Why add to the debt?

Obviously this post I cite is an oversimplification of the educational approach needed for many children, but I thought it was appropriate to point this out given the fact a small group of parents – backed by an all-powerful school board and sympathetic County Executive and newspaper – are putting big-time pressure on our County Council to approve the debt necessary to build a new middle school.

But Richard F. Miniter, a writer posting on the American Thinker website, makes the case that education can be as simple as applying a little discipline and effort, given the vast library now available to anyone who has an e-reader and cares enough about their child to make sure they learn. And there is a time savings, as Miniter writes:

It also sums down to a little block of time because without having to get ready for the school bus; the bus ride; dispersing to classroom; disciplinary issues in classrooms; having to raise your hand to go to the bathroom; noisy, chaotic hallways scenes every fifty minutes; noisy, chaotic lunch periods; announcements; fire drills; lectures about bullying, respecting alternative lifestyles, or strangers; then preparing for the bus ride home, followed by homework, one can do a better job with a child in two hours than a traditional school classroom setting can in eight.

Now extrapolate that to the building itself. If one can learn in the small space of time allotted to learning at home, it can also be assumed that learning can be achieved in a regular school building, regardless of the age.

I will grant that I attended school 30 to 40 years ago, but I went to buildings ranging in age at the time from under 10 years old to patchwork buildings originally built seventy years earlier. My middle school was one of these – originally built in 1909 as a small-town high school, there were additions tacked on in the 1930’s and 1950’s which created a mazelike structure with the travel of multiple flights of stairs required to get from certain classes to others. Conversely, my high school was barely a decade old at the time I went there (I graduated in 1982) yet it’s now the junior high to a high school built in 2001 as part of a state push to build billions of dollars’ worth of new schools. (All the public K-12 buildings in the school district I graduated from are now on one campus, so my old middle school is no longer standing.)

Moreover, my day began at 7:10 when I got on the bus – but class didn’t begin until 8. Indeed, subtract out the 5 minutes for each class change and 40 minutes for lunch and that 6 1/2 hours one spent between the opening bell and dismissal really boiled down to perhaps 4 to 5 hours of instructional time.  Add in the 40 minutes or so before I made it home on the bus and I had 8 hours put in but only a fraction of that time actually learning. (Oh, and I didn’t need to mess around with the “lectures about bullying” or “respecting alternative lifestyles” – we just dealt with that in our own way.) Anyway, the time aspect is not going to change regardless of the newness of the building. So why expend the money?

In truth, the only real reason my native state of Ohio built all these new schools was because their Supreme Court decided they didn’t spend enough money on schools, finding fault with a system which depended too much on property taxes. In a similar vein, the Thornton Commission decreed we didn’t spend enough here in Maryland so bucketloads of money are thrown at districts from time to time to build new buildings when the old ones will generally suffice. No one has the guts to tell the courts to pound sand when they get it wrong, since we all know more money doesn’t equal better education.

I suppose one can color me skeptical that a building less than 50 years old is no longer fit to be a school building when much of the problem stems from shoddy maintenance, with a side order of wanton vandalism thrown in. My fear is that a new building will be in the same sort of sad shape within a decade, but the kids who were among the first to attend will be the first to assume repayment on the massive debt incurred.

Since our state seems to be so big on central planning (witness the stampede by Governor O’Malley to get PlanMaryland underway without taking it through the General Assembly) one would think they would want to design school buildings to last at least 50 years, if not 100, and that buildings should also be easily expanded if need be. Instead they worry about LEED compliance. I’m sure the original designers of Bennett Middle School were thinking of the future, even if subsequent school boards saw the dollar signs in their eyes. Unfortunately, we live in a county which thinks $1.5 million to buy land for a 500-space parking lot I dubbed “Pollitt’s Folly” is okay because it was money provided by the state so there’s little incentive for a Board of Education, which serves at the behest of the same governor who loves that central planning, to believe otherwise.

It’s not true that the old song lyric “we don’t need no education” is correct, but I’m not sure we need a new school for that education to occur.