are at an all-time high. America's graduate schools are the envy of the world. (Source: USDE Digest of Statistics)

Jerry Falwell: Public schools are a violent place of darkness. That's what happens when you lock God out.

The truth is, despite the media hype surrounding a handful of tragic shootings, the incidents of public school violence have decreased for nine consecutive years. In fact, two of the shooters, (Jonesboro, Ark., and Fort Gibson, Okla.) were avid churchgoers. The most common school crime is theft, not violence. The average child is safer at school than at home.

For example, fewer than 1% of the 2,500 child homicides and suicides during the last six months of 1997 were at school or on the way to and from school. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington D.C. 1999, and the USDE 1999 Annual Report on School Safety.)

George W. Bush: I support vouchers because too many of our minority students are being cheated of a quality education.

The truth is, in Wisconsin where vouchers were supposed to rescue Milwaukee's poor ghetto public school children, 40% of the kids being financed have never been in a public school. Sen. Polly Williams, Afro-American author of the voucher program, now bitterly denounces it as a sham to finance elite private and Catholic schools by taxpayers.

Black children are doing better than ever in public schools. The white public school completion rate is 92%, the black rate is at an historic high -- 87%. The Hispanic rate is 75%. (Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 1998, Table 105)

Newt Gingrich: Of course the public education monopoly is a failure. It's what you expect when a system departs from the basics.

The truth is, the curriculum is far tougher today than in 1980, with 50% of students taking a core curriculum at the ACT college entrance level. It consists of four years of English, three years each of social studies. science and math.

For whites it's 53%, blacks 46% Hispanics 41% Asians 56% and Native American 46%. More than 58% of all students are taking advanced math, science, chemistry and physics courses. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics study, revised, 1998)

The list of cranks goes on -- Chester Finn, Phyllis Schlafly, G. Gordon Liddy, J.C. Watts, Walter Williams, Linda Chavez, Alan Keyes, Thomas Sowell, Pat Buchanan, ad nauseam.

Some of the critics, such as Chester Finn and Lamar Alexander, are economic privateers lusting for some of the $312 billion spent on public education each year.

Always remember cranks are persons whose sentiment is not satisfied until they discover something that is not there -- such as the "failure" of American public education.

Jock Zakkai exemplifies what public education is all about when he wrote:

"If the heavens were all parchment, and the trees of the forest all pens, and every human being were a scribe, it would still be impossible to record all that I have learned from my teachers."

Frosty Troy is editor of the Oklahoma Observer, in which this originally appeared. For a sample write 500 NE 39 Terrace, Oklahoma City, OK 73152.

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