The Magazine

End Them, Don’t Mend Them

It’s time to shutter America’s bloated schools.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Enough, however, of outrageous statistics. Let’s generate some pure outrage. Here’s my proposal: Close all the public schools. Send the kids home. Fire the teachers. Sell the buildings. Raze the U.S. Department of Education, leaving not one brick standing upon another and plow the land where it stood with salt.

“Wait a minute,” the earnest liberal says, “we’ve got swell public schools here in Flourishing Heights. The kids take yoga. We just brought in a law school placement coordinator at the junior high. The gym has solar panels on the roof. Our Girls Ultimate Frisbee team is third in the state. The food in the cafeteria is locally grown. And the vending machines dispense carrots and kiwi juice.”

Close them anyway. I’ve got 11,749 reasons. Or, given the Cato report, call it 15,000. Abandon the schools. Gather the kids together in groups of 15.4. Sit them down at your house, or the Moose Lodge, or the VFW Hall or—gasp—a church. Multiply 15.4 by $15,000. That’s $231,000. Subtract a few grand for snacks and cleaning your carpet. What remains is a pay and benefit package of a quarter of a million dollars. Average 2008 public school classroom teacher salary: $51,391. For a quarter of a million dollars you could hire Aristotle. The kids wouldn’t have band practice, but they’d have Aristotle. (Incidentally this worked for Philip of Macedon. His son did very well.)

“But what about the world class facilities to which every American public school student is entitled as soon as we get that bond issue through?” America spent more than $83 billion on elementary and high school construction in 2008. If you think kids care the slightest about their physical surroundings, take a look at my daughter Muffin’s bedroom.

“Wouldn’t having just one teacher—without even a qualified teacher’s aide—narrow the scope of curriculum being offered to students especially at the secondary education level?” Maybe. But our public schools seem to have addressed this issue already. In the article on Education in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I found this quaint description of the subjects studied at a typical American high school: “Latin, Greek, French, German, algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, physical geography, physiology, rhetoric, English literature, civics and history.” Or, as we call them nowadays, a smattering of Spanish, Fun With Numbers, Earth in the Balance, computer skills, Toni Morrison, safe sex, and multicultural studies. 

“Don’t kids need to experience the full range of human diversity that public schools provide?” No. And if you don’t understand the process by which modern kids become socialized, you seriously need to update your Facebook page. Also, let the Statistical Abstract tell you something about the diverse experience provided by public schools. During the 2005-2006 school year 78 percent of public schools reported “violent incidents,” more than one in six schools reported “serious violent incidents” (robbery, rape, sexual battery, or a fight or attack with a weapon), and 46 percent of schools reported thefts or larcenies. More than 10 percent of high school boys admitted to carrying a weapon to school during the previous 30 days. Among middle schools, 8.6 percent reported daily sexual harassment, 30.5 percent reported daily disrespect shown to teachers, and 43 percent reported daily bullying. Operating on the assumption that adults notice only about a third of what goes on among kids, this means that daily bullying occurs at 129 percent of middle schools. Furthermore 31.5 percent of middle schools and 38.7 percent of high schools reported “undesirable gang activities.” As opposed to the desirable kind.

“Wouldn’t closing the public schools eliminate valuable programs targeted for disabled students?” Yes. As of 2007, there were 6,007,800 children and young people with disabilities in the United States. But, also as of 2007, the Department of Education’s budget was $66 billion. Those funds have been freed up. That’s about $11,000 per disabled child plus the $15,000 each will receive as his or her pro rata share of the nation’s education spending. A yearly benefit of $26,000 should provide some tutoring and therapy—or a pocket full of Ritalin.

“But some of America’s disadvantaged regions may not have the financial resources to provide $15,000 per school age child.” Yes they do. The 2007 per capita income in America’s poorest state, Mississippi, was $28,845. The 2007 per capita GDP of South Korea was $27,400. Ever heard anyone say Korean kids are dumb as a bowl of kimchi?

“But some of America’s disadvantaged persons may not have the cultural resources to utilize privatized educational disbursements. Some disadvantaged children may not receive any education at all.” Fifteen grand per kid buys a lot of culture. And the possibility that someone’s child may not receive any education is an improvement on a certainty that the child won’t. Also, why are liberals so convinced that poor people are stupid? Is it because poor people vote for liberals? That is a fair point. But if smart liberals want to find out if poor people are stupid, I suggest that smart liberals go to the worst neighborhood they can find and get in a craps game.

“And this $15,000, is it just going to be available with no strings attached? Won’t there be all sorts of exploitative scams cheating people who are seeking to educate their children?” Unfortunately there will be scams. What’s to keep the District of Columbia Board of Education from going private?

America’s public schools have served their purpose. Free and compulsory education was good for a somewhat unpromising young nation. The country was half turnip-head hillbilly and half slum trash from foreign refuse heaps. Public schools were supposed to take this mob of no-account pea pickers and bumbling greaseballs and turn them into a half-bright national citizenry. It worked, causing six or eight generations of public school kids to rush home to their shanties or tenements shouting, “Everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City!” or “Mom, Dad, this is America, quit boiling cabbage!” 

Public schools helped create the idea of America and inculcate Americans with a few rudiments of knowledge. To judge by that very American item, the Internet, a few rudiments is all anyone cares to have. As for the idea of America, everybody’s got it now, all over the world. I’ve had a cab driver in New York who got the idea of America in a country so remote that not only had I never heard of it, neither had he. I don’t know if this cab driver’s reading level was at or above proficient, but his math skills were well-displayed on the taxi meter after he took me from JFK to Manhattan by way of the Brooklyn Belt Parkway. I’ll bet he sends his kids to private school.

P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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