The citizenry now pays $144 billion a year in federal and local taxes to support public education in our country, more than goes for national defense. Both areas get too much money, but we become more disturbed over inflation of public school costs than defense, because we live near schools and our children attend them.
So taxpayers should raise eyebrows when President rhapsodizes that $12.9 billion he asks for education in 1979 represents the largest increase proposed by any president and Congress since the mid '60s. The reason we pause is that, in the past 10 years, according to a national study, per-pupil education costs have risen 1.32 percent while the Consumer Price Index rose only 60 percent - and still pupil performances scores have dropped.
There is something wrong in the public education today, despite record-breaking budgets and price hikes. Now the president is asking for even larger increases so that greater emphasis can be placed on the basic skills - reading, writing and arithmetic.
It seems that the poorer public school performance gets, the more money is demanded to correct the errors. It's a little like the auto companies recalling defective cars for repair and then adding the cost of fixing their mistakes to the cost of doing business. Thus, the consumer winds up paying the bill.
There are many examples of such failure. The Council for Basic Education recently reported that a statewide education assessment program in Florida showed that, while only modest numbers of high school juniors flunked a relatively simple communications exam, 38 percent failed a math test that featured such questions as "What is 50 percent of $42.98?" The president of the state teachers' union quickly blamed the results on TV watching, single-parent homes, alcoholic parents and juvenile crime.
No question that the deterioration of the Amercian family makes it tougher for youngsters to learn. But then Time magazine reports about Marva Collins, a black Chicagoan, who operates a one-room school she founded for intensive teaching of inner-city children. She puts up with no nonsense, holds pupils only one or two years and raises their overall performance remarkably. She then encourages parents to send their children to parochial rather than public schools.
It's one thing to talk about spending billions more for basic and bilingual eduation, but it's another to deliver it so pupils can really succeed. Pupils in bilingual Spanish-English programs aren't learning English any better than those not in this more expensive form of education, according to one federal government study. There is good reason to conclude that school boards and/or administrators install bilingual programs more in response to local political pressure than for their effectiveness.
Indeed, there is a great deal of politicizinf in our public eduation system, especially since the National Education Association (NEA) has become a labor union that spent $3 million on the 1976 election (nearly all on Democratic candidates), backed the Carter-Mondale ticket and expected something nice in return.
It might be cynical, or accurate, observe that the something nice is the huge hike in federal aid to education Carter is asking for. Where will the money go? It's fair to say that labor unions such as the NEA don't like job-performance testing. Rather, they like more job slots, more chummy weekend educational conferences, more "special resource" or "remedial" teachers and, forbid the thought, more consultants and studies.
If that is what comes out of the Carter program, well, why don't we spare the taxpayer the expense?
What's really needed is a drastic upgrading in the skills of teachers who now glut the education field. We need more good teachers like Marva Collins who notes: "All you need to teach is a blackboard, books and air of legs that will last through the day. If you gave me $20,000 worth of audivovisual equipment, I'd leave it out on the sidewalk."
Perhaps the Marva Collinses in education should be enlisted to instruct laggard teachers that, if you become determined to teach, you will teach. If you fall back on special resource teams or "supplementary" aids, you probably won't teach.
If teachers need four or six-week summer sessions to upgrade their skills and become more knowledgeable in their subjects, let it be, and hopefully some of the extra federal money will be spent this way. Call it recycling or retraing. The point is teachers have to put aside the bad news that Amerian family life isn't the best, and realize that youngsters can be shaped up in a classroom and also, believe it or not, taught.
Instead of more expensive convenience escape hatches, we need more real teaching in the classroom, and that means work. With such a surplus of teachers, some of them must be willing to work. They have in the past, many work hard now, and the rest need to be prodded by the word that a taxpayers' revolt can be just as forceful as the political clout a rich labor union can wield with an administration.