As another school year begins, the unfashionable is becoming more and more commonplace. It's unfashionable to say that the public- school picture is looking better, but more people are saying just that.
Example: In a Gallup Poll released this week, 71 percent of the parents of public-school pupils gave an A or B rating to the school their oldest child attends. Only 7 percent gave that school a D rating or a failing grade.
The parents -- who presumably know most about what's going on in the schools -- give them better grades than others in the public. But the overall public-opinion trend is also favorable, Gallup reported in the annual survey for Phi Delta Kappa magazine.
When judging schools in their own community, the public awards three times as many superior grades (A r B) as inferior (D or failing). At the beginning of the decade, the ratio was just 2 to 1 positive.
When judging the nation's schools as a whole, the public four years ago was just as likely to rate them a flop as a success. Today, there are only half as many poor or failing grades as superior grades.
All of this suggests a growing confidence in public schools. If I were going to guess, I would say it is based in part on the direct experience many parents have had with toughened curriculums, longer school days, stricter testing and increased homework for their kids.
But it is also based in part on the attention that officials in almost every state and most local communities have given to the quality of their schools and the people who teach in them.
Let us give the conservatives in the Reagan administration credit for their role in rightly emphasizing that education is primarily a state and local responsibility. But let us praise, even more, the governors, the mayors, the school boards and the local citizens who have stepped up to meet that responsibility.
One measure of that response -- perhaps not the most important one, but a significant measure nonetheless -- is the pay public school teachers receive. In the special back-to-school issue of Today's Education, the National Education Association magazine, the survey on teacher pay shows the national average reached almost $24,000 a year last year, up over 7 percent (twice the inflation rate) since 1983-84.
Encouragingly, some of the biggest percentage increases came in states that have long lagged toward the bottom of the national scale: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. Those states -- and others -- have recognized that public education is the key to their future.
My own sense from traveling the country this year and from listening to what governors and state legislators have been saying to each other at their annual meetings is that the commitment to education is growing. Obviously, it depends on the degree of confidence the voters have in their school systems -- and the qualitative improvements the principals and teachers can achieve now that salaries and public support are increasing.
The jury is still out on both questions, but, again, I think the evidence is encouraging.
You can find it in that issue of NEA's Today's Education that I mentioned. Five years ago, NEA -- the biggest teachers' union in the country -- was so busy beating the drum for increased federal funding of education (and the reelection of Jimmy Carter) that it hardly had time for education. When I attended the annual NEA convention in Los Angeles, I remarked on the fact that it was a political gathering with stunningly little time for the concerns most parents had about what was going on in the schools.
That has changed. Although Congress has blocked some of Reagan's education funding cutbacks, the federal share of the public-school budgets has declined by one-third -- from 9.2 percent to 6.2 percent since Reagan came into office.
With the increased reliance on state and local funding has come what is clearly a revived attention by teacher organizations such as NEA to the fundamentals of classroom education. Page after page of Today's Education details not the battles over federal education policy, but successful and innovative programs for education conducted by award-winning teachers in places such as Garner, N.C., Albion, Mich., Miami, Okla., Murfreesboro, Tenn., Richmond, Utah, Seven Mile, Ohio, and Kamuela, Hawaii.
That has to be a better and more productive emphasis. This battle to revive and improve our public schools still has a long way to go. But the good news as this school year begins is that teachers, parents, voters and politicians seem to have their priorities right.