|Musings from the Christian Left
by Michael Bindner
Education, Welfare and Religion
One of the most controversial issues is the topic of religion and the schools. This is especially the case since the Supreme Court affirmed that school vouchers are constitutional. The issue driven by the ongoing crisis of under-performing urban schools. The other side of the coin is the teaching of religious concepts, such as Creation Science or Intelligent Design, in public school, as well as prayer and values education. These issues are always controversial, and into this controversy walks the Christian Left, leading with its chin. Many of us favor some sort of support for religious schools, although we are less than satisfied with the level of pay they offer teachers or their traditional bias against organized labor. We are also not necessarily averse to all religious expression in schools, although we think the religious right sometimes takes these issues a bit too far. This issue has begun to turn into a sideshow about values, rather than about education. It is time to get serious.
People who study education find there are two key factors in determining whether a school is successful: the economic and social class of the parents and strength of the principal. If we are to succeed as a culture, a nation and a species, we must pay attention to both factors. Because parents are the most important factor in this equation, we will start with some suggestions on how to raise their social and economic class so that their children succeed.
The Bush marriage initiative is a step in the right direction, provided the President puts his money where his mouth is. Making a commitment to marriage as a component of welfare reform has to mean making sure that fathers have the education and skills with which to succeed or else it is hollow rhetoric. Such a solution involves spending more money, not less, to be thought of as more than a play to the Republican political base, our friends in the religious right.
If children have a right to universal public education, regardless of immigration status, then so do adults, both men and women. As I write this, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) is undergoing reauthorization. A needed component of this program is the right to literacy at the Tenth Grade level for every adult resident of this country (provided they have children born here). Every adult citizen with less than this level of education, whether they have children or not, must be provided with it and be paid to do so at a rate high enough to support his or her family. No other work is to be required of anyone who is pursuing his or her education in this manner. Individuals who are already employed, but who are educationally deficient, are better off quitting their jobs and become literate. This simple, though expensive step does more to eradicate poverty than any thing else society can do. Additionally, locate the machinery of social service in schools and make the pursuit of literacy a requirement for public assistance. Make all forms of public assistance, from energy to housing to food stamps, available where classes are held.
It is also past time to expand the number of providers of adult education. To expect the public educational system, which largely failed this population in the first place, to turn around and reach it now is ludicrous. The Catholic school system has been much more successful in providing quality education to all comers, including the children of poor parents. The lack of a system of Catholic adult education is a major flaw in this system, a flaw to be remedied through the founding of such a system of adult remedial and technical high schools. With the exception of the religious education department (the use of which must be optional to non-Catholics), the entire cost of building and operating these schools, with the related social welfare system, is a public obligation. Recently, Catholic Charities agencies have been forced to turn back grants because state governments have been underfunding grant operations, assuming that the balance is funded with donations. My grandmother had a term for what these states are doing, imposing. It is just plain rude and it is time for it to stop. The provision of education and social services is a public good to be funded through mandatory contributions, better known as taxes.
These measures improve the educational performance of children as much or more than any other reform of the school system. Studies show that a key predictor of whether a child succeeds educationally is the educational and economic level of the parents. Therefore, if we provide for the parents, we provide for the children and for the future of all of us.
Reforming Public Education
Schools systems around the national are said to be in crisis. Inner-city schools continue to be plagued by out-of-control classrooms. Aging facilities are crumbling and the money to repair them is not to be found. In suburbia, sprawl is overtaking the ability of expanding jurisdictions to build schools. Advocates of school vouchers are making in-roads in the public conversation, with the Mayor and School Board President of Washington, D.C. asking for and receiving federal money for the creation of a voucher program. Nationwide, there is a funding crisis at the state and local level as jurisdictions are unwilling to raise tax rates that were cut when the tech bubble filled public coffers, with no end in sight. Property tax-based funding systems continue to provide unequal educations between urban minority and suburban white districts. In many systems, central administration continues to provide an example of how not to run a school system, from the failure to maintain order to zero tolerance policies that penalize students for taking aspirin.
As public school systems fail, the Catholic parochial system continues to win accolades, even after the child sex abuse scandals in Boston and other places. This excellence causes some to continue to campaign for school vouchers. Defenders of the public schools argue that private schools are better because they have to attract students to survive, and that they can reject students that do not meet their standards ("creaming"). This is not the case in the Catholic system, which traditionally takes all comers, especially in the inner city. Other explanations for the success of the private, and especially the Catholic system, is that parents are more invested in the system because they pay for it. This may be partly true, but does not take into account the fact that many parents in the Catholic system receive lower priced tuition based on need. Perhaps a more fruitful place to look, especially when proposing reform, is at how the Catholic educational system is organized and how to duplicate it.
A crucial difference between public and private schools is the strength of the Principal versus the central administration. In public systems, authority comes from the people through the School Board to the Superintendent and central administration to the Principals and the unionized teachers. In the private system the Principal is in charge and often reports to a Pastor and a Board elected by the parishioners. The Diocese exerts little control over individual schools. In the public system, Principal is often a stepping stone to better-paid administrative positions on the track to Superintendent. In the private system, Principal is the last stop on the career path. In public schools, facilities, food service, purchasing, curriculum, and grants are centralized, with Principals often having no say in activities in their own schools. In the private system, each Principal is in charge of everything, with help from the Pastor in the Catholic system. Whether the Pastor is involved or not, however, the focus of all attention is on one school, not a school system.
Perhaps competition through school vouchers is not the answer to school reform. Perhaps the answer is to organize the public system so that it works the same way as the private system. The first step in this process is to create individual "school boards" for each institution. In essence, this turns each school into a charter school. Each board then hires the Principal and teachers, and is a collective bargaining unit. The parents select the majority of board members, with the teachers and the local neighborhood (and in secondary schools the students) selecting the balance of the members. The school district still assures financial integrity, especially the integrity of the student count, compliance with safety and equal opportunity standards, and the distribution of additional funding. School closing decisions are up to individual school boards, rather than the system, who follow guidelines drafted by the State Office of Education.
This approach is also adaptable as a way of funding private schools as an alternative to a school voucher approach, by turning each parochial school into a charter school. Without such a charter, which includes equal access for students and parents to serve on the board, public funding is objectionable. A private charter school receiving public funds gives a representative of the chartering institution, such as the local parish or community group, a seat on the board, but is still dominated by the parents and includes teacher and community representation. Additionally, each such school gives their teachers an opportunity to unionize (and is able to afford to pay higher union salaries given the addition of public funds).
Private charter schools receiving public funds must meet standards for the teaching of the core subjects, especially math and science. Funds for religious instruction, as well as funding for physical plant maintenance, are the responsibility of the sponsoring organization. Tuition is no longer charged at such institutions, although a purely voluntary donation is requested. Finally, religious instruction is only mandatory for members of the sponsoring faith.
Both the public and private charter options have some interesting consequences. Public charter schools bring excellence to public education. Private charter schools increase accountability in private education and introduce price competition to the private school arena like never before. As test scores improve more students flock to reformed public and private schools and educational attainment increases.
The demands on the public treasury increase to fund the education of more students. While lower administrative costs take off some of the pressure, taxes will increase. As education is a basically redistributional activity, increasing income tax rates, especially for higher income individuals who now pay private school tuition, is preferred. Society must move away from funding schools with property taxes, which are regressive and fund education for poor students poorly.
The debate on private charter schools will be the most fascinating thing of all. It will illustrate the anti-union bias of much of the current school voucher debate, as well as the lack of willingness to fund the education of children from poor neighborhoods which has always been a part of conservatism.
Religion, Prayer and Intelligent Design Theory
The question of how much prayer is offered is less important in the parentally controlled schools just described. Minority rights are protected by parents calling the Principal or Board Members with concerns rather than first filing a lawsuit. The key is to practice tolerance before any type of prayer is established. Those who wish some form of Intelligent Design theory taught are able to do so, as long as state curriculum standards that mandate teaching the evolutionary paradigm are met.
The intelligent design theory hearkens back to the proofs of God offered by St. Thomas Aquinas, which I mention at the outset of the book. I suspect that this is not the intelligent design theory that most neo-creationists wish to teach. It is more likely that the Book of Genesis is the planned source material. Now, it is obvious at this point that teaching about an intelligent design leads to a discussion of the intelligent designer. Such a discussion has no place in a junior high school science class. Hopefully, the creation of private charter schools with privately funded religious instruction takes the impetus away for bringing God into biology class. If I were an advocate of teaching Intelligent Design, I would not be so quick to bring it into the science curriculum. Doing so leads to a discussion, possibly a state sponsored discussion, into the authenticity of the creation story and its evolution from the Sumeric creation myth (which teaches that with each day of creation, one god defeated the god of the prior day, until on the last day the gods got together to create man to serve them and their priest kings). Such an exposition casts doubt upon the theory that God dictated the Bible to Moses. My bet is that in the end right-wing fundamentalists do not want the state education office to go anywhere near that discussion, applying pressure or suing to stop it.
Public and private charter schools are also a better place to offer values education as a preventative to alcohol and drug abuse. When I was in the prevention field, everyone thought values education was a key preventative. Today, I am not so sure. Prevention only goes so far against what is arguably a genetically programmed disease. Altering the mix of peers young people are exposed to has more impact, especially at the junior high school level.
The Division of Grades
The division of grades merits attention. Starting High School at eighth grade separates the seventh from the eighth and ninth graders. This lessens the likelihood that seventh graders are exposed to alcohol and drugs, as is commonly the case in junior high schools which go from grades seven through nine. In the new division, secondary school would go from grades eight through ten. The current standard high school curriculum is too advanced for the non-college bound students while it is too slow for the more advanced student. Non-college bound students have no need for the level of education they are being offered, making it more likely that they are being forced into an education that frankly does not interest them. It is no wonder that students with lower skill levels or interest in academics drop out. Allow these students to end their formal academic educations after the tenth grade and give them earlier vocational technical education and union apprenticeship programs. Tune the workforce development system to provide each individual on this path with a full range of opportunities befitting their talents and interests.
On the other end of the spectrum, gifted students have little use for much of the mandatory waiting period that is high school. They are better served by beginning college earlier. When they finally arrive at College they are faced with required basic education and divisional courses best handled in high school, had they only been given the opportunity. I propose combining the last two years of high school and the first two years of college into one program. Students live at home or are emancipated and live in dormitories. This level of education is publicly funded and results in an associate's degree. After this level is complete, advanced students take a specific major combined with a masters program, thus avoiding some of the duplication that also occurs between advanced undergraduate education and graduate school at the M.A. level. In order to enroll in the advanced levels, students find a corporate sponsor who pays for their education and housing, offers them work experience and pays them a salary. Other students who require only a general education end their academic careers after grade fourteen and enter their careers two years earlier. Most are well prepared for the world of work at this point. This paradigm for higher education is discussed in more detail later on in these Musings.
College athletics also transform. Both technical schools and academic schools in grades eleven through fourteen field teams. The number of schools is greater than the current collegiate system but less than the high school system. The big business aspect of national collegiate sports diminishes in a way that is healthy, although the hybrid between varsity and collegiate sports is likely fun to watch. As importantly, especially in football, amateur sports careers are shortened so that those who are not professional caliber are at less risk of permanent injury, while those who are at that level can begin their careers two years earlier.
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