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Irregular Jonathan Speaks:
Throwing Money at the Problem

One of the most common expressions of conviction regarding public education in the United States is that "throwing money at the problem" is a bad idea. It's been my observation that most people who trot out this trite phrase have some strange solution in mind that involves something other than properly funding education.

Solution 1: Give Up

Representative Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland recently touched on this theme, expounding on the issue of education: "The government at all levels is throwing money at education, and our educational system continues to deteriorate." Rep. Bartlett makes the not-so-subtle argument that spending money on education has actually contributed to its demise. His diagnosis of the situation is oddly akin to the notion that when a patient in a hospital gets sicker, the solution is to stop treatment. No solution is a good solution?

Solution 2: Kill the Patient

John David Pierce, editor of the Palladium, similarly shoots off: "The solution offered time and time again by the left is to throw money at the problem. They want to increase taxes and shoot more money into a broken system."

Pierce's solution? End public education. Pierce proposes establishing a voucher system in which parents receive a credit from taxpayers that they can spend on tuition at any private or religious school they please. This credit would then be deducted from the budget of a local public school.

There's one big, hefty problem with this little voucher scheme. The vouchers proposed wouldn't be enough to cover all the costs of tuition at a private school, so parents choosing this option would have to throw in a bunch of their own dough. Thing is, a whole lot of families (precisely the families who could use the upward boost that education provides) can't afford to toss around their dough, so they can't use the voucher system.

The beauty of the public education system is that everyone pitches in what they CAN afford (which is judged reasonably according to property taxes) to help educate everybody's kids. The ugliness of the voucher system is that public funds would be siphoned off to subsidize rich kids' private education while poor kids pick at the meager leftovers in public schools. Of course, conservatives like Pierce don't see much of a problem with that...

Solution 3: Just Do It

At an educational funding news conference in 1998, Maryland Governor Paris Glendening remarked: "All of us know, however, that the answer is not to throw money at the problem surrounding education.... The solution goes into the realm of ACCOUNTABILITY: ensuring that QUALIFIED teachers are hired to teach our children."

At least Gov. Glendening offers some kind of a solution, unlike Roscoe Bartlett. Glendening's solutions also, thankfully, don't involve the very dismantling of the system that needs to be fixed. However, his second solution of hiring qualified teachers requires the very spending of money that he seems to disdain. Just today (8/14/00), the papers were filled with news of a report from the U.S. Department of Education. Their report found that in today's tight labor market, only rich school districts had enough money to hire actual teachers; poor school districts were forced to use their meager funds to hire untrained teachers' aides to teach, often unassisted, in the classroom. Poor districts *need money* to hire qualified teachers, but that's the very money they're denied by the "you can't throw money" people.

Glendening's other solution is to hold teachers "accountable" -- this means punishing individual teachers for bad performances by their students. This idea assumes that teachers are just plain lazy and they need the incentive to suck it up and actually do the job they know how to do. Whoever thought this one up hasn't been in a classroom. You think looking after your two kids is a full time job? Try looking after forty all at the same time. Then try, after you've gotten them all to sit down at the same time, to keep their attention, get them all to do their homework and teach them something. I bet you'll get tired.

There are a lot of books and movies out there that suggest that a really caring teacher can prevail against all odds by being really plucky and giving everything she or he has to beat the odds and save kids from a rotten education. "Dangerous Minds" by LouAnne Johnson is a pretty good example of a book with this point of view. Guess what? Ms. Johnson quit her job as a teacher.

My point is that we need to be sympathetic to those teachers who are exhausting themselves to teach our children. If the quality of teaching isn't good enough, we should stop attacking individual teachers and ask what it is about our educational system that leads to mediocrity. Reforming the ludicrous teacher education system might help. How can we do that? Well, funding (that's MONEY, folks) serious research comparing eduational strategies might help attract serious-minded faculty and supplement what is currently a pretty empty feel-good syllabus. We also might stop asking teachers to spend their own cash on copies, pencils, books and other educational materials. Hmmm, that takes money too.

Solution 4: Hurl Money at the Problem

I am sick and tired of people trotting out this tired old mantra. "You can't just throw money at the problem"? Baloney! If we "just" threw enough money at the problem to:

  1. hire twice the number of teachers as are now employed,
  2. pay teachers half again as much as the near-poverty wage they endure,
  3. recruit quality professors of education,
  4. better fund sensible education research,
  5. establish after-school and summer-school academic programs, and
  6. increase hiring for support personnel like nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors,
then we'd go a helluva long way toward solving our education problems. We can only do this if we spend money -- a lot of money.

Don't tell me we don't have the money to do it, especially in an age of record budget surpluses with billionaires fifty times over and rising incomes across the board. Oh, we've got the money. We'd just rather spend it on SUVs, sports stadiums and fighter planes. On the level of the social system, we don't give a rat's behind about our kids.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we DO care more about educating our children, all the nation's children, than tossing out dough for the latest toy or weapon. If we do care, then in an odd way I agree with my opponents above: throwing money at the problem is not the best solution. Forget throw -- we need to hurl it.