Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Sorry State Of Our Schools

Of all the professions in America, the one I consider the most important for an inquisitive, enlightened citizenry is the role our teachers play in private and public schools. Think about it. No other person, hopefully with the help and support of parents, has such an important impact on the development of a child than a teacher.

I consider myself among the fortunate to have learned at the feet of Harold Ambuel, my seventh grade math teacher. From Gordon Wilson, my senior high school English teacher. From Jonathon Chappell, my college political science professor.

I was doubly fortunate to have parents who would not tolerate excuses for D and C grades; my father because he threatened to put the horse whip to my behind; my mother because I did not want to disappoint her.

I, as millions of other Americans following current folklore, consider the ideal teacher none other than James Escalante, the calculus teacher at Garfield High School in the barrios of Los Angeles made famous by the film "Stand And Deliver."

The problem is: For every one James Escalante, there is 1,000 teachers who can't teach, can't inspire their students and if they survive enough years can't be fired. Not only are our resources drying up, they're directed and weighted to lift those unable to function in our society with a full deck or those who refuse to learn until it is too late when they wake up some morning in their 30s or 40s and suddenly realized what fools they were.

I am a firm believer of merit raises for the good, productive teachers we do have in our system. Make their salaries comparable to our civil engineers or some grade in today's job market that pays in the six figures.

I am told that teacher unions vehemently oppose a merit system -- even voucher programs --  and school superintendents and school boards do not have the will or clout to override such resistance.

The fact is, teachers are not paid well and it is a miracle so many remain in the profession which I would hope would be for love of the job. And, yes, I'm factoring in the shallow argument that most teachers only work nine months out of each year. Take a look at this chart. It rates by states a "salary-comfort" index which includes cost-of-living and other factors.

Illinois is No. 1 with an average $58,680 annual salary. Three states we'll look at closely are No. 39 Utah at $40,007, No. 42 California at $59,825  and No.44 Rhode Island at $54,730.

The recession has been extremely tough on school financing in which funding comes from property taxes, state aid, federal grants and private endowments.

How each state and school district face their budget cuts ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is almost reading a fairy tale disguised as a horror flick on public administration.

In Utah, a state legislator proposes eliminating the senior class in all high schools to save what he figures is $60 million in a budget that needs cutting by $700 million.

In Rhode Island, all teachers at Central Falls High School were fired Tuesday with the hope half will be rehired next school year through a new federal government grant program. Rhode Island is an extreme case. Unemployment is 13% and Central Falls is an underachiever. Consider this:

Seven percent of 11th graders were proficient in math; 33% proficient in writing; 55% proficient in reading and only 52% graduated within four years while 30% dropped out in the class of 2008.

The Draconian decision by the school board was refusal by teachers to work extra hours after school for no additional pay. It is common practice in most states to fire teachers and staff who lack seniority and then hire some if not all back once the budget is reconciled, usually by August. Central Falls is a rarity where all were canned.

In California, the San Diego Unified School District board began cutting budget programs Tuesday, a process that has axed $300 million since 2008 in a district with 9,000 teachers, 130,000 students and 202 schools. About $19 million was cut last night from employee wages and benefits -- amounting to 6% of their current salaries -- in which trustees are praying the unions will accept.

Besides hoping for the best, San Diego is taking a kinder, gentler approach which makes one wonder why these expenses lasted as long as they have. Among the $63 million cuts en route to make up a $87.8 deficit in the $1.2 billion operating budget:

Cutting weeklong seminars at historic sites for fourth and fifth graders to two and three days; cutting a half day from a four-day trip for sixth graders to a mountain campsite; ending free bus transportation to families who do not qualify for subsidized lunches; cancel free educational testing for ninth-grades; and kill a proposed increase to special-education services.

“I’m worried about the kind of education the children will get next year,”  Pamela Forde, who teaches second and third grades at Rosa Parks Elementary School, told a Union-Tribune reporter.  “But I’m worried about my own welfare, too. My husband and I both teach in the district, and we bought a house six months ago.”

I'm worried, too. What happened to the 3 Rs? Little wonder why there are so few James Escalantes in our classrooms.

No comments: