The Cost of Doing More
By Jeff Friedman
The Anchorage School Board has passed its budget, and the state legislature will soon be voting on school funding. It is that time of year when people like to ask “why is education so expensive?”
As a parent and school board member, I have been active in education issues at the school, district, state, and national level for nearly 20 years. Like most of you, I also went to school myself as a child. Of course, that was nearly 40 years ago, and a few things have changed since then.
When I was in school, algebra was taught in high school and few students took calculus. Physics stopped with Isaac Newton, and our history books didn’t take us past the Korean War. My high school offered four advance placement classes. The level of science, math, writing, and reading instruction in an Anchorage elementary classroom is far more encompassing than I received in my elementary school. The science taught at the high school level for all students is what used to be taught only to college science majors. Teaching students more information costs more money.
When I was in school, if a student misbehaved, his or her parents held the student responsible. Today, the first question many people ask is “what did the teacher do wrong to cause the misbehavior?” This shift in responsibility has led to increased behavior problems, with more time spent attempting to address those problems. These changes cost more money.
When I was in school, dropping out to join the army or to get a job was considered a valid career choice. Certainly no one blamed teachers for a student’s decision to drop out. Responsibility for coming to school was placed on the student. Today, if a student drops out, the school is at fault.
The same was true about students who skipped a class. Skipping school was once thought to be a personal choice made by students; not a sign that teachers and principals were doing something wrong. Changing the school’s role so fewer students drop out or skip class costs more money.
When I was in school, children with disabilities didn’t attend the typical neighborhood school. Today, school districts are responsible for providing a free and appropriate education to all students. Districts must provide special education services to students enrolled in private schools as well. Educating all students costs more money.
When I was in school, addressing the needs of students speaking different languages was not an issue for most teachers. Teaching non-English speaking students costs more money.
I’m sure there were homeless students when I was in school, but school districts were not required to provide additional transportation and other services to address the unique needs of students without a home. Providing these services costs more money.
When I was in school, not all children were the same. People believed that some children did better in math, reading, or writing, than others, and that it was not possible for all children to be proficient every year. Today, society expects all children to be successful at or above a proficiency level that was thought to be unrealistic 40 years ago. Raising the standard of success costs more money.
Schools are also expected to teach job skills, work ethic, healthy eating and anti-bullying. Students must learn to use computers, search the internet, and follow safe internet practices. Parents have demanded more, so now the district teaches everything from anthropology to zoology, including courses such as aviation, tourism, engineering, material science, CAD, debate, web design, band, orchestra, forensic science, culinary arts, EMT, and multiple foreign languages, all part of an already crowded academic schedule.
Society has demanded changes. Students who in the past were shunted aside or left behind are now being educated. This change is very good, but it is not free. Rather than asking why education is so expensive, we should be asking how schools do so much at such a reasonable cost.
Jeff Friedman is a lawyer and was a member of the Anchorage School Board for nine years. The opinion expressed here is his own. This piece is cross-posted from the Anchorage Daily News.