Do We Give a Damn About Public Schools?

Last Thursday I attended an evening meeting at a local public school that’s on the close-down list as our school district (4J in Eugene, OR) reels in shock over massive budget cuts. I have a 7-year-old grandson in first grade at that school, so I joined his mom at the meeting.

It was a sad meeting. There isn’t enough money. Schools are getting closed, kids and teachers getting shuffled around, we’re heading towards fewer schools with more kids in every classroom, less support, fewer school days, more decline in public education.

The public schools have already jammed more kids than ever in classes, and cut the hours, and the school days, and given up everything they think they can.

I hesitate to write about this in this blog because it is so hopelessly political, outside my normal areas of discussion, and just plain doomed to frustration and, sadly, predictability. Complaining about public education in this country is trite. There are choruses of articulate and well-educated voices crying out against what’s happening to education in this country.

You can find lots of statistics, and lots of research, and lots of people ready to blame somebody: one political party or another, parents, teachers, politicians, teachers’ unions, administration, coddling the kids, equality through mediocrity, and on and on.

If we really cared, as a society, we’d make it a priority. Do we really care?

When I was a kid, in the 1950s and 1960s, education was an accepted national priority. Sure, maybe it was because we were afraid of the Russians, or worrying about the space race … but it worked. And maybe it was because we were comparatively wealthier then than now, in the aftermath of World War II, as competing nations’ industrial base had been destroyed. And maybe we weren’t so polarized politically.

And while we’re bickering over whether it’s Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives or too many administrators or teachers’ unions or voter revolt or government waste, teachers and kids are stuffed together in impossible situations already, and public school budgets decline further.

Do you relate to national pride? How does it feel to live in a country whose public education is second or third rate?

Do we care? Or is politics more important? Or is good education just too expensive for this society?

(Photo credit: Paul Carter/The Register Guard)


  • vrmillion02 says:

    It’s October 2016 and I was just at a PTO meeting for a 4J school and there was squabbling about spending $13K to fix the library and hire a librarian for 3 hours every day. There is NO budget! Parent volunteers and the teachers are doing what they can to keep the school going. It’s incredibly depressing. The school is a mess and even simple things like deep cleaning needs to happen. I’m close to showing up there at 6am and start cleaning the damn place myself.

    Volunteer levels are dropping off also since most parents already have full time jobs so they are too busy and or exhausted. This is a huge problem and I don’t see how it is going to improve anytime soon. There needs to be a level of pride and interest brought back to our schools. When the next generations are crammed into classrooms with little to no PE, art or music time that is going to start crushing the entrepreneur spirit this country was built on. We are slowly deteriorating our country by not giving our kids a higher level of standards in themselves and their surroundings.

    • Tim Berry says:

      @Vrmillion02, Amen to that. If all we care about is lower tax rates, we get what we deserve. And our kids and grandkids suffer.

      • vrmillion02 says:

        As someone who has been heavily involved in design and marketing I realize a need to get everyone to buy into the idea on why investing in our schools is beneficial. The best place to start is at the base and work your way out while utilizing those enthusiast as your champions to bring in others. But eventually it has to go beyond the parents and into the community/neighborhoods. Hopefully I can report some success next year on this plan. There are many obstacles I first need to work around to make sure the message is presented clearly.

  • Tim Berry says:

    Elia, further reflections, and looking again at the data that’s out there including the links you provided, I have to admit that it does make me wonder.

    As you suggest, I don’t want to be ignorant. As we look at the terrible problem in our local schools, I have to wonder whether we aren’t ignoring the impact of extremely generous compensation, especially related to retirement programs, of our public sector employees including teachers and especially non-teaching staff of the public schools.

    I fear this is a political problem: unions have power over politicians because of the vote, and politicians fear not getting reelected. Meanwhile, with our schools falling apart, nobody seems to want to talk about that element.

    I find it all very worrisome. Can it be true that we’re paying people way above what the private sector does, and those people are taking that quietly home while letting the schools fall apart? If so, we can’t blame the selfish voters for all of the problem.

    I just don’t know. It’s no coincidence that I posted “facts, facts, everywhere, but truth is scarce” on this blog two days ago.


  • Valerie A. White says:

    Dear Tim,

    I would certainly like to compliment you on the picture you pasted on your blog as the faces clearly represent the level of concern we all feel.

    I found your website and blog as a result of searchng for software that will facilitate writing a business plan for an alliance or coalition under construction. The group is made up of many different community participants aimed at creating a replicable system empowering much needed change in our public schools operating from an objective data-based approach. (Would welcome the opportunity to show how impossible that task is.) As an individual or even small group of individuals, it would be tough to tackle issues and bureacracy firmly entrenched in current school systems. It could beat the life out of anyone!

    We are so focused and committed that I am certain we are either stupidly optimistic or on the verge of something great!

    You know South Carolina is lovely this time of year. I would like to extend an invitation for you to come and meet with us. Our plan is to create structures and plans that can be used in communities across America. Cross your fingers! We have your grandson and my son and all of our children in mind….and in our hearts!

    All My Best!

    Valerie A. White
    Momentum Learning

  • Elia Freedman says:

    I would not be surprised. The biggest expense in any business is its people and frankly there are a lot of people in our schools. I don’t know what it was like 50 years ago but if you look at your typical school organizational chart we don’t even get into the school until level 7 or 8. Teachers, frankly, are almost the bottom rung. Now think of all the administrative people in 4J and think of all their salaries and, more importantly, their benefits and pensions. I think it adds up pretty quick. So 5x? I can believe it pretty easily.

  • Elia Freedman says:

    Tim, am I reading the data wrong from that link I provided? It says “current expenditures in 2007-8 dollars,” which means it is inflation adjusted. In fact the note says “Constant dollars based on the CPI.”

    Yes, Sabrina’s graph says otherwise which is why she should be providing a link to the data she used for the graph or the graph itself. How else are we supposed to understand the reality?

    I can be wrong but I don’t want to be ignorant.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Elia, I’m with you on that one … the language is confusing, and seems contradictory too because even your quote starts with the phrase “current expenditures” and it can’t be both current dollars and adjusted for inflation. And then look at what’s happening, in real terms like teachers’ pay, classrooms, materials, children per class, comparative results, school days per year, hours per day … Does it seem to you like we’re spending more now, in real terms? That would surprise me a lot.

  • CWebb says:

    It would also be good to look into the waste/corruption that is continuing to plague the system. Schools that are getting built in my area are extremely wasteful – open areas for “relaxing”, glass walls built over running streams with 6 TV monitors around the upper walls, etc. The price tags for these schools are in the $60 M – $80 M range. That’s extrodinarily high in our area. Do they teach better than schools built more simply with a greater emphasis on the teachers and classrooms? Doubtful. But someone lined their pockets in that build! Meanwhile, it’s our society that suffers from this glamorisation of environment. My schools were simple in general, but definately had plenty of amenities for the core needs beyond the classroom, ie, science labs, pool, shop area, home ec area, library. On top of this, we have had scandal after scandal of administration abuse. Janitor services operating at $2ooK salaries by working only on overtime hours, administer embezzlement, computer thefts, computer spying, double payment of salaries with post-retirement rehiring, etc, etc. The public is beaten down and has become cynical. If communities want to restore faith and trust in the system, they have to get involved and become the eyes of the school. Ask questions, force issues, demand right activity. Parents used to be involved. They don’t seem to want to take the time now. Any activity of importance requires involvement, and not just around the specific child’s activities, but for the community and system. It’s not happening.

  • Joy Marshall says:

    Thank you so much for this heartfelt and important blog.
    Palo Alto software is a great part of our community!

    My comments:

    1) adjusting for inflation, we do not spend a lot more on education than we did in the 1960s.
    2) however, we have a lot more mandates and have to spend much more on high-needs, expensive kids. This isn’t a judgement on that, it is just a statement of fact.
    3) there are other cost drivers (health insurance, PERS, English language learners, more demands for technology, more resources spent on testing)

    Then, we passed property tax cuts!

    So, higher costs, less money – and that is why my 5th grader has 36 kids in her class, my high schooler has over 40 kids in EVERY one of her classes, and more cuts are coming next year! We have to do something about this!

    People can visit Stand for Children , to learn more:

    Joy Marshall
    Stand for Children

  • Charles Robinson says:

    The problem isn’t that people don’t think education is important. It’s that education funding has become a politicized issue. Small groups at either end of the spectrum are controlling the dialog and people are too apathetic to get involved. You might say that this means people don’t care. It’s that they don’t care enough to overcome the barrier to entry into the discussion. They don’t see it as an important enough issue. Yet.

    I think this is also partly because of the income gap that is growing wider. The top 1% now hold more wealth than the rest of the population combined and the middle class is evaporating. The population at large is being played a fool and pitted against one another.

  • Elia Freedman says:

    @Tim, the US Dept of Education has a tremendous web site. (I sent a four years trying to build an education business so spent a lot of time there.) The data you are looking for is that there has been a 5x rise in per student spending nationally since 1961:

    This is an issue dear to my heart. My wife and step father were teachers. As mentioned I sent years building an education business that failed. And I have two daughters ready to go to school.

    After all that time I can’t help but wonder if our system always stunk. We just remember it with rose colored glasses. Please keep in mind that I am not advocating we do nothing about it.

  • Ben Kearney says:

    I won’t get into the politics either, although I do have very strong opinions. The reality is that our public school system is a disaster and not going to get better before it gets worse. We need to do something, anything. We can’t just keep making cuts here and there and believe that it will get better. The changes must be dramatic, and no, I don’t mean just dramatic cuts. Fundamental changes to the way we provide education to our children are required. Please, get involved and advocate for whatever you think is the best idea. Hopefully it isn’t too late.

  • Tim says:

    For your grandson’s school district, given the budget and enrollment, how much is being spent per pupil? I wonder how that compares, in constant dollars, to what it was when you and I were in school (60’s & early 70’s for me)?

    Not trying to pass any judgement, just curious.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Elia, Tim, I have the same data you do about the rise of student spending nationally since 1961, but that’s in constant dollars, as it says right on that site, “total expenditures per pupil (not adjusted for inflation.”

      As MommyCeo says in her post today, “we don’t need no education:”

      Why do we have any issues, we have raised the per-pupil spending from $3,400 in 1965 to $8,997. But here is the drum roll, people. If you take $3,400 in 1965 and you use an index to see what it equals in today’s dollars, it is the equivalent of $19,231. Now your jaw can drop, and you can realize how much funding we have actually cut out of our schools since 1965.

      Just to make sure that’s clear, this would indicate that our spending in real terms, adjusted for inflation, has declined from $19,231 in today’s dollars back in 1965, to $8,997 today. That’s less than half.

  • Ivan Walsh says:

    Hi Tim, ,

    We have a similar issue in Ireland in that we have free education but… the stealth taxes are making it harder to get in and stay in.

    I feel that education has become a deluxe commodity and for those outside affluent regions, it’s going to get worse.


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