America's Education, Part 1, The Gore Years

Much hot air has been spewed by the various presidential candidates about the state of the educational system in America. Considering that we are dealing not only just with the future of our nation but, more importantly, with our children’s future you would expect some intelligent and truthful information to be added to the political mix. Well, needless to say, the chances that the two major candidates will offer any rational policies that will result in anything more than just the enrichment of their various owners is just that, a chance.

As before, we’ll start with Al Gore and his record concerning our educational system with particular emphasis on his words and deeds these last two decades.

Of course, we must agree beforehand that Gore hasn’t taken the opportunity during the last eight years to express his beliefs regarding the state of the education system in America. We must also agree that his failure to do so is rather sad.

Instead, let’s look at the state of education and the trends indicated during the eight years that Gore owned the bully pulpit of the second highest office in the nation.

In so far as reading skills, tests show that, among 17 year olds, the average scores from 1984 to 1992 were higher than in 1971but fell slightly between 1992 through 1999. For students 13 years old, the average scores fluctuated slightly in the 1980’s but were higher in 1999 than in 1971. For nine year olds, average scores increased during the 1970’s but, since 1980, there has been no further improvement, although the score was higher in 1999 than in 1971.

Okay, so we haven’t seen much here except the possible conclusion that student’s ability to read are a bit better than in 1971 but, truthfully, it’s nothing to crow about.

How has the administration fared in helping children in the area of mathematics?

Well, the scores for 17 year olds declined rather harshly between 1973 and 1982, increased rather well during the 1980's’s and pretty much leveled out in the 1990’s, although they finished 1999 higher than 1973. For 13 year olds, the scores increased between 1978 and 1982, with small increases each year until 1999 when, again, the scores were slightly higher than in 1973. The same can be found for the nine year olds who also scored higher in 1999 than in 1973.

So, we can basically deduce that the ability of our children to comprehend math has slightly improved during the last eight years but we must condition that with the knowledge that these scores were increasing long before 1992.

When looking at the science scores for these three groups, however, we find the news a bit less than average. For 17 year olds, the average score declined between 1969 and 1982, increased slightly in the 1980’s, less so in the 1990’s, ending with an average score lower than 1969 but slightly better than 1982. For the 13 and 9 year olds, the story is basically that they ended 1999 with average scores just slightly better than 1969 but nearly identical to 1992. ( 1 )

Okay, so what we’ve learned now is that this administration hasn’t really exhibited the strength to help our kids become literate in the fields related to science, a very poor harbinger for the future.

Since all that we have had to base our decision about the record of Gore and education can be placed at his boss’s feet, perhaps we should look at Al Gore’s promises that are being made in the heat of a tough campaign. Now, remember, very little of what a candidate promises is anything more than just smoke and mirrors so take it all at face value.

That said, let’s take a listen to some of the statements he’s made and policies that he has offered the last couple of years.

When speaking to the National Conference of Black Mayors in Dallas on Apr. 28, 2000, he stated, “First, I am proposing a major national investment to bring revolutionary improvements to our schools. Second, I am proposing a national revolution in accountability - to demand high performance from students, teachers, and schools. And third, I am proposing a dramatic expansion of public school choice.” ( 2 )

The first proposal is an excellent one that I eagerly agree with. Since the actual revenues per student divided by per capita personal income has fallen in the last eight years, increasing those funds would be a great idea. In other words, while Gore boasts about the wonderful economy and the wonders of the capitalist system, he and his boss has allowed the children to fall further behind in the amount of federal funds spent on their education. In actual dollars, the spending per student has risen very slightly from $5809 in 1992 to $5968 in 1996, and rose just 1.2% adjusted for inflation in 1998-99. ( 3 )

During the 1990’s, teacher’s salaries rose a meager 1.9% adjusted for inflation. Between 1996 and 1997, the economy grew 40% faster than did revenues for K-12 education. U.S. total personal income rose 5.6% during that time while education revenue per student rose only 4%. During Gore’s watch, in other words, things got worse in this area, not better.

Okay, let’s check out his second proposal. Just exactly what does he mean by “accountability”? How does he propose to rank every school? Will that ranking include the vast differences in environments and parental involvement and crime activity and employment family income and family education and on and on? How does he go about delivering on this promise, anyway? If a school was performing far above average, then any improvement would be be statistically insignificant. If a school was at the very bottom of the scale, would it receive unearned plaudits if it moved up the rankings a slot or two? Will teachers in the poorest districts be finally paid at the national average or higher, giving them and incentive to work harder and for new and highly qualified teachers to apply to replace them? Will every school share equally in the available revenue in every state? Will schools in the wealthier districts continue to have greater capital per student than those in the poorest neighborhoods? How, exactly, Mr. Gore, will you rank every school and by what criteria will you deem them a failure after only two years in order to close it down and then reopen it with a new principal “with a proven record of success” and “a team of teachers to come in and turn it around”? ( 4 ) In that the school could also be reopened as a charter school, isn’t this just a federal move to bust the teacher’s union?

You also claim that “All children in failing schools with an approved reform plan would get high quality after-school help while their school is getting turned around.” Who will determine what is to be considered an “approved reform plan” and why are you not offering that after school assistance right now?

Gore has said that he would “call on the states to establish high school exit exams and other measures to ensure that high school students can read and do math at high school levels before graduating”. ( 5 ) Okay, we once again are faced with the problem of who will create these tests and will the playing field be level in all states? Can one state create a test that examines the real knowledge learned while another creates one that tests only a student’s ability to take tests?

Finally, he wants to offer what he euphemistically calls “school choice”, another theft of a far right Religious Conservative’s buzzword. All this means is that your tax dollars and mine will be wasted through the unconstitutional program of giving federal tax revenues directly to schools run by religious organizations. Other that this being a complete violation of the separation of church and state, it will totally skew the numbers that will determine the rankings of public schools. You and I both know that a fundamentalist Christian school will never allow anyone but their own to enroll, and even within that sub group, they will pick and chose only those that have already displayed a record of academic success. That will leave the children who need the help the most in the public school system which will create a totally slanted playing field, one that only the wealthy will enjoy.

Imagine, for just a moment, a future where the best and the brightest are stolen away from your public school system, where the federal funds that are earmarked for their education stolen by religious organizations and where only the wealthiest will be able to gain an education for their children that will prepare them for the best jobs available. Since the public schools have lost millions of dollars in funds to these religious schools and are left with those children who, for an infinite number of reasons, are the most difficult to teach, school after school will be seen as failing whatever arbitrary requirements invented to analyze a school’s record of teaching.

No, gentle people, this system can not be allowed to destroy our public school system. The complete separation of church and state must stand as a wall between those who have no need for myth, magic and miracles and those who have a need to believe that unseen and unimaginable forces rule their lives.

This insanity of giving my taxes to religious institutions has gained “respect” in the Democratic Party with Gore’s choice of running mates. Senator Joe Lieberman brings with him the excess baggage of a life long quest to merge your government with his and other’s religions. As Bush campaign spokesman Al Fleischer put it, “Al Gore has chosen a man whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush’s than to his own.” ( 6 )

All in all, gentle readers, no matter what other comments he has made regarding his plans for the education of the nation’s children, and he has waffled as well as his boss ever has, what he offers is just a warmed over version of exactly what the average moderate to far right conservative Republican could have ever asked for. We must spend more money on education, of that there is no argument (save from the Yuppies who have lots of money, no children, and no desire to pay their fair share of taxes).

What we must never do is to take even one penny away from our public schools and transfer that wealth to any religious or corporately owned educational factory. What we must de is understand that this nation has the best of the best when it comes to the teaching profession and that, as in any huge cross section of Americans, there are those who either cannot or will not do their job as well as necessary (for absolute proof of that, see Al Gore and George Bush and Trent Lott and on and on).

What we must understand is that this public school system has been the basis for the greatest minds in the last two hundred years and to keep it such is actually fairly uncomplicated. First, we must find a way to cease worshipping the Michael Jordans of the world, people who play children’s games for a living but who offer nothing else to society. Next, we must reaffirm our trust and support for the nation’s dedicated and skilled teachers and pay them and offer benefits to them accordingly. We must convince the business community that supporting our schools must not include forcing these young minds to watch even more commercials but that the mere act of supporting our children is worthwhile solely because it will be the foundation of a brighter future for all.

Al Gore offers little of substance in the area of education. He is, without doubt, a far better candidate than Tumbleweed, as we’ll see in the next article, but being better than Bush doesn’t raise the bar of adequacy nearly enough.

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