Is money for education making much difference?

January 28, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TALK ABOUT getting kept after class: Here's Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, working one of the back corridors of the State House in Annapolis the other night, chatting up a few legislators, bending a few convenient arms, pulling all sorts of charts and graphs and test scores out of her briefcase and trying to look energized as she heads toward the home stretch of what will be about a 16-hour day.

It is 9 o'clock at night. She has been running hard since about 7 in the morning. The General Assembly session is only a week old, but a few days earlier Gov. Parris Glendening, in a 30-minute State of the State address, spent his final 20 minutes talking of nothing but education.

A billion dollars, he wants to spend on public schools during the next four years: $250 million a year to build and renovate facilities around the state, plus $102 million in new money for colleges and universities, plus untold money to hire 1,100 teachers to cut public school class sizes.

And it's lovely to behold all these plans, and the idealism behind all the efforts, until the words of an English teacher are recalled from a conversation a few weeks ago.

This person teaches at Catonsville Community College and has been there a long time. In all those years, somebody asked, had the teacher seen any erosion of skills in kids entering higher education?

"Are you kidding?" the teacher said. "Like they've dropped off a cliff."

"That bad?"

"That bad?" The teacher paused to reach for the telling insight. "I've got kids in freshman English with third-grade reading skills."

This is, in fact, not an isolated cry. The English teachers talk of reading skills, and the math professors bemoan simple arithmetic ignorance, and everybody wonders how such kids were passed through the various grades.

But we keep throwing money at our schools, because Americans believe we can spend our way out of all problems, or at least absolve ourselves of guilt in the process.

And why not? In his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton, looking for friends wherever he can buy them, mentioned more billions for the Pentagon. We're the world's only superpower, and we need billions more to defend ourselves? Against whom?

Before we worry about blowing money on schools that might otherwise be spent on our grand national defense -- guns vs. butter, that's been the eternal post-war debate, hasn't it? -- let's kiss off that old argument. Not long ago, a fellow named Lawrence J. Korb, writing in the New York Times Magazine declared:

"The U.S. spends more than six times as much on defense as its closest rival, and almost as much on national security as the rest of the world combined. In 1995, Bill Clinton (spent) $30 billion more on defense, in constant dollars, than Richard Nixon did 20 years before, and substantially more than his own secretary of defense argued was necessary in 1992. . . . The Pentagon now spends more on readiness (about $60,000 per person) than it did in the Reagan and Bush administrations, when readiness hit all-time highs."

For the record, and for those assuming Korb is some kind of (dare we speak the name) liberal, he was assistant secretary of defense -- for Ronald Reagan.

So, let's not have any qualms about the governor of Maryland wanting to spend a mere billion on schools, or demanding more from Washington. The question is: What do we get for the money?

When Nancy Grasmick took over the public schools a few years ago, in the midst of a dreary succession of disasters, she knew a few things: Classes were too big. Too many teachers were out of their league. Social promotions were so rampant that colleges were getting kids unprepared to succeed. And schools in Baltimore were a disaster unto themselves, for reasons relating not only to money but elements outside the classroom.

Carl Stokes, the former councilman and school board member, has talked earnestly about some of this. He's urged more money for after-school programs. For kids leaving class for mean streets, and homes where no parents are around, what's the rush to leave school?

Last year, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University declared that Baltimore's poor children learn "as much as middle-class children during the school year, but fall behind during the summer," because of "children's individual family and neighborhood circumstances."

Building new schools sounds lovely. Reducing class size, and buying new computers, sounds swell. When Parris Glendening talks about the impact education made on his life, we get a rare glimpse into this man's true emotions. When it's 9 at night, and Nancy Grasmick is still in the State House, still trying to sell school spending to reluctant legislators, we get another vision of dedication.

But these problems go beyond new buildings. They reach into neighborhoods, and the homes of throwaway children. And that's the connection that has to be made to school spending, or it will continue to produce college kids with third-grade reading levels, and others who never even dream of such heights.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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