The Rabbi Writes: Michigan Public Schools

The Jewish Humanist, February 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 7

The public school system in Michigan is in a crisis condition. The property tax for education has been dismissed. Public confidence is declining. The morale of teachers and students is at an all time low. Religious groups are clamoring for the replacement of state education with the voucher system. And a controversial referendum to provide alternative funding through a higher sales tax is imminent. 

The crisis stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of my childhood. In the first sixty years of this century the American state educational system was hailed as one of the finest examples of American democracy. Even free enterprise enthusiasts liked the public schools, even though it meant government control of education. While some proponents were fanatic Protestants who hated Catholics and the Catholic parochial school system most proponents were happy parents who believed that the state school system was delivering exactly what they wanted. 

The old public school system was very good at turning farmer children into urban labor and European immigrants into American citizens. It was also very good at producing a literate work force that could undertake unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It was blessed with low paid spinster teachers, a young population eager for child education, a reverent relationship between parents and administrators, and low expectations. The social setting was one where two parent families and non-working mothers were the norm. Television was either non-existent or new and children read newspapers or wrote letters. 

The crisis in the public schools exists because the old social setting no longer exists. There are virtually no farmer children to turn into an urban work force. European children have been replaced by African, Asian and Hispanic children. Jobs for unskilled labor have vanished together with the easy affluence that little education at one time could bring you. Low-paid spinster teachers have yielded to self-esteeming professionals who want decent compensation and tenure at the same time. The population is aging, filled with old people who have no personal vested interest in funding child education. The relationship between administrators, teachers and parents is adversarial, aggravated by the emergence of aggressive teacher unions and indifferent politicians. Stable two parent families are shrinking into a minority-all of this change adding new burdens and responsibilities to an overburdened and non (sic) traumatized school system. The analytic skills that come from reading and writing have found a substitute in screen watching. And a more affluent bourgeois America has much higher expectations of its schools and its teachers. 

The consequence is a declining faith in the value of the public school system and an increasing unwillingness to find it. 

Something dramatic needs to be done. Either the public school system will be reformed and funded. Or it will yield to a chaotic system of private schools paid for by state vouchers. 

I am no friend of Governor Engler. But I applaud his willingness to confront the issue. The public school system will not be improved by defending the status quo and identifying all the enemies of public education who are members of his entourage. The complaints are legitimate. The crisis is real. 

I believe that right now, there is no alternative to public schools having the major responsibility for youth education. If we were starting from scratch, I might choose another alternative. But you do not tear down a system that basically works and replace it with an untested private system that will still rely on state money. 

So what do we need to do to reform the system effectively? We need to take bold action. Timid reforms will not work. 

We need to reform the school curriculum so that it trains students for the jobs of the future. Self-esteem does not flow from talking about it or praising one’s ethnic background. It comes from competence and employment. There is no substitute in today’s world for a basic knowledge of the language of science and technology. 

We need to find the teachers who can do this job, pay them adequately and rescue them from overcentralized (sic) and intrusive bureaucracies. Teachers should be rewarded for merit. The tenure system, which exists mainly in the public sector, ought to be discarded. 

We need to charter experimental schools, which are responsible to public authority-but which allow creative educators to test new procedures of education without having to conform to standard policies. 

We need to allow parental choice within a school district-and within the ability of a local school to accommodate demand. Schools that parents do not want should be closed or changed. 

We need to allow public schools the options of turning their operation over to private educational corporations. This experiment in Minnesota has proved quite successful. This transfer must only be made to entrepreneurs with a clear secular agenda. 

We need to establish performance standards for children in each area of learning. There is no substitute for testing. The fear that testing will produce uniformity and rote learning is out weighed (sic) by the disadvantage of chaotic expectations and school certificates that are a sham. 

We need to find funding for the system that provides equal support for the rich and the poor. The local property tax is no longer a feasible funding route. The income tax is a better route but will not be accepted by the general public. The sales tax is regressive-but there is a chance that it will be approved. Therefore, I support the referendum initiative. Hating Engler is not a sufficient reason to oppose. Helping children is more important. 

In some ironic way, Michigan has become a ‘pioneer’ for educational reform. We have to do something dramatic right away.