Monday, August 16, 2004

Education on the Cheap

The newspaper version of the column is available, at least for a while, here. The Rep. Rosati quotes are for real, and you can read the rest of the sorry story here. I especially liked the part about the Goldwater Institute complimenting her work in education. That's like the Emperor Nero complimenting efforts in fire protection, or (as previously noted) wolves saluting work helping sheep.

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 15, 2004

Another school year started this past week, which means I learned once again how much a “free” public education actually costs.

Our kids attend the Scottsdale Unified District, which I consider (like all parents everywhere) one of the state’s top districts, and which also, not coincidentally, has one of the state’s best tax bases. But despite those relative advantages, each year we still write a series of checks -- for activity fees, to each school’s PTO, to the neighborhood schools foundation, for state income tax credit contributions. And that’s before the gift wrap sales and band fundraisers.

Our local schools are relatively well-off, and many fellow parents contribute much time and money. But PTO and school newsletters make it obvious that public funds just aren’t enough to pay for the education we expect -- and so volunteers try to fill the gap.

Still, I’d feel better knowing that schools where parents simply can’t write those extra checks, or whose jobs don’t provide time off to volunteer, weren’t even needier of extra money and help. If our system doesn’t provide schools in good areas with necessary resources, what happens to schools in far rougher neighborhoods?

Look at the state income tax credit. The Isaac School District has over 90 percent of its students at or below poverty level; 62 percent don’t live in English-speaking homes. In 2002, Isaac received about $3.17 per student in tax credit donations, compared to $34.49 for Mesa Unified and $59.90 for Scottsdale Unified. Yes, people in Mesa and Scottsdale should give more, but why give schools in Isaac, with a much, much tougher job, and where the parents don’t have money to contribute, fewer resources?

Who would ever countenance such a system? Naturally, it’s the Arizona Legislature, where members like Rep. Colette Rosati would rather impugn the lack of children of her primary election opponent (whose wife just happened to have suffered three miscarriages, then cancer, and then a hysterectomy) than make sure that every child attends a school with adequate resources.

I’m sure Rep. Rosati, when not accusing political opponents without spouses or children of being members of the “dark side” who frequent “certain types of bars” (Rosati apparently confuses life with Douglas Sirk movie), really thinks that you can educate kids with ideological band-aids instead of cash. But slogans don’t educate kids. It takes hard work, and people, and money -- money our legislature doesn’t seem willing to spend.

Even their pet ideological nostrums cost a lot of money, a development that awaits our legislators when the new session begins in January. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that lots of voters supported Prop. 203, the “English-only” initiative, thinking that instructing students solely in English must be cheaper than bilingual education. (Yes, people sure flock into bilingual education jobs for the big bucks. Yeah, right.)

Well, it turns out (at least preliminarily; final numbers aren’t in yet) that the consultant hired by the legislature estimates that it will cost about $1,200 per student more to educate them in the English Language Learner immersion program. That’s an average figure; the costs are higher for students with greater needs, and less for those with greater English proficiency.

And that’s just the English proficiency part. The consultant didn’t examine the need to keep instructing students in content as well. If we don’t find a way to instruct students in their academic subjects while they spend two years learning English, then the ELL program will create fluent English speakers who are two years behind in any substantive content.

Teaching kids to speak English without giving them any substantive knowledge may prepare them to be callers to talk-radio programs, but it’s not much help in finding a job or succeeding in life.

So welcome the new school year, with the same old Legislature serving up the same lack of resources and the same ideological hokum. Want to buy some gift wrap?

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