In public education, everyone an owner

Few things arouse our passions and evoke our unbridled opinions like our public school systems. No surprise there. Everyone is an owner. Everyone, either directly or indirectly, pays into the system. And everyone benefits from education, either as a student or as a member of a society with an expanded knowledge base and literacy rate—at least, we hope.

Education is locally administered, but we kid ourselves if we think that’s where all the authority lies. It starts with federal requirements formulated through endless studies by consultants and data crunchers who have never spent a day as classroom teachers. There are advocacy groups representing a stunning array of interests lobbying Congress and the Administration, who, through the ages—aided by gaggles of judges—make their own imprints on what happens in classrooms.

At the state level another group of cooks messes with the stew, mandating additional requirements based on even more data and more studies and more advocacy by parents’ groups, employee associations and teacher groups, business groups, anti-tax crusaders and so on.

By the time it gets to the local level, any real debate takes place around the edges, and the best we can hope for out of administrators is a level of competence, because neither they nor the boards really have much authority.

Ask a teacher to show you the curriculum they’re mandated to follow on any classroom subject. A ream of paper per course outlines not only what must be covered, but what each student is expected to know by the end of the term—each student, regardless of household circumstances, learning ability, parental educational attainment or native language, or whether the student cares one iota about learning a darned thing.

We need to acknowledge it. Everyone who complains about the state of public education has had a hand in making it what it is. We got what we wanted—public officials who responded when we made some noise. Trouble is, we all want something.

In many ways, Clarke County, Va., is a microcosm of Any County, USA. Mandated programs and courses are putting the squeeze on electives and extra-curricular activities. Performing and fine arts are especially hard hit, as is happening here. This, at a time when business leaders are crying out for creative problem solvers—not just techies. Let’s face it; these days every kid is a techie. Hand a mobile device to an infant, and she’ll text a takeout order for mother’s milk.

Another trend is the emergence of groups rallying to pick up the slack for lost funding—particularly funding supporting programs that encourage excellence and student achievement. There is a longtime effort here in Clarke County that’s getting some in wind its sails.

Both topics—the squeeze and the rally—are explored in this edition of The Observer.