SCHOOL

For the year 2000, divide the budget of the Little Rock School District by the number of students and you get $8000.00 per student per year. And somehow we have a lot of these kids reading below grade level.

If I give you $96,000.00 to teach one kid to read and twelve years to accomplish the task, and if after twelve years you haven't done it, then one of you is a retard. Either that or Louis Farrakhan is right, that the man is deliberately teaching poor folks NOT to read.

Everybody is carping about facilities when what you really need is time on target between one teacher and one student. If some kid gets to the tenth grade and can't read a paper, we should take that student's annual $8k and hire some college graduate to sit four hours a day for eight months and listen to the kid read out loud. The only facility you need for that is a front porch.

Let's put together a hypothetical one-room schoolhouse on that budget. Ten kids. One teacher. $80,000. Let's pay the teacher $40k/year. The average Little Rock teacher salary, according to the ArDemGaz on 3Aug2003 is about $44k/year.

So that leaves $40,000 to cover expenses. Okay, free pencils, paper and books. We're down to $38k. Let's do away with facilities and make the world our classroom. Let's lease a van for nine months a year. The teacher will pick the kids up and they'll hold classes in different places. One day at the library. One day at a museum. One day at a historic park. Figure the lease at a thousand a month and we're down to $29k.

Tell you what. Let's buy each kid a musical instrument for $500 and teach him to play. We'll outsource individual instructors at $50 a lesson at one lesson per week for nine months. Only $17k left to spend on these kids this year, and we're probably not going to buy them a new instrument every year, are we?

Let's throw in a nutritious, non-institutional, all-fresh-ingredient-non-processed lunch. Eight and a half bucks each and there it is, all spent.

I understand that some days are just going to have to be spent indoors working math problems. There are just so many field trips that can be made. So we're going to need indoor spaces. A conference room at a hotel, a library, the chamber of commerce, convention centers, cost about $50 a day and are equipped with audiovisual gear, blackboards, everything you could ask for. Compared to your public school classroom they are posh. Plus they're vacant 90% of the time, so the owners will be glad to have a steady customer.

On top of that I think of all the vacant storefronts in the empowerment zone where I live. For next to nothing those could be converted into usable spaces. I'm sure the landlord would be glad to get $50 a day off and on while he's waiting for a permanent tennant.

So how do we pay for the indoor spaces since we've spent all the money on vans, food and music lessons? We amortize the cost of the instruments over five years, leaving us $4000 a year to spend renting indoor spaces.

I know the plan above sounds naive to people who set great store in brick and concrete facilities, but when the formula is reduced to its barest essentials of putting teachers with students, you have to concede that a lot of things that we think of as school take away from learning more than they add. Considering just the students, the teachers and the cash without the performing arts centers and the cinder tracks and the immediately obsolete computer labs, and god knows what else; the thinly stretched budget is in reality pretty extravagant.

Just to see what we're missing, let's simplify the equation even more. One teacher at $20/hr (that's $40k/yr working 8hrs/day and 5 days/wk) spends two 4-hr sessions a week fifty weeks a year individually with each student. That means each kid gets two afternoons of personalized one-on-one tutoring every week. If you make those private tutoring sessions fit the conventional American school year of nine months with the usual long vacations, that's THREE private tutoring sessions a week. That's blue-blood prep-school silver spoon type attention, and we spend enough to give that kind of attention to the lowliest field hand in the delta; and in spite of the fact that we PAY that much, we GET much less. Now why is that, do you think?

Facilities.

Facilities do three things. They cost money to build. They cost money to maintain. They cost money to repair. Plus they take up space. Four things. Plus brown-nosing social climbers can put their bosses' names on the gymnasium. Five things. Plus a big shiny school building is a public ornament conferring status on a town, like a sports arena. Six things.

What do the facilities give us in return? For one thing, they're giant centralized babysitting warehouses. For another thing they're a place where huge traffic-stopping vehicles gather twice a day.

They also provide a sense of community, an artificial division for team sports. A school district is a socialization experience, a way of dividing the loyalties of our youth into arbitrary rival nations, the Central Tigers against the Hall Warriors, the Dardanelle Sand Lizards against the Harrison Golden Goblins. The adult world in miniature, in which animosity becomes a matter of geography.

School the American Way is a kind of training saddle which accustoms the citizen to accept the most disagreable daily miseries of adult life. The daily commute. The noise. The jostling. The social pressure. The crowding. The flickering fluorescent lamps. The soul extinguishing confinement of the cubicle. The Skinner Box of a daily routine that requires the subject to change rooms at the sound of a bell. Substandard institutional food eaten anxiously under a time limit. Long lines. Clock watching. The system rewards those who submit and marginalizes those who question. Adults who caution high school kids about the perils of the "real world" are ignoring the fact that all those perils are built right into the high school. The successful student moves seamlessly from the school system into the real world without suspecting that there is anything at all poorly arranged about either.

A lot of the money and time we spend for education goes not toward scholastic material but for this kind of sub-education, impressing the message on the citizen the expectation that life is an unpleasant routine full of artificial obligations in which your time will mostly be wasted in frivolous base-touching business rituals. How much time do kids spend in class every day? Take out the buss ride. Take out the home room. Take out the study hall. Take out lunch. Take out assemblies. You're left with four hours. And the first ten minutes of each of those hours is taken up with going to lockers, walking the hallways and switching classrooms and settling down. The last five minutes are taken up with watching the second hand sweep around the clock face. So you're really only getting three hours of teaching for nine hours invested by the student.

Money from the budget has to be allocated to assemblies and twice a day bus rides and lockers and study halls, and in a big school you have to add layers of vice principals and security guards and administrators and paperwork to prove you did the paperwork. If Johnny can't read, maybe it's because only a tiny fraction of system resources are applied to the task of teaching Johnny to read. The money described in terms of books and teachers is actually quite a lot. If there are not enough books teachers, then too much money has been diverted into doo dads.

RTJ--09/02/2003

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