Monday, August 23, 2010

Public education and dumb analogies

In Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle, C.W. Nevius authored a column titled Schools need to do a lot better for their customers. Those who follow the link will notice that the column is titled differently in its web incarnation: Extreme volunteering not the answer for schools. I don't care what you call it. The columnist's argument is full of holes.

He starts out with a story about a family who contribute extraordinary time and effort to their child's San Francisco school. Nevius reports that a fund-raising effort the parents helped to organize "brought in a mind-boggling $125,000 last year" to augment the school budget. The family's father estimates that the family's mother, who is president of the PTA, "works 40 hours a week on the school."

That's a lot of volunteer hours, by any reasonable measure, and the Hsieh family is to be commended for commitment to their child and community. But the columnist's next paragraph, in which he sets up an allegory that takes up fully 30% of word count, heads right off the rails:
The district needs to keep [the Hseih family's story] in mind when they launch the happy chat about parents making a difference. That's a massive commitment, especially for couples working two jobs. If the schools are a business, this is no way to treat your potential best customers.

The allegory that takes up fully 30% of Nevius' column? Imagine your kids' school were a neighborhood restaurant... Over to you, Cookie Monster:

Let's leave this ... rather silly allegory aside for now. The much more important tidbit has already been quoted: "If the schools are a business..."

The analogy in this column is silly (and doesn't belong) because schools are not a business. They're a public investment.

The school the Hsieh family's child attends is the Chinese Immersion School at De Avila Elementary. The 2010-11 SF Unified School District budget shows that 85 students were enrolled in the school last year, when the Hsieh family helped to raise $125,000. If I understand correctly, last year was the school's first year of operation. Projected enrollment for the coming year is 154. The budget allocation for 85 students last year, according to the district's budget for 2009-10, was $634,120 (for 154 students in the coming year the allocation is $865,161; the difference in the per-student funding seems to imply that it takes some juice to get a new school off the ground ... fair enough). I don't know whether the volunteer fundraisers' bucks were counted as part of what the district allocated to the school, or whether the raised funds augmented the district's contribution. Count one way, and you conclude that volunteers raised 19.7% of the school's annual budget; could the other, and they raised 16.5% of the budget for 2009-10.

Why all the fussing about numbers? Because what we've deduced is that the school district -- funded by federal, state, and local taxes -- kicked in 80.3 to 83.5% of this school's expenses last year.

Nevius wrote in his column on Saturday that "public education isn't a charity."

Is he sure? The numbers given above don't sound like "a business." They sound to me a lot more like a public works project.

Indeed, public education is a public investment in maintaining a competent citizenry and work force. The 'customers' of a school are not only its students and parents. In fact the term 'customers' doesn't apply very well at all. The term 'community' applies, because the beneficiaries of public education include the community -- neighborhood, city, county, state, nation, planet -- in which that school's students live and will live. Indeed, that's why communities fund public education in the first place.


And yet, when the public doesn't kick in enough funding to operate a school at a level of competence and effectiveness deemed appropriate by the most immediately interested adult segment of its community -- the parents of its students -- those parents either pitch in to make the school better, or they settle for Plan B. What's Plan B? Under Plan B, your kids get an education that fits within the limited resources allocated by the public.

When I grew up, this was called "life." One dealt with it, both politically and practically.

Now, to put my perspective in perspective, when our family came to California in 1970 we attended schools in one of the top districts in the state, in an affluent Bay Area suburb. We lived in student housing on a university campus (my father was in graduate school), and benefited from the fact that many students in our school were the sons and daughters of parents affiliated with the university, parents who had high scholastic ambitions and expectations for their progeny.

My family was pretty darn happy with the education my siblings and I received as a public investment. And yet it wasn't easy for schools to make ends meet then either. On the wall in the Social Studies department of my middle school someone posted a sign with what is now, nearly forty years on, a used-to-death slogan: "It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." (Hasn't happened yet.)

If there wasn't enough to make ends meet, even in privileged circumstances, how did our community deal with it? Oodles of parents pitched in to help -- as playground monitors, as field trip chaperones, as guest speakers/teachers, as costume makers for school plays, as classroom helpers, as bake sale bakers, and so on.

And then what happened?

The year after I graduated from high school, the state of California was led off the cliff by anti-tax lunatics Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, whose inane reasoning -- we want it, but we don't want to pay for it -- has led directly to California's current budget crisis. Yes, I'm talking about the infamous Proposition 13. Public education in the state has been on a downhill slide since 1978, and Prop 13 is a huge part of the problem.

Back to C.W. Nevius, who started Saturday's column with this:
[...] a frustrated parent wrote to say that they'd tried to make it work, but were resigned to moving to the suburbs. 'We love San Francisco,' he said. 'But we love our kids more.'

Later in his column, Nevius ended his silly restaurant allegory by making an analogy of the "product" of San Francisco's public education.

What was that analogy? Public education in San Francisco is:
A meal. Almost as good as the one you can get for free in Danville. [...]

Well, guess again, C.W. In Danville, as in other affluent suburbs, parents help schools too. (Why? Because they're not inane enough to think, like anti-tax lunatics, that society can get something for nothing.)

There's nothing "free" about education in Danville, other than the free-association that led a certain columnist to a certain, absurd allegory.

If there are more parents "free" to put more hours into helping out their kids' schools there, I'm going to take a wild guess that it's because there are a greater percentage of families in Danville able to pay their bills on one parent's salary, or on two jobs instead of three or four or five (census data shows per capita income in 1999 was $50,773 in Danville, compared to $34,556 in San Francisco). Or because there is a greater share of people who understand from their own experience, and that of their families' prior generations, that investment in education for one's children is among the most determinative of future quality of life that a parent can make (the same census pages show 59.4% of people age 25+ hold Bachelor's degrees or higher in Danville; in San Francisco the figure is 45.0%).

Are disparities in capability and drive to help kids navigate their education a problem? Of course they are! But that's nothing a little redistribution of wealth and privilege wouldn't fix over the course of some decades.

(Okay, 'me-first' conservatives, stop barking. I'll put away the red meat.)

No honest person claims these are easy problems to solve, and parents who can give their kids a leg up will. That's reality, by and large. Nevius is right that schools have to get better to keep children of interested parents -- especially interested parents with options -- enrolled. And some of the suggestions he makes about rewarding parents for their contributions toward helping San Francisco schools seem reasonable to me, so long as there are counterbalancing factors to the "preference" system he sketches out that might easily turn out to be, to use the columnist's own word, "exclusionary."

But. Simplistic, stupefying analogies won't help. So ... how about we give that populist hysteria a rest, eh?

On the topic of wild guesses? I'm sure that a careful fact-checker who digs more deeply into the numbers than I did -- like, say, a paid journalist ought to -- could quibble with the figures cited in this post ... but I'd wager more than a little that my approximations aren't far off, and substantively support this post's core arguments.

It will be a great day when newspaper pundits become responsible for making sense and telling the truth in the column-inches their subscribers subsidize.

(Full disclosure: I don't have kids. I do volunteer in my city's public schools. I have no problem paying taxes for the education of other people's kids, and vote to pay more when the opportunity presents itself. And I also have a conflict of interest: not only do I yearn deeply for a nation of competent, engaged citizens and an educated work force; I'm also on the staff at UC Berkeley, which means I'm paid a salary to help keep public education running. People who know tell me I could make better money in the private sector. But a person's got to stick to what he believes is important.)

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