July 8, 1994

Laws, Education and Other Boondoggles

The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.

Attributed to Milton Friedman

The business of state and federal legislators is to make laws and to collect and spend money. Every time that someone is killed and it makes the front page, some legislator will propose a bill to make such a death illegal. It seems to make no difference what other effects his law will have.

When Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered, it was obvious that it could have been prevented if her assailant had been kept in prison the first time that he had committed a violent act. That case stimulated legislation that would lock up more people for life. Once the bills were proposed, the problems began to emerge. As to the three strikes and you're out legislation, people pointed out that this was the rule in some quarters 50 years ago -and it didn't do much good then. If you watch old movies you might hear some sleazy character say "cheez, Nick, if I get caught, I'll be a three-time loser; you'll have to find somebody else to kill him." Other people pointed out that prisons could become old-folks homes for old criminals who are no longer willing or able to commit crimes. Those cautions didn't slow down the legislators. They will not only provide what the public wants, but they will tell the public what it is supposed to want.

A new bill has passed the California legislature that allows public schools to require uniforms for their students. It is similar to the laws that concentrate on testing of both students and teachers. Will these improve education? It should have the same effect on what students learn as requiring that each child wear a pinky ring. I am not saying that it is a good or a bad bill --I am saying that it is irrelevant.

Why all of these laws? To answer that question, I will refer to a story that I heard many years ago: It was a snowy evening and the locale was a shopping center parking lot. A man is looking on the ground under a street lamp. Another man approaches him and asks what he is doing. The seeker replies that he had dropped his car keys and is looking for them. The man offers to help. After looking in vain for a while, the helper suggests to the man that it might be a good idea to retrace his steps.

"Where were you when you dropped your keys?" he asks.

"Over there," he says, pointing to a place 20 feet away.

"Then why are you looking here?"

"Well," he says, "there's much more light here."

That is what legislators do; they pass laws that will do something that can be done, rather than something that might conceivably accomplish something. One consequence of this is that much of the money allocated for education is spent on things that have nothing whatever to do with helping kids to learn. That is an off-the-cuff estimate, based on what seems to be happening in Sacramento and Laytonville.

I have noticed that a lot of some teacher's effort is spent on getting the money to do the things that have to be done to help kids to learn. I suspect that for every buck spent on education, a hefty percentage is spent on acquiring and allocating money. I can't even begin to guess how much is spent on testing -almost all of it a complete waste of money. Textbooks are another boondoggle designed more to support the companies that make them, rather than to educate children.

There never seems to be enough money for the one thing that is likely to improved what and how kids learn: putting enough teachers in kindergarten and the first 3 or 4 grades to make sure that every child who is able to learn, learns to read, write and cipher. Some kids will do fine in a class of thirty kids per teacher. Others may require a teacher for every four students for a while, until a child learns to do things on his own. There never seems to be enough money for this, while there is always money for bigger and better tests and for special programs that require about as much effort to get the money as to use it. There is also money to, if I may use a word in educationese, "remediate" children who haven't learned to read in the early grades.

A case in point is the Education 2000 program. A good deal of money has been spent hyping that program. Education 2000 has goals that any fool can see are unattainable. One unassailable principle in education is that if you set goals, those goals have to be attainable. Difficult goals may help, but setting unattainable goals is a sure-fire recipe for failure. It is true that setting goals too low is also a recipe for ultimate failure, but it is not a sure-fire one.

I doubt that there is a definitive solution to the education problem, but it would help to get the government out of the education business. All that is really needed from Washington, Sacramento and Ukiah is MONEY. In short, departments of education should be made up of clerks and a few accountants -not teachers who no longer want to teach.

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