I guess summer's over.
On the calendar, it's only August 6, but here in Texas, it's already time to purchase school supplies.
Three-hole-punched paper. Blank paper, lined paper, and construction paper. Markers and highlighters in various colors. Glue sticks, colored pencils, tape, index cards, staplers, protractors, pocket folders, binders, facial tissue, watercolor sets, large erasers, hand sanitizer and hand wipes, blunt-point and sharp-point scissors, and spiral notebooks. Phew!
At all of our local drug stores (they're on virtually every corner now, along with every brand of bank you can imagine), huge bins line the aisles, with lists of supplies our school district expects each student to have on the first day of classes later this month. I hear that some schools around Atlanta, Georgia, are going back this week. So those parents were buying all this stuff last month.
It's enough to make me sigh with incredulity, and I'm not even a parent!
It's Not the Little Schoolhouse That's Red, But Its Budget
During the Dark Ages, when we went back to school in upstate New York - always on the Wednesday after Labor Day - my brother and I each had a brand-new bookbag (that we hardly ever used again the rest of the year), and inside were a couple of pens and pencils, maybe a spiral notebook, a box of Crayolas... and not much else.
Funny thing about public school back then: the school district provided almost everything. Graph paper, writing paper, Elmer's glue, rubber glue, scissors that could barely cut anything... sure, I guess we could have brought our own if we wanted to, but why bother? Part of class time involved politely distributing supplies at the beginning of a specific project, and being responsible for neatly putting away all of our supplies when we were done.
Oh, yeah - politeness and responsibility are two of the things we don't teach anymore, aren't they?
Not that I'm confused about why the cost for all of these school supplies has shifted from school districts to parents (and even teachers - most of whom buy some of this stuff out of their own money). Technically, taxpayers of some sort have always been responsible for stocking schools with the educational supplies they need, but in these days of budget crunches and low-tax initiatives, one way school districts make ends meet is by making parents purchase supplies for their family's little learners themselves.
Even though school districts could buy in bulk and save money in the long run. But taxpayers don't usually think that far ahead.
And it's not like some school districts - particularly urban ones - expect all parents to go out and purchase this stuff, either. In Dallas, the mayor's office ostensibly "hosts" a back-to-school festival where thousands of low-income kids get their supplies for free. Supplies donated by local businesses and charities. The school district makes a day of it, offering free health screenings, immunizations, and even haircuts for the kiddos.
Budgets Only a Small Part of the Blame
Yet without fail, EVERY BLESSED YEAR, hundreds of students are turned away at their local schools because they don't have their immunizations current. It's beyond amazing - and absurd - when the news crews annually trot out to Dallas County's health department building on Stemmons Freeway and videotape the line of kids with their parents, everybody saying they had no idea school was going to start so soon. Some of them are actually angry, like somehow all this is somebody else's fault. Does this happen where you live? Because, here in north Texas, it paints an exceedingly grim picture of the competency not only of many of our students, but their parents.
Indeed, truancy is another big problem, particularly in the Dallas school district. But whose fault is that? A few days after our local news stations stop reporting from the parking lot of the county's health department, they will - without fail - chronicle the Saturday morning visits of the Dallas mayor and superintendent of schools to homes of students who haven't yet bothered showing up for even one day of school. Actually, this publicity stunt has spread to other local cities, too, but Dallas has the most to lose with truancy, since it's the largest district in the area.
I realize some people insist that homeschooling should be far more prominent than it is. But let's face it: not every parent is cut out to be a teacher for the kind of subjects kids need to master these days.
In terms of improving the quality of education, I'm less convinced that rating teachers and paying them based on a uniform set of criteria makes sense as I am intrigued by the basic premise of school choice. What's wrong with letting parents choose the school they want their kids to attend? Haven't school districts become local monopolies? Is uprooting one's family and moving one's household a practical way to give taxpayers the right to have a say over their kids' schooling?
Meanwhile, through all of these issues, what's the key element running through them? Parents, right?
Some great citizens have come out of some bad school districts. Yet, considering that the same bad school was supposedly educating the same groups of kids in the same bad ways, what was the difference between the kids who journey on to college and being productive contributors to society, and the ones who become a drain on society? Almost 100% of the time, it was the students' parents, correct? Parents who expected their kids to expend effort, even if they lived in a ghetto or wherever. Parents who cared enough to ask questions about homework, to dialog with teachers about their child's progress, and to enact discipline when it came down to going out with school friends or staying home to study.
Yet, what do we have these days? Last week, when the mayor of Dallas hosted the district's annual back-to-school fair, it was broadcast on an African-American radio station as a party with live remote coverage. Interviews with some of the participants! All this free stuff! Come get what's yours! Look cool for the first day of school!
When America's conservatives get all worked up about public education, don't contentious big-picture issues like teacher testing and school vouchers only distract from something that's a lot less politically popular to discuss? It's easy for all of us to get caught up in the theories and policies and partisan posturing over the state of our public schools. But why is there always a line outside of the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department every day for a week after the beginning of the fall semester? It's not a matter of costs - almost all of those shots can be gotten for free. Is giving away free supplies the best way to help disadvantaged families? If the mayor's office charged parents fifty cents or so per item, would it help parents remind their kids to keep track of those supplies so they're not lost or damaged?
Or would parents be irate at having to pay anything?
Why Johnny Can't Read
Yes, we should help low-income kids get an education. In theory, at least, it benefits us all in our society. But kids are kids because they're kids - they need parents to remind them, encourage them, keep them on time, make sure they get to bed on time, make sure they have their shots. Haven't we gone on long enough in our society to realize that all this free stuff we're ostensibly giving to kids is only relieving parents of even a modicum of responsibility?
OK: so taxpayers say they don't want the bulk discount of having a school district buy all of their supplies. I wonder, though, the extent to which those parents who've paid out the wazoo for those supplies keep a better handle on their kids' education than the parents who party down at the mayor's fair and get all the stuff for free? I'm not saying that poor parents don't deserve free stuff because they're poor. But doesn't making them have to pay something help to serve as a reminder that the education of their kids isn't, ultimately, the responsibility of the school district? It's the responsibility of the child, of course. And who's responsible for the child?
The child's parents. Which kinda means that, yeah, the kid is responsible for learning, but its parents are responsible for making sure their child learns.
So, what's my point? Regular readers of my essays will know that I almost never harp on parenting issues, but this is one of those times where I can't help it. Instead of worrying so much about the theories of why Johnny Can't Read, I believe both conservatives and liberals need to sit down and ask parents: "How often to you read to Johnny?"
"How often do you go down to Johnny's school to talk with his teachers?"
"How often do you sit still while Johnny reads to you?"
"How much are you willing to sacrifice so Johnny can read?"
No, I'm not a parent. That's the main reason I don't usually talk about parenting stuff. But one of the reasons I'm not a parent is because I know what being a parent means.
If you need public assistance from time to time, there's no shame in that. However, I have a feeling society will be much more willing to help you out if you know what being a parent means, too. If poverty alone was a good excuse to be uneducated, many members of my family would have had a good excuse to be illiterate.
But it's not, they didn't, and they haven't been.
Well, one of my ancestors was. My Mom still has the deed my great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Jordan, signed - for some property in the deep woods of rural Maine - with an "X."
Only a few members of my extended family have ever been truly wealthy - at least, financially. But just about all of us have valued education. Maybe because it's been understood that the more you put into something like education, the more you get out of it.