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Getting our Money’s Worth in Public Education Are we buying our 'McStudent' lie?

Robert Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle Guest Editorial, January 18, 2005

The Other Side - State Senator Tom McClintock

When are we going to stop lying to ourselves about public education? When are we going to stop pretending we can get world-class results on second- world spending? When are we going to stop fooling ourselves that our neglect will never come home to roost?

I spent 20 years in the computer industry before becoming a public-school teacher five years ago. I had risen to become vice president at one of the world's largest software companies. I know business. And I know something about education as well. Education is harder.

Education is harder because cultivating human intelligence is one of the most difficult things in the world. It is far more complex and takes far longer than producing cheaper widgets or staging new ad campaigns. It takes millions of nuanced, exquisitely tailored stimuli, all reinforced at the right time, in the right context, and all delivered in a supportive emotional environment. Even then, it's not always predictable. But it is a certainty to fail without commitment.

And imbuing a child with what we call character is equally daunting. Perseverance, honesty, humility, courage, responsibility, compassion -- these are just as important as the intellectual gifts we treasure, but they don't come from assembly lines either. Like intelligence, they take years of deeply personal, meticulous cultivation. If they were so easy to manufacture, they would not be so highly prized.

These are the things we rightly want and need from our educational system. But the lie we tell ourselves is that we can get them on the cheap. California ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending, 49th in class size. How many believe the company you work for can be the best in its industry if it only pays for the cheapest workers, if it only uses the cheapest materials in its products? None of us are so stupid as to believe this, yet we pretend we can get away with it in education.

The truth is that we've been living off of our capital, eating our seed corn for at least a generation. It was Gov. Pat Brown in the 1960s who built one of the greatest educational systems in the world. But since at least the late 1970s and Proposition 13, we've been disinvesting, drawing on the pool of older workers, importing talent from out of state and from abroad. How long do we think we can play this game and still keep a world-class economy?

Another lie we tell ourselves is that there will be no consequences for our miserly spending -- a seductive lie, because while the costs of education must be borne today, the payoffs don't come for years, perhaps decades. This is what the biblical story about building a house on sand is all about. Our "no-payments-until-March" mentality has lulled us into believing that we can scrimp today but still harvest tomorrow.

Remember Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper? The grasshopper played all summer, laughing at the toiling ant. But come winter, it was he who shivered. It was the grasshopper who had to go begging to the ant for food. Do we imagine there's going to be a charitable ant to bail out our state's imprudent grasshopper? There won't be. By the time we realize the damage we've wrought, it will be too late.

Finally, we lie to ourselves that "privatization" will offer some kind of quick fix that will solve all of our problems. Privatization means corporate control of our schools. Corporations are wonderful things, but they only work for a profit. To make a profit from education you need to do two things: increase efficiency and reduce costs.

Increasing efficiency means removing variability while boosting output. This is a great formula for mass-producing hamburgers or semiconductors. It is a disaster for producing intelligence and character in children. Remember, intelligence and character come from carefully managed complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty, all delivered in a safe, patient, nurturing environment. This is the opposite of efficiency.

Thus, decreasing costs means cutting the salaries of already underpaid teachers, for they represent the vast bulk of the costs in education. But good teachers are expensive, as well they should be. They possess a magical combination of empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, patience and persistence -- the very traits we're trying to develop in our children. And the best teachers have the best options for work in other fields. They will be the first to go when told to become robotic readers of regimented curriculum.

How many parents are willing to turn their children over to companies whose principal goal is to make a profit off them? How many want them taught by the cheapest teachers, crammed into the largest classrooms, reciting only the most rote repetition? Yet, if it is to make a profit, that is the only plausible vision that mass privatized education has to offer us: McStudents.

The supreme irony is that the truths we should be confronting here are the very ones we so gravely lecture our children about: You can't get "something for nothing"; actions have consequences; there's no easy fix to hard problems.

We need to stop lying to ourselves that we're doing what is needed to produce high-quality education. We can continue to mass produce cookie-cutter students on the cheap and we will reap a generational whirlwind of well- regimented, intellectually impotent dullards. Or, we can tell the truth. We can pay the honest freight to cultivate true intelligence and character in our children. To be sure, it is much harder and somewhat more expensive, at least in the short run. But it is the only way to sustain the blessings of prosperity that have graced our state.

Robert Freeman, former vice president of international marketing at Sybase, teaches economics and history at Los Altos High School.

To understand education budget, start with math

By Tom McClintock, LA Daily News Guest Editorial, May 16, 2005

The multimillion-dollar campaign paid by starving teachers unions has finally placed our sadly neglected schools at the center of the budget debate. Across California, children are bringing home notes warning of dire consequences if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's scorched-earth budget is approved -- a budget that slashes Proposition 98 public-school spending from $42.2 billion this year all the way down to $44.7 billion next year.

That should be proof enough that our math programs are suffering.

As a public-school parent, I have given this crisis a great deal of thought and have a modest suggestion to help weather these dark days.

Maybe -- as a temporary measure only -- we should spend our school dollars on our schools. I realize that this is a radical departure from current practice, but desperate times require desperate measures.

The governor proposed spending $10,084 per student from all sources. Devoting all of this money to the classroom would require turning tens of thousands of school bureaucrats, consultants, advisers and specialists onto the streets with no means of support or marketable job skills, something that no enlightened social democracy should allow.

So I will begin by excluding from this discussion the entire budget of the State Department of Education, as well as the pension system, debt service, special education, child care, nutrition programs and adult education. I also propose setting aside $3 billion to pay an additional 30,000 school bureaucrats $100,000 per year with the proviso that they stay away from the classroom and pay their own hotel bills at conferences.

This leaves a mere $6,937 per student, which, for the duration of the funding crisis, I propose devoting to the classroom.

To illustrate how we might scrape by at this subsistence level, let's use a hypothetical school of 180 students with only $1.2 million to get through the year.

We have all seen the pictures of filthy bathrooms, leaky roofs, peeling paint and crumbling plaster to which our children have been condemned. I propose that we rescue them from this squalor by leasing out luxury commercial office space. Our school will need 4,800 square feet for five classrooms (the sixth class is gym). At $33 per foot, an annual lease will cost $158,400.

This will provide executive washrooms, around-the-clock janitorial service, wall-to-wall carpeting, utilities and music in the elevators. We'll also need new desks to preserve the professional ambience.

Next, we'll need to hire five teachers, but not just any teachers. I propose hiring only associate professors from the California State University at their level of pay. Since university professors generally assign more reading, we'll need 12 of the latest edition, hardcover books for each student at an average $75 per book, plus an extra $5 to have the student's name engraved in gold leaf on the cover.

Since our conventional gym classes haven't stemmed the childhood obesity epidemic, I propose replacing them with an annual membership at a private health club for $39.95 per month. Finally, we'll hire an $80,000 administrator with a $40,000 secretary because, well, I don't know exactly why, but we always have.

    Our bare-bones budget comes to this:

    5 classrooms -- $158,400

    150 desks @ $130 -- $19,500

    180 annual health club memberships @ $480 -- $86,400

    2,160 textbooks @ $80 -- $172,800

    5 CSU associate professors @ $67,093 -- $335,465

    1 administrator -- $80,000

    1 secretary -- $40,000

    24 percent faculty and staff benefits -- $109,312

    Offices, expenses and insurance -- $30,000

    TOTAL -- $1,031,877

The school I have just described is the school we're paying for. Maybe it's time to ask why it's not the school we're getting.

Other, wiser, governors have made the prudent decision not to ask such embarrassing questions of the education-industrial complex because it makes them very angry. Apparently the unions believe that with enough of a beating, Gov. Schwarzenegger will see things the same way.

Perhaps. But there's an old saying that you can't fill a broken bucket by pouring more water into it. Maybe it's time to fix the bucket.

Tom McClintock represents the 19th District in the California state Senate. Write to him by e-mail at tom.mcclintock@sen.ca.gov.


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Last modified: January 20, 2005

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