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Beyond Budget Woes

With school budget season underway, most of us have our attention focused very close to home. We’re concerned with the local district’s budget, how much our taxes will go up (“Hey, what happened to the two-percent tax cap?”), and figuring out how we are ever going to prevent escalating employee health care and pension costs from driving us to despair, if not to a low-tax state like Alaska.

Here in Nassau County, we have some of America’s best  public schools. Certainly, some of the most expensive ones. While we gripe about the costs, the mere threat of canceling lacrosse or marching band typically guarantees that the school budget passes.

For most of us in Nassau, the pain of public education is the price. It’s easy to overlook the fact that in much of our country, the pain of public education is public education itself. Drive just a few miles from some of our nation’s most well endowed school districts, and you’re in some of the most troubled.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, perhaps some even justifiable. But if you take a big-picture view for even an instant, this disparity seems unjust. If the previous sentence gets me a nasty call and email, it will be just a tiny taste of what Jonathan Kozol has faced in more than four decades of reporting, writing and speaking out on this very inconvenient truth.

“You don’t need to go to Mississippi to find injustice,” Kozol said last week, speaking at Farmingdale State College. “You can find modern replicas of Mississippi right here. There’s Roosevelt…Black students in America are more isolated intellectually and physically than at any time since 1968.”

Strong words. But this 76-year-old Boston-based author and activist has backed them up in book after book. His latest, 2012’s Fire In The Ashes, follows a group of South Bronx children for a quarter century, through school (one kid was “artificially retarded by the City of New York,” said Kozol), through tragedy (two of the boys committed suicide) and through triumph (Kozol chronicles how one girl made it all the way through college with the backing of benefactors).  

In our quest to solve complex problems with sound bites, America has made “testing” and “accountability” the watchwords of our “reformed” educational system. Parents and administrators in many affluent Nassau County school districts are objecting to state requirements that they spend money on computers and software for new, mandated tests. They also ask why their high-achieving schools should have to take these tests at all. Good points. They are right. But in the meantime, the testing goes on and becomes even more pervasive. As Kozol points out, this has a deleterious effect on our whole educational system.

“Teachers are told they will be demoted or fired if they can’t pump the test scores two percent a year,” Kozol said.

At best, the result is — especially in poor districts — “teaching to the test” and what Kozol calls a “drill and kill” educational system. It’s not learning, as previous generations knew it. Instead, in the quest for data and efficiency, many schools — again, especially in poor districts — become test-prep factories.

Or, as Kozol puts it, “better scoring apartheid.”

At worst, there is cheating and data manipulation. This national problem hit home recently in Glen Cove with an investigation into teachers coaching students on tests.

No, Kozol says, higher security on high-stakes tests is not the answer. Not in rich districts and not in poor districts. The answer is providing a wide-ranging education like so many of us knew growing up, as well as addressing the issues that usually lie beneath low academic achievement, with poverty and access to health care topping the list.

We’re fortunate that for most of us, school budget season isn’t loaded with such fundamental issues. Rather, we’re lucky to only have to weigh higher taxes against losing lacrosse and marching band.