by Darlene Kennedy
The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently completed a two year survey of 10,000 public schools across the country, and not surprisingly found many in need of renovation. Like our bridges and major highways, America's schools, many of which were built between World War II and the early sixties to accommodate the high water of the baby boomer flood, are now beginning to show their age. What was startling was the GAO's estimated price tag of over $100 billion to "repair or upgrade" these schools.
With the exception of national defense, this White House can usually be counted on to support any project involving a dollar figure immediately followed by eleven zeros. That it pushes for only $5 billion in reconstruction funds may have shown once and for all that we live in an age of diminished expectations. And President Clinton ditched even that relatively paltry sum during negotiations over the recent budget deal.
Undaunted by his own political timidity, the President showed courage by dispatching Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) to lead the push to reinstate the $5 billion he had just agreed to delete. This effort was coordinated with uncritical network news broadcasts of video footage, submitted by teachers and principals, of exposed wiring, damaged walls, leaking ceilings and other architectural horrors from schools around the country. Invariably, these videos were poorly lighted and badly edited, so it is unlikely any of the educator cum cinematographers who shot the footage were assisted by Steven Spielberg or roving squads from George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic. After bankrolling the Democrats for years, Hollywood blew an opportunity to do what it does best -- invent fiction. Sen. Moseley-Braun's amendment to reinstate the $5 billion was rejected in a 56-43 Senate vote.
The canard here is that America's educational infrastructure will disintegrate without assistance from Uncle Sam. To believe the President, Washington is responsible for fixing bad plumbing in Mississippi kindergartens and broken ceiling tiles in Montana high schools -- not to mention ensuring that each child is fed, has a computer, is linked to the Internet, has positive self-esteem at the end of the day, and knows how to utilize the proper prophylactic to avoid contracting AIDS. Again, as before, the American people are bombarded with sad stories and poignant pictures of helpless children led by hapless instructors who can't possibly teach without immediate intervention from Uncle Sugar.
Does President Clinton really believe the reason American children aren't learning is because the buildings aren't sufficiently refurbished? That American children, compared to children from virtually every other civilized nation, are scoring so low in standardized math, science and reading tests because their schoolhouses are in disrepair? Let's have a reality check, folks. Most children aren't learning well in the public schools because many teachers as well as some parents are not doing their jobs. Parents who attempt to take an active role in their child's education are too often met with stonewalling and excuses from teachers, their unions, and top-heavy school administrations.
Conveniently left off the radar screen by advocates of more spending are the success stories. These include children in home schooling and children who excel in Catholic and other parochial schools (isn't it something how Catholic schools accomplish so much with just a fraction of the funds state schools spend per pupil, and in buildings usually far older?). Yet the President persists in trying to pour more money into school buildings, computers and self-esteem programs when the real problem is not how much we as a society insist on spending, but what we insist our children learn.
Without a doubt no parent, including myself, wants a child to attend classes in buildings that are structurally unsound and dangerous. There's a tremendous difference, however, between hazardous conditions and aesthetic eyesores. Patching holes, painting the walls and changing light bulbs can be a priority, but not when a $5 billion price tag is attached.
(Darlene Addie Kennedy, a member on the national Advisory Committee Board of the African-American leadership group Project 21, is a tax attorney and policy analyst for the Washington-based Independent Women's Forum.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.