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Coastal voices: Is public school slowly dying?

Bob Berkowitz

It's an old story. Take a frog and drop him into boiling hot water and he will immediately realize he is in danger and attempt to jump out and get away, but if you put him in a pot of water that's at room temperature, and continually raise the temperature a couple of degrees every few minutes, the frog will not realize the danger and eventually die when the heat gets too high.

As we begin another school year, I get the feeling that our school system is like the frog. We are constantly asked to solve all of the problems of society without the resources necessary to be successful. The demands on our schools keep increasing each year as the state and federal governments mandate that we do more with less. This wouldn't be so bad if the state and federal governments were not working at cross purposes with, at times, conflicting goals and objectives.

In the late 1950s, after Sputnik, school districts were told to concentrate on science and math. In the 1960s and 1970s after the Civil Rights challenges, schools were told to shift emphasis to poor and minority children and to concentrate on providing an educational system that promoted ethnic and cultural identity and self esteem. In the 1980s there was another shift of educational emphasis, to one of competing in a global economy. Today, the emphasis is on high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

To make matters worse, the current situation just creates parental confusion. For instance, a school can be classified as a distinguished school, one of the best in the state, and yet be graded as needing improvement, one of the worst, under the federal system.

What are some of the laws that have had an impact on where your school tax dollars go? Today we are responsible to make sure that every student is 100 percent proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. You read right, every student. If just one student fails to reach proficiency the entire school fails.

You would think that would create a massive shift to concentrating on reading and math, but the state and federal government have created new laws that now mandate that children receive instruction on the evils of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, premarital sex and bullying. Did I mention that we also have to prepare all students for college, teach immigrants in their native languages, feed breakfast and lunch to poor children and care for their medical needs, including keeping track—as of this year—of whether or not they've seen a dentist prior to starting kindergarten?

And the newest law says that teachers are now required to give shots to children with diabetes. You can bet there will be big lawsuits over this one when the school district gets sued by a parent claiming that the teacher was not qualified to give the shot. Couldn't they anticipate the potential for law suits and give us the funds to hire nurses for all our schools?

Our schools are expected to be all things to all people, to solve every social problem and at the same time, provide a quality education for every student. And when we fail to do all of this, the legislature has made sure that the local school board and superintendent is there to take the fall.

It's time for the state and federal government to end these money wasting mandates and let the local communities have some say over how their children should be educated. If the current situation gets any more complicated with more government mandates, our public education system will surely fail just like the frog that dies by degrees, and no one will be able to tell you how or why it happened.

Berkowitz is a member of the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees


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