editorial from the U.S. Edition of The Economist | http://econ.st/k3eL5c
Jun 16th 2011 | AUSTIN |IN 1783 Noah Webster, a schoolteacher, published the first edition of his American spelling book. It would become a standard text in classrooms around the country, selling 60m copies over the course of the next century. Webster’s view was that the new country deserved its own approach to English, more accessible than the version it had inherited. For Webster and his followers, literacy was a democratic goal as much as a pedagogical one.
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That vision of public education is a compelling one, although America has often fallen short in its pursuit of the ideal. This makes it troubling that many cities and states, struggling to make up budget shortfalls, have put schools on the chopping block. In Texas, for example, legislators expect $4 billion in cuts for schools over the next two years, a 6% decrease from the state’s projected funding formulas for 2012. The state convened a special legislative session to hash out the details, after a Democratic state senator filibustered the legislation in the regular session.
The cuts are also meeting resistance from pupils, teachers and, in some cases, the courts. In Los Angeles the teachers’ union voted in favour of salary cuts, an effort to save jobs. Republicans in Michigan have complained that they are getting emotional letters from kindergarteners. Last month a New Jersey judge issued a report declaring that 36% of the state’s schools are inadequately funded, given the obligations laid out in the state constitution—so Governor Chris Christie’s budget for the current fiscal year, which would cut $800m, should not have passed muster.
Despite these efforts, most states will see at least some cuts, adding up to billions of dollars around the country. These will come from thousands of minor economies, which will be readily apparent when schools reopen in the autumn—among those that do reopen, that is. Classes will be more crowded, school-bus rides longer. Baseball may be cut to keep football going. Latin will be even rarer—and forget about adding Mandarin this year.
Some schools are now charging fees for certain classes or activities, a startling trend that violates some basic ideas about what public schools are supposed to do. The idea of asking people to chip in for schools is not unprecedented, but it is usually a bit more subtle. Elementary-school teachers ask their pupils to buy school supplies; high-school students sell cupcakes and wash cars to raise money for the prom. Parents may supplement a child’s education with extra services—a tutor, a week at lacrosse camp, a second-hand car, a new silver trumpet rather than the borrowed cornet, glottal with generations of spit. Asking pupils to pay fees for core activities or classes seems much worse. These services may be for individual students, but public schools are a public good.
Projected cuts around the country will bring forward some deeper questions about school finance. As it is, Americans already pay for public schools by virtue of where they live; schools are partly funded by property taxes. The richer the parents, the better the schools, or at least better resourced. That is a fundamental inequity of the American system, not a new one.
A broader question is whether money is the best way to improve schools. A 2008 study from the Centre on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington found that spending on schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by 29% between 1990 and 2005, without a commensurate gain in pupil achievement. Better strategies may not be more expensive. The cuts may force states to think creatively. That would be some consolation.