GLEN COVE, NY — In many communities in the United
States, half of the real estate taxes collected is expressly dedicated
to public education. In addition, the federal government spends a large
part of its budget on local education programs unrelated to its role
under the Constitution. For most of our history, the most liberal parts
of our country have tried to impose high spending for public education
on the more conservative ones. Indeed, one of the Southern objections
to Northern-controlled Reconstruction governments was the imposition
of extraordinarily high taxes to support public education.
Given the high cost of public education, it is clear that we are
not getting our money’s worth. Most Americans believe that most
private and religious high schools are superior to most public high
schools. Many public schools are celebrated when they simply improve
from truly awful to just plain bad. Parents are increasingly choosing
to educate their children at home, and the very best universities in
the country are admitting a disproportionate number of home-schooled
Private and religious schools escape some but not all of the corrupting
and statist features of today’s public schools. Marshall Fritz,
founder of the Alliance
for the Separation of School and State,
dedicated much of his life fighting to get the government out of education.
Yet the academic superiority of most private schools to most public
schools does not mean that even the parents of children in private
schools are truly getting what they want.
Part of the high cost of education is its huge bureaucracy. The typical
public high school has nurses, nutritionists, coaches, vice principals,
and lots of guidance counselors on its staff. In my district, the school
board chose a fourth guidance counselor over a science teacher dedicated
to student science projects because the science teacher would only
benefit the intelligent students.
The fundamental problem, however, is that most people accept the
manifestly false proposition that higher expenditures result in better
schools. One hundred years ago, typical American high school graduates
had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, history, geography, geometry,
algebra, physics, and chemistry. They understood the rules of grammar
and could write eloquently. They were familiar with literary classics.
Fifty years ago, this was still the case in most European countries.
And while not everyone went to high school, those who did emerged with
a thorough education. Many students entered high school after attending
a single-teacher grammar school, where one teacher taught from five
to eight grades at the same time. These students were far better prepared
than today’s high school freshmen.
Today’s high school graduates have hardly any common body of
knowledge. Some are illiterate in all foreign and ancient languages.
Many know no geography. Their knowledge of history is limited to scattered
anecdotes. Many have never read a single work of Elizabethan literature.
Some high school graduates are essentially illiterate. Nor can it be
seriously argued that education in more contemporary knowledge has
replaced classical education. Classical education has simply been abandoned.
The few public school graduates who emerge well educated are either
the products of an isolated good teacher or are largely self taught.
The prestige of grammar and high school teachers themselves has declined
with the decline of education. This decline is in no small part linked
to the inferior education offered by schools of education compared
to that provided in normal schools in the last century.
We cannot correct this grim situation by simply improving the present
one. And simply spending more money is a clearly misdirected panacea.
What is required is the recognition of a counterintuitive truth: the
more we spend on education, the worse it gets. This is true at the
teaching level, the administrative level, and the facilities level.
At the teaching level, quality is at least as important as quantity,
and merely hiring more teachers will not guarantee that they are good
teachers. Smaller faculties in grammar schools or high schools can
be more selective than larger ones. If a school is hiring two teachers
of freshman English, it will try to hire the best two available. If
the school is hiring three, it will hire one who would not have made
the cut if only two were being hired. Increasing faculty size produces
a decline in average quality.
At the administrative level, a larger school administration creates
bureaucratic impediments to the ability of good teachers to do their
jobs. In addition to hindering effective teachers, the bureaucracy
fears union power, tends to protect incompetent teachers, and turns
the promotion process from teacher to administrator into an entitlement.
We have come a long way from the days when the local school board hired
and fired teachers strictly on merit.
Finally, the more we spend on facilities for extracurricular activities,
the more we distract the students from the real reason they are in
school — to learn. What we need is a simple classical curriculum,
smaller but erudite faculties, and fewer distractions from the real
mission of schools. The more money we spend, the more we defeat these
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2010
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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