Schooling the spenders

The best education is not measured in dollars and cents

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade at 29," Jan. 19, 2002

It was almost 30 years ago, and I was a fledgling school administrator. But the lesson I learned then is no less valid for our society today.

Ours was something of an experimental Christian school. The unusual enrollment included a large number of gifted students and an equally large number who were especially needy. The school had been established several years earlier primarily to meet the high-school needs of a number of faculty and staff families at a nearby college. But many of those families also wanted to reach out to a significant minority population in the area.

Laudable as the vision was, it may have been ill-advised. It takes experience and resources to meet special needs at either end of the educational spectrum. To meet special needs at both ends-and to do it simultaneously-requires extraordinary gifts I know I did not have.

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But we tried. And now, when I reflect on that strange blend of exhilaration and frustration with which I ended so many of those days, I also remember the stark lesson I learned as I listened in on an after-school conversation between 11th-grader Paula and 7th-grader Edward. Paula's father had his Ph.D., and her mother was both active in community affairs and an organized wife and mother. Paula's home life was a picture of all that makes it easy and enticing for a youngster to learn. Edward, on the other hand, came from a broken home (I never did meet his father) and an even more badly broken elementary school. He could barely read, and seemed to carry with him every educational handicap I could imagine.

It wasn't that Paula was so extraordinarily gifted or that Edward was so hopelessly backward. I could tell even as I heard them talk that they had much in common and enjoyed each other's company. But however wholesome our efforts to provide them with a common education might have seemed, the actual working out of that ideal was considerably harder.

That's when it dawned on me: For Paula, I could cut by half the dollars our little school was spending on her; then I could cut them in half again, and still again, and I would barely dent her opportunities to learn. For Edward, I could double what we were spending on him that year; then I could double that and double it still once more, and for all that I would do precious little to restore to him all the educational benefits that had been stolen from him before he ever reached age 12.

This wasn't really about money. This was about the things money only dreams of buying.

That's a truth American educators, American politicians, and the American public need to apply to their overall understanding of what's happening in American schools. The U.S. Congress can plug in an extra $20 billion here, and a new state lottery can promise a few hundred million there. But the stark truth remains that money, however important it may be in the educational process, only obfuscates the real problems America's schools wrestle with.

Tell that, please, to President Bush as he travels this month the length and breadth of the nation ballyhooing the educational bill his bipartisan coalition cobbled together. To make it acceptable, however, the bill's creators had to forfeit virtually every creative idea they'd originally included. Specifically, liberals proved again that however much they love the idea of choice in other areas of life, choice in education is a liberty they will never tolerate. Mr. Bush's original idea of making it possible for a few students whose public schools were especially bad to transfer to private schools was thrown out on its ear.

The main thing left in the big Bush-Kennedy package is money. But the American people are ill-served every time it is suggested that opening the public checkbook is any solution for our educational woes.

For the fact remains that the best-performing schools in America tend to be those with modest budgets. Chattanooga Christian School, for example, the school where I pioneered 30 years ago, continues to be a pacesetter for schools (public and private) not just in its area, but across the country. It not only maintains but has refined its commitment to students across the whole educational spectrum. Yet Chattanooga Christian spends an average of just $4,800 per student per year, while state schools in the area spend something like $6,400 per student per year (a 33 percent premium) for a significantly inferior product.

The question, not just in Chattanooga but across a vast educational landscape, is a natural one: Just how much more than $6,400 do the state people think they need to spend in order to catch up with those who are spending only $4,800?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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