Derrick Z. Jackson

The death of public education

Lack of money is killing our schools

By Derrick Z. Jackson
April 6, 2010

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THE NEWS says we are watching the death of public education before our eyes. Detroit is closing more than 40 schools, Kansas City wants to close more than 40 percent of its school buildings. Other cities have been closing schools over the last decade. Boston avoided closings in its most recent budget deliberations, but still must slash custodial staff and postpone building repairs.

It is no secret that American education is at a great divide, unrivaled in most of the developed world. The United States spends $9,800 per public primary and secondary education student, which is technically high by global standards.

But meanwhile, children of the wealthy are being trained at private schools at more than triple the expenditures. In the Boston area, day school tuition rates are closing in on $35,000.

Our investment in public school teachers is paltry for the wealthiest country in the world. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States ranks in some measures behind England, Italy, Japan, Scotland and way behind Germany in starting teacher pay. The average expenditure on college students in the United States amounts to $24,400 per college student, two and a half times more than the $9,800 per-pupil spending in the public schools.

Beneath the numbers is the resegregation of children on the basis of class, race and immigration status. Prison spending soared so much, that by 2007, five states spent as much or more on corrections than on higher education, according to the Pew Center on the States.

In monetary terms, we have given up on millions of children. “I don’t think necessarily that public education is dead, but certain parts of it are dying,’’ said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor who headed President Barack Obama’s education transition team. “The programs of the 1960s and 1970s that helped make education more equitable were mostly eliminated in the 1980s and never put back.

“We’re disinvesting in a significant way. With the huge decline in America of manual labor jobs that are being off-shored or digitalized, the vast majority of jobs are knowledge based. If we do not invest that way, we really can’t survive as a nation. To deeply underfund public education as we are doing does not make any sense.’’

Author of the 2009 book, “The Flat World and Education,’’ Darling-Hammond says neither poverty, nor the diverse nature of the American population are excuses not to educate everyone. Several countries were behind the United States decades ago in education and now have passed us.

She cites the example of Korea, which “in the space of one generation . . . moved from a nation that educated less than a quarter of its citizens through high school to one that now ranks third in college-educated adults.’’

She noted how Singapore, where 80 percent of families live in public housing, was tops in the world in fourth-grade and eighth-grade math assessments in 2003. “When children leave the tiny, spare apartments they occupy in high-rises throughout the city,’’ she wrote of Singapore, “they arrive at colorful, airy school buildings where student artwork, papers, projects, and awards are displayed throughout, libraries and classrooms are well-stocked, instructional technology is plentiful, and teachers are well trained.’’

It is enough to make one consider whether America needs to start from scratch. Whatever we are doing, it is not working. For instance, Darling-Hammond said Obama has an education platform that could rival the last serious education president, whom she considers to be Lyndon Johnson, but “to date has not squarely embraced the idea of equity. He did a great job coming out of the box on higher education, but inequity in elementary and secondary education is continuing to widen.’’

Johnson once said you cannot “take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.’ ’’ Today millions of American children once again need our help to get to the starting line.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at