Rx FOR SCHOOLS (PART TWO)
In the April 15 issue of USA Today, respondents to a Gallup Poll were reported to have named property taxes as their least-favorite taxation method--hated even more than income taxes by a 17% margin.
This is not surprising since property taxes across the country have doubled since 1985, mostly in response to widespread budget deficits and current unfunded mandates such as local homeland security measures. These two factors could explain why Shelby County residents are finally starting to question whether they can afford new school construction as an antidote for overflowing classrooms, and furthermore, whether it is the only cure.
This antipathy for property tax increases along with revenue shortfalls in a moribund economy, will force our county government to look for operating efficiencies wherever they may be found.
However, achieving these efficiencies will require asking ourselves if we can continue to indulge in Baby Boomer nostalgia that causes us to shutter our middle and secondary school complexes for two-thirds of every day, just because that's the way it was done when we were young.
Realizing these savings will require changing the way we handle an assortment of educational issues--graduation credits, extracurricular activities, bus schedules, meal service and personnel placement among them. Unclogging our high school hallways will also demand that taxpayers not allow county government to become an institutional invertebrate when tough decisions are called for.
When the Florida high school I attended from 1970 to 1973 went to double shifts to alleviate crowding, officials reduced graduation requirements to 15 credits for grades 10-12. Physical education classes and many electives did not make the cut. Shelby County schools could do the same and still have time every day for English, math, science, history and a language. What we wouldn't have time for are courses such as marketing, psychology or art.
Reducing course offerings is never a popular choice, but can we justify spending millions of dollars on optional classes when reducing hours would produce significant savings?
A seven-hour school day is especially curious in that Shelby County Schools currently has a twenty credit graduation minimum for grades 9-12. Twenty credits divided by four years equals five credits per year--exactly the number of hours in a double shift arrangement of 7 AM until noon and noon until 5 PM. But the current six class per day schedule results in a total of twenty-four credits spread over four years--a four credit surplus.
Why are taxpayers footing the bill for courses that are not required for graduation? To provide a cushion for students who struggle perhaps? A compassionate act to be sure, but as far as I know, neither college nor the world of work provides a similar insurance policy against failure. And aren't those the two institutions for which our school system purports to be preparing our children?
Any discussion of making extracurricular activities such as sports, band and cheerleading the secondary concern of public schools is often met with emotional debates about "well-roundedness" and "tradition." Both fine aims, I might add. But they should hardly drive school schedules, particularly since this is not an either/or proposition where the choice is to do away with these enrichment activities altogether or schedule them only after school.
Just as we did in my high school thirty years ago, those attending morning classes could participate after school and those on the afternoon schedule, before school. And marketing, psychology and art could be treated as extracurricular offerings. Will this create a problem for those who rely on buses? Yes, but no more than the current schedule which compels those who participate in after-school programs to arrange for private transportation.
Speaking of buses, it would make sense to compress the schedules so that there are fewer routes because there are fewer empty buses rattling around from barn to school. For example, the morning schedules could run as they currently do, but when the driver returned to school, it would be with a load of afternoon students who would disembark moments before the morning students board for the ride home.
In fact, county taxpayers ought to be asking if bus service should even be offered in suburban areas where families who don't own private transportation are a rarity. Once upon a time, there wasn't a car in every garage, but we're providing bus service as if this long ago picture were still part of the American landscape.
By eliminating the traditional seven-hour day, the system could also eliminate food service of the kind that requires onsite preparation of foods and all the equipment, the attendant square footage, food inventory costs, utilities to provide the cooking and a full-time staff including their benefits. Sandwiches, juices, fresh fruits and ice cream could be offered as snacks on the run as they were at my high school. And with a five-hour day, the need for a full meal is less imperative.
The argument that sound nutrition is best served by a hot meal might have some merit if the current school menus were not replete with greasy, fried, calorie-laden food choices that make the phrase "school nutrition" an oxymoron. As one who has "dined" at a number of middle and high school cafeterias in Memphis, I can say with certainty that it would be hard to create meals with less nutrition than the ones I had to consume as a teacher.
And since Tennessee has some of the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the nation and these conditions are related to poor nutrition, our schools could actually stop promoting these diseases and start being part of the solution to these very serious health problems.
Scheduling teachers and support staff is likely to present a real challenge because many adults prefer leaving work at 2:30. But research shows that older teenagers experience REM sleep at 7AM, the same ridiculously early hour at which they are expected to be in class. Younger teenagers appear to suffer no ill effects, suggesting that double shifts which schedule middle schoolers in the morning and high schoolers in the afternoon, could produce added benefits including increases in test scores and grades, and reductions in absenteeism and tardiness. Edina, Minnesota realigned its high schools to accommodate the sleep needs of teenagers and found the aforementioned salutary effects.
And with all due respect to the preferences of teachers and the invaluable contribution they make to society, the school system is ostensibly operated for the benefit of the students and paid for by the citizens. Shouldn't we be accommodating their needs instead of the other way around?
Although this new schedule would not entirely eliminate staffing increases as some new teachers would have to be hired for two shifts, the additional salaries would be fewer than those required to populate a brand new school.
When additional funding on education is proposed, there is usually rhetoric about preparing our children for this nascent century of three years. Yet when there is talk of reducing spending on education customs that may have outlived their usefulness, tradition is the tried and true shield of defenders of the status quo.
"Once upon a time" should be reserved for mythical tales of the past and medical procedures that involve leeches, not for finding cures to school overcrowding. And brand new schools are a cure that Shelby County can't afford.