The Moon Sets in Sorrento
Driver ed and pompons and bond issues
April 17, 1981
Few civic events are as dispiriting as public school tax referenda in any but Illinois's affluent suburbs. The voters are ill-disposed to trust their money to educators in any but the most dire circumstances, so pro-tax increase campaigns tug the heartstrings, push the panic button, and (usually) eventually jump the shark.
I almost cried. The letter to the editor was signed “Julie.” She was encouraging voters of Springfield’s School District 186 to vote yes on a proposal to raise the basic school tax rate by 40 cents. “I’m only ten years old,” Julie wrote, “and when I get older I would like to take driver’s education and be a cheerleader. If it doesn’t pass I won’t be able to do these things.”
Alas, little Julie may have to ask Mom and Dad to teach her how to drive. Indeed, she may have to ask them to do many things parents are accustomed to having done for them by public schools. Voters said no to the tax hike, by a margin of some 8,500 votes. The failure of the tax hike request, coupled with proposed additional cuts in federal and state school aid, promise to reduce District 186 to a state of penury that has led one school board member already to hint darkly about closing one of the city’s three public high schools and scrapping the varsity sports program.
It is impossible to generalize about the defeat. Looking back, tax supporters may have made the same mistake that Denny Kelley made in 1971 when he ran for Springfield’s mayorship against William Telford, namely believing that the endorsement of civic groups brings with it the endorsement of their members. (I am always amused that the same public school people who make speeches to the Rotary Club about the need to educate the young to be informed and independent citizens complain most bitterly when citizens fail to act like cattle.) Any proposal that had the backing of the trades and labor council, the Urban League, and the Board of Realtors can’t have been all good; the last time I saw such unanimity of local opinion was on the question of whether White Oaks Mall would be a Good Thing for Springfield. Board member Jerry Owens complained bitterly that the city council failed to endorse the hike, as if anyone listens to the council; a council member replied that nobody had asked. Besides, what good is five more votes?
Naturally, there were nearly as many motives for voting against the tax hike as there were people voting, even allowing for the fact that some of us had three or four such motives. There were voters who said no because it meant a tax increase, and others who said no because it was for the public schools, and others who said no because it was for schools in general. A few voted no because they’ve yet to penetrate the mysteries of school financing, and so continue to think that buses run on money that could be spent on teachers; others did so because they resent the local teachers union. State Journal-Register columnist Al Manning pointed out that traditionally pro-schools precincts voted no to protest a recent boundary change that sent their little darlings to Southeast High instead of Springfield High—a transfer which in some west-side neighborhoods ranks as a violation of freedom with the forced repatriation to Stalin death camps of Russian prisoners-of-war.
But these factors do not explain the defeat. The most revealing of the post mortems was made by board member Carmen Chapman, who told the SJR, “The people, all they saw, evidently, was us raising taxes, and they really didn’t look at what the real issues were.” Chapman seemed to be saying that those people who voted no were voting against their own best interest (at least as the school board defined it) and that such a vote must be due to a failure of attention, or of public relations, or of information.
This view reflects what might be called the Marching Mothers Perspective, which has it roots in the fact that so many future members of the League of Women Voters belonged to student councils in high school. It reckons without two things. One is the willful ignorance of many voters. The second is the fact that the school board’s notion of what constitute good schools and the public’s notion of the same increasingly share little in common.
I tend to think that people did understand what the real issues were. In fact, they understand them better than the school board does.
For example, the tax supporters waved the specter of cuts in arts, guidance, physical ed, lunch, and special ed programs, but few people seemed scared. Why? It may be that much of the public believes that much of what goes on in the schools has little to do with education, and that education ultimately has little to do with schools. The back-to-basics movement is not a new idea but a restatement of a very old one. It is held both by older voters who know that their quaintly limited education has served them fairly well and by younger voters who have fresh memories of the sheer irrelevance of most of their fancy post-Sputnik training.
Most of the average parents I know—parents who, unlike the majority of school board members and administrators, do not work for the state, live on the west side, or have college degrees—have long been skeptical of both the assumptions and the methods of current educational orthodoxy. True, they can’t translate the jargon of the professional educator, which like most jargon is a means to conceal rather than convey knowledge. But they can add, and they know that a dollar’s worth of teaching is buying only a nickel’s worth of education, with the other 95 cents going to the textbook publishers, teacher unions, government education bureaucrats, and colleges of education—groups which in the last thirty-years have reduced both school budgets and students’ brains to rubble.
How often on election day, I wonder, did voters ask themselves whether it is reasonable, in an era when firefighters are being laid off, that discontinuance of soup-and-sandwich lunches be described as a failure of our commitment to the next generation?
Did they ask whether drama ought to have a place in high school? I for one would welcome in the company of adults students who have no credit hours in journalism, if they actually read a newspaper every day. Is it not the very definition of “frill” to offer psychology to seventeen-year-olds who can’t reason well enough to comprehend a bus schedule? Lewis Lapham, the crotchety editor of Harper’s, recently wrote that dropping economics or music appreciation from high school curricula compares “with the deletion of adjectives from a sophomore’s impression (submitted in a course in creative writing) of the moon rising over Sorrento.”
To the argument that kids need to have their ears checked and their sex instructed and their diets balanced because their parents can’t or won’t do it I say 1) that is regrettable but it is none of the schools’ business, and 2) most social remedial programs don’t work anyway. Schoolchildren are stupid eaters, lousy citizens, poor drivers, and careless lovers not in spite of the fact that nutrition, citizenship, driver’s ed, and sex ed are taught in schools but because they are taught there. Schools, in fact, may be defined as mechanisms by which simple chores may be made expensive and difficult, usually for the enrichment of people who have lost sight of the difference.
A little modesty would become the public schools. One of the reasons private schools do a better job than the publics at less cost is that they try to do less. I can forgive a ten-year-old seeing education in terms of driver’s ed and pompons. But adults, especially those who sit on school boards, should know better. ●