Can public schools still be all things to all people?
By By Doug Reiser and Robert M. Dufour
Our founding fathers conceived a public education system that would teach reading and writing and some arithmetic. The goal was to provide people with the basic skills to be good citizens so they could actively participate in our electoral process. Most villages and towns did not have schools; those that did had one-room school houses. The school calendar was (and still is) dictated by the planting and harvesting schedule of agrarian America. Students attended school when they could, and often did not get more than a sixth- or eighth-grade education.
The industrial revolution created new demands for a better educated and trained work force. Public schools took up the charge and modeled their schools on a factory model right down to the design and look of the buildings, classrooms and even schedules. It worked for what it was designed for—the training of a workforce that would be paid an hourly wage and work in industrial America.
During the 1800s and early 1900s college was the purview of the elite that could afford it. As America developed a middle class, more families could afford college. After WWII, the GI Bill opened up new opportunities for returning servicemen to attend college, rather than overwhelming the workforce and causing high unemployment. The public schools once again shifted their focus to prepare students to attend college.
At the same time, something else was happening in public schools—especially inner city public schools. The school became the hub of the community. It also became a very convenient delivery modality for the perceived need for an array of social services. Schools today provide dental care, medical clinics, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech improvement services, social work services and counseling services. Schools often have become the preeminent social service provider in their communities.
Many of these services are provided not only because there is a need but there is also a direct correlation between a child’s academic success and the provision of what has been called early intervention services. Many of these services are being received by students that are not covered under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Therefore, though important and necessary, they are not mandated.
Schools also teach kids how to drive, play the violin, sing in a choir, dance, act, fix cars, program computers, write software, graphic design, physical fitness, sports, heavy equipment operation, nursing, etc. All these are very important to the proper development and success of our children.
With the new property tax cap legislation, tough decisions will need to be made. School budgets consist, for the large majority, of contractual expense related to salary and benefits. With budgets being capped at a rate lower than the projected increase for these contractual expenses, something will have to give. Schools may no longer be able to provide non-mandated services and programs that otherwise would benefit our students. It will be up to the taxpayers and their representative school boards to decide what programs are important, worth paying for and exactly how much that will cost. Trying times lie ahead.
[Doug Reiser is president of the Eldred Central School District Board of Education and Robert M. Dufour is superintendent of Eldred Central School District.]