19 March 2008

Palm Beach County Schools and the ACLU

Originally posted on The American Thinker website.

The Sun-Sentinel reports that the Palm Beach County School Board is being sued by the ACLU (on behalf of parents and students, of course) for "failing to provide students with a high-quality education guaranteed under the state constitution". The ACLU cites low graduation rates as the major cause of the lawsuit. Depending on whose calculation method is used, graduation rates range from 71.8% (using the state method of calculation) to the ACLU's 58.1% calculation. Taken from the Sun-Sentinel story:

"By any measure, the graduation rates in Palm Beach County are evidence of an
inadequate school system," the suit states. "And, the consequences for the students and the county are devastating as those who leave school without even a high school diploma are significantly less able or likely to share in the American dream."

Taken at face value, the statistics do not lead directly to "evidence of an inadequate school system." Granted, there is probably more depth to the argument than is presented in this short news article, but there may be other factors at work than just an "inadequate school system". Moreover, what would constitute an "adequate" school system? No word on that in the article.

There are, of course, calls for folks to do something. Predictably, money is in the equation. The Palm Beach County superintendent wants the ACLU to concentrate "on bringing more resources to public education." By resources, he probably means money. But a little research (schoolmatters.com) shows that the district spent $10,529 per student in 2005. One has to wonder if more money is really needed.

The ACLU, according to the article, doesn't want money, but rather "improvements". A surf through the ACLU of Florida's website didn't produce any clues to what these improvements might be, but presumably it would have something to do with the disparity in graduation rates between whites, blacks and Hispanics. The Palm Beach school system is huge, with nearly 175,000 students enrolled in 2005. Just what the ACLU would want the school district to "improve" in order to overcome this disparity leaves one wondering. Surely it must be some universal plan to address all of the woes of the district through governmental and bureaucratic means.

But neither of these methods, I think, will do much good. Spending more money will only make the situation more expensive --and I write this realizing that I have a very limited amount of information with which to work. The "improvements" are, given the information available, nothing solid or meaningful. What is not addressed in this matter publicly is how much the students and parents value education. If they do not value education, or give it only little value, then money and "improvements" will have negligible effect on the graduation rate and the disparity across racial/ethnic lines. Values of all kinds begin in the home. The climate of a school is largely a reflection of the values of the families who send their children there.

I'm not saying that schools can do nothing to change the climate. But that uphill battle can't be won by dollars or vague "improvements" - especially those advocated by folks who have little or no educational experience, which presumably includes the lawyers at the ACLU.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bob,

Thanks for a great read. I'm a high school educator up here in the Boston area.

Now in my mind, the school district (high school) has done its job when it has comfortable classrooms, qualified teachers and motivated administrators ready to go at about 7:30 each morning. If you're lucky, the taxpayers will give you a ride to school if you need it, and a free lunch at noon.

What happens starting at about 7:31each day is primarily up to the students. I often tell people that most teachers set the table each day with abundant, creative and stimulating learning
"opportunities" for students, but we can't "make" them eat. Students have to see the value in these opportunities, or they try again the next day. Depending on the district, a lot of students realize the value, many do not.

When students show up without rest from the night before, or without breakfast, or without homework, or without their books and something to write with, then in my opinion, the students (and their parents) have a problem, not the school system. Of course, that assumes that the students show up in the first place. The word accountability comes to mind here...

It's a pretty simple task to correlate grades with discipline, attendance, homework completion, and parental involvement. These variables are more outside the control of the school system than they are within control of the school system. Therein lies the educator's dilemma.

Finally, we should remember that it was always a goal of public education to "educate" the most students, for the fewest dollars, in the least amount of time. The burden was always, and should remain, on the shoulders of students and parents to supply the effort and motivation to get as much from this limited resource (public education) as was possible in the years allotted for it.

It seems like water under the bridge for the ACLU and the families they represent to come back and complain after the fact that they didn't get their money's worth.

Dan
Boston

Bob M. said...

Dan,

Thanks for the comments. As an educator as well, it doesn't surprise me that you see the same root causes of student failure that we see over and over again here in Texas. Much like your table analogy, I tell my students that I can lead a horse to water and I can drown the horse, but I can't make the horse drink.

And I do really appreciate your insight that public education is a limited resource. There are only so many dollars that can be pushed at so many teachers given only so many hours in each day. At some point, the school day ends. If students don't take much out of their school day...well, then we're back to your point on personal accountability.

Cheers, and thanks for fighting the good fight as a teacher.

Bob