The Big Rip-off

     The reason U.S. schools are in pretty bad shape has little to do with teachers or students – it’s because U.S. culture does not value public education. Not as much as we want other things, like low taxes, or someone to blame for everything. I’ll give you a couple examples, then tell you about the best teacher I ever had.
     Alabama taxpayers this week sued Jefferson County, home of Birmingham and the most populous county in the state, for robbing its schools.
     The Alabama Constitution allows local governments to tax themselves 1 percent for public education. But last December the County Commission decided that its 1 percent tax wouldn’t go to schools after all. After paying the schools’ due debts, the commission said, it would spend the money six other ways, in this order: (1) for the general fund … (4) for public transit, (5) for the zoo, and (6) for the general fund again.
     Jefferson County’s net revenue last year was $8.6 billion. One percent of that is $86 million. The budget for county schools was $346.7 million. So if the county dedicated its 1 percent tax to schools, as the state constitution demands, it would increase its school budget by 24.8 percent.
     Does the school budget need to be increased?
     Well, Alabama ranks 49th among the states in per capita school funding, and it has cut education funding by more than any other state but one since the 2008 recession, according to the Center on Budget Priorities in Washington. Alabama cut its school funding by 21.7 percent from 2008 to 2012. The only state with a worse record was Arizona. (Iowa, which does value public education, increased its school funding by 10.7 percent in that time.)
     Arizona has screwed its students ever since it became a state. Its constitution requires that all the money Arizona makes by leasing state land be spent on schools. Arizona has the lowest land lease rates in the nation: $2 an acre for pasture, compared with $53 per acre in Illinois, and $77.50 per acre in two Iowa counties, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Services.
     Rates for crop land are hard to come by, but Arizona leases immense acreage on the cheap for cotton, one of the most water-hungry crops there is. Cotton goes for 72 cents a pound today during a devastating drought. That’s an enormous waste of water, and an enormous rip-off of public education in Arizona – perpetrated by the state itself.
     Math alone proves those states don’t give a good goddamn about public education. I think they’re worse in degree though not in kind than most states.
     Is there any good news? Sure, there is. Almost anyone who cares gets at least one good teacher in life, and that can make a big difference.
     The best teacher I ever had was Joe Allard. He taught saxophone. Many of the world’s best sax players sought Joe’s help, because he didn’t turn out players on an assembly line; he helped musicians sound like themselves.
     I asked Joe how he approached teaching. He told me he watched his students, and listened to them, and tried to “get into their heads” and imagine how they were trying to sound. Then, Joe said, he looked for bad habits they had developed that interfered with what they were trying to do.
     That’s about the best advice I ever got, about anything. It’s obvious that the United States has bad habits in education, and we’ve had them for decades. Everyone is responsible for his or her education, once they become capable of reason. Anyone who really wants to can become educated. But I have little hope for large-scale improvements in public education, because the people who run it, and fund it – the politicians – don’t want anyone to see their bad habits.

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