Column: We can’t return to 1940s schools, but education savings neededA recent News Tribune story about a small, 100-year-old former school in the tiny Lake County community of Toimi made me think of the kinds of schools my parents attended.
By: Virgil Swing, For the Budgeteer News
A recent News Tribune story about a small, 100-year-old former school in the tiny Lake County community of Toimi made me think of the kinds of schools my parents attended. The Toimi school wasn’t a one-room school like they attended, but it was small and rural.
The one-room schools my parents attended in rural northern Minnesota had one teacher to educate students in various grades. I’m sure this education of a century ago had flaws, but it had the advantage of being inexpensive. Somehow, my parents learned to read, write, add and do the other things society wants of residents.
My own 1940s elementary school was urban and had several teachers. But it was spartan by today’s standards: one teacher per grade, with the principal also teaching one grade. There was a janitor and a school nurse, who also served other schools. It was also inexpensive to run, partly because teachers were poorly paid in those days.
Some kids fell between the cracks in this stripped-down school, and those then called retarded did not attend. We also all spoke English and almost all came from stable, two-parent homes — things today’s teachers can’t take for granted.
But most students in my elementary school later graduated, and many went to college.
A recent New York Times story about serious problems in Philadelphia schools noted money-driven layoffs of nearly 2,000 employees — of whom more than 1,200 were aides and 127 were assistant principals.
School officials said they were cutting education to the bone.
Cloquet schools of my era didn’t have aides or assistant principals. But they never heard of costly special-education programs either — or students coming to school hungry (unless they slept late and skipped breakfast).
So is the answer to return to the spartan days of yore and the much less-expensive education? That’s not possible, given the nature of young people who enter today’s schools.
But this shows all expenditures must be scrutinized to see which are truly necessary. This isn’t needed because conservatives want to hold down taxes. It’s needed because the public schools today, including Philadelphia, Duluth and many others, are cutting basics and overcrowding classrooms.
One place to look for what can be done for less is the nation’s Catholic schools. They once had teaching sisters who provided low-cost instruction, but I think that has ended in most places. In many cases, these schools serve low-income neighborhoods where kids also come to school hungry from broken homes where education draws too little emphasis.
And these parochial schools educate students for less money. Part of that answer is teachers who’re paid a lot less. There are other answers I’m unaware of.
I’ve written in this space many times of the need for public schools to cut back on employee fringe benefits that have proven to be unaffordable. So far, there’s precious little evidence of this happening.
The Minnesota Legislature, this year dominated by DFLers who pay VERY close attention to the wishes of the teachers union, did a disservice by eliminating graduation tests. Public school students will now graduate after receiving a required number of credits.
One lawmaker defended the change, saying: “It is more than seat time.” But that’s exactly what will happen in districts seeking to keep students and parents happy. Colleges should prepare to run even more new students through remedial classes to learn what they didn’t in high school.
No Child Left Behind is still the law of the land, but the feds have granted many states permission to find other ways to meet the spirit of that bipartisan legislation. It’s hard to believe scrapping graduation tests is in the spirit of No Child.
Minnesota lawmakers also threw a useful amount of new cash toward K-12 education, which eases the financial burden in Duluth and other cities. They also voted a two-year bailout of the underfunded Duluth teacher pension plan.
However, the Legislature also had to fill a budget deficit, and there’s no guarantee lawmakers will be able to continue to be generous with public schools.
The search for affordable public schools that educate students so they’re ready for college or the real world must continue.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at email@example.com.