Attended my local school board meeting tonight, a friendly, almost cozy affair in the elementary school lunchroom. People we see around this small town daily; a principal I’ve watched Red Sox games with. The proximate issues: a continually rising budget despite falling enrollment, and — related — whether or not to ditch our aging middle school by merging it with the high school; an idea I like, since our 3 buildings have capacity for about 1200 students and we have about 800 (and fewer every year), and the middle school is an aging, ugly, and horridly inefficient mutt.
We spend a lot of money per-pupil here, and the school system is better than most in this country. But we spend more all the time for little improvement; dropping enrollment and other uglineSS means that even a flat-lined total spending creates annual tax increases of close to 10%; we have some great teachers and a few duds who apparently plan never to leave and we’re not allowed to fire; and our high per-pupil spending, which rises every year and drives even higher rises in taxes, wins us an education inferior to those given in other advanced countries that spend less per pupil. My son’s second-grade class welcomed today a new student, a boy whose parents moved to the U.S. from the Congo 2-3 years ago, and who moved here just 2 days ago; nice kid, speaks English beautifully, is teaching the other kids French — a great joy to his new teacher, for we have no foreign language till fifth grade, when the best language-learning years are lost — and reads English better than most of his classmates. I don’t know where he’s been the last 3 years. But with two languages firmly in hand, he’s got a nice jump on his classmates.
Yet the overall mood at the meeting was one of complacence: When people spoke of quality, they compared our school only to other U.S. schools, not the schools educating the kids our kids will have to compete with. And the idea of closing the middle school — a no-brainer, as running the thing is like having a third car for a two-car family, a clear excess of capacity (and an energy pig) — was met with dismay and ideas about marketing the school and town to attract more students and so on, as if we could attract another 400 students to a district with only 800 in a state with a shrinking youth populace.
A blithe acceptance of clear problems and excessive costs; a constant return to what happy highlights our overspending produces; blindness to how the system’s weaknesses compromise our international competitiveness and our children’s future Our school system lately looks increasingly like our health-care system.