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The Confederate Lawyer
November 16, 2010

Financing Education
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — In many communities in the United States, half of the real estate taxes collected is expressly dedicated to public education. In addition, the federal government spends a large part of its budget on local education programs unrelated to its role under the Constitution. For most of our history, the most liberal parts of our country have tried to impose high spending for public education on the more conservative ones. Indeed, one of the Southern objections to Northern-controlled Reconstruction governments was the imposition of extraordinarily high taxes to support public education.

Given the high cost of public education, it is clear that we are not getting our money’s worth. Most Americans believe that most private and religious high schools are superior to most public high schools. Many public schools are celebrated when they simply improve from truly awful to just plain bad. Parents are increasingly choosing to educate their children at home, and the very best universities in the country are admitting a disproportionate number of home-schooled students.

Private and religious schools escape some but not all of the corrupting and statist features of today’s public schools. Marshall Fritz, founder of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, dedicated much of his life fighting to get the government out of education. Yet the academic superiority of most private schools to most public schools does not mean that even the parents of children in private schools are truly getting what they want.

Part of the high cost of education is its huge bureaucracy. The typical public high school has nurses, nutritionists, coaches, vice principals, and lots of guidance counselors on its staff. In my district, the school board chose a fourth guidance counselor over a science teacher dedicated to student science projects because the science teacher would only benefit the intelligent students.

The fundamental problem, however, is that most people accept the manifestly false proposition that higher expenditures result in better schools. One hundred years ago, typical American high school graduates had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, history, geography, geometry, algebra, physics, and chemistry. They understood the rules of grammar and could write eloquently. They were familiar with literary classics. Fifty years ago, this was still the case in most European countries. And while not everyone went to high school, those who did emerged with a thorough education. Many students entered high school after attending a single-teacher grammar school, where one teacher taught from five to eight grades at the same time. These students were far better prepared than today’s high school freshmen.

Today’s high school graduates have hardly any common body of knowledge. Some are illiterate in all foreign and ancient languages. Many know no geography. Their knowledge of history is limited to scattered anecdotes. Many have never read a single work of Elizabethan literature. Some high school graduates are essentially illiterate. Nor can it be seriously argued that education in more contemporary knowledge has replaced classical education. Classical education has simply been abandoned. The few public school graduates who emerge well educated are either the products of an isolated good teacher or are largely self taught.

The prestige of grammar and high school teachers themselves has declined with the decline of education. This decline is in no small part linked to the inferior education offered by schools of education compared to that provided in normal schools in the last century.

We cannot correct this grim situation by simply improving the present one. And simply spending more money is a clearly misdirected panacea. What is required is the recognition of a counterintuitive truth: the more we spend on education, the worse it gets. This is true at the teaching level, the administrative level, and the facilities level.

At the teaching level, quality is at least as important as quantity, and merely hiring more teachers will not guarantee that they are good teachers. Smaller faculties in grammar schools or high schools can be more selective than larger ones. If a school is hiring two teachers of freshman English, it will try to hire the best two available. If the school is hiring three, it will hire one who would not have made the cut if only two were being hired. Increasing faculty size produces a decline in average quality.

At the administrative level, a larger school administration creates bureaucratic impediments to the ability of good teachers to do their jobs. In addition to hindering effective teachers, the bureaucracy fears union power, tends to protect incompetent teachers, and turns the promotion process from teacher to administrator into an entitlement. We have come a long way from the days when the local school board hired and fired teachers strictly on merit.

Finally, the more we spend on facilities for extracurricular activities, the more we distract the students from the real reason they are in school — to learn. What we need is a simple classical curriculum, smaller but erudite faculties, and fewer distractions from the real mission of schools. The more money we spend, the more we defeat these goals.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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