$2.3 billion therapy


Facilities Follies

$2.3 billion therapy

Dana D. Kelley

    More and more, the state of Arkansas is acting like a self-absorbed parent who spends money on his children rather than actually taking the time to raise them.
   Weíve all seen such parents. They have their own demanding lives and careers, and their children seem like a distraction. The parents are too busy to make field trips, too tired to read stories at night, too bent on "success" to invest much time or energy in being equally successful as a plain old mom or dad. Being short on those intangibles, they try and make up by investing the old fashioned way: with their pocketbook. They want the best of everything for their children, provided it can be charged to a MasterCard or Visa.
   These parents know how to work, so thatís what they do. Since the fruit of labor is money, thatís the thing they shower upon their children. It may not make them better parents, but it makes them feel better. Itís therapy.
   Good parents know that when it comes to children, time and money are not one and the same. The state seems incapable of separating the core foundation of education from the political jockeying surrounding its bureaucracy.
   Itís bad enough that the state seems intent on assuming a foster parent role over every local school. But with the first peek at the statewide educational facilities assessment report, itís becoming evident just how bad a parent the state will be.
   The governor said the 76-page report was the result of "a meticulous, professional process that deserves our respect and appreciation." Itís true that we spent almost $9 million on consultants to tell us how to throw money at our public school facilities, and they did a meticulous and professional job of it. But the idea that, with our limited means, we need to spend more than $4 billion on bricks and mortar commands neither respect nor appreciation.
   This is exactly the same kind of guilt therapy so many absentee parents subject their neglected children to. The state doesnít want to address the true problems facing education because thereís some real work to be done there and the solutions likely wonít be pretty or politically correct.
   Instead, letís just buy Junior a new classroom and a new roof. See how easy that is? All it takes is money. And if there are two things the state knows how to do well, itís borrow and tax.
   It would be nice if the state would actually learn something about classroom education if it wants to take over local control of it. Before we go spending a lot of money on facilities, maybe we should try to determine the relationship (if any) between student achievement and facility cost here in Arkansas.
   The statewide report uses only current building codes and standa! rds for its cost estimates, even though almost all schools were built earlier and thus donít conform to them. Why didnít the study go back and track academic achievement in newly built schools starting in, say, 1970 to see if new "in code" schools actually outperformed older ones?
   In general, itís been established that deplorable conditions negatively affect learning, and that improving facilities from poor to excellent tends to result in improved test scores for students. But the same link has been found for smaller class size and more individual attention. A couple billion dollars might have more educational impact if used to drastically increase the number of teachers in schools that have extra class space (many with falling enrollment do), so the teacher/student ratio drops.
   Which would be more beneficial to students? Existing studies vary widely in scope, definitions and comparison factors. With all the district data and demographic information ! we have, we should easily be able to determine the elements that have the most effect on learning.
   Most of you reading this column went to schools in which some buildings were always in need of repairs. Which means school is no different from where you work, where you live or what you drive. The state could spend $20 million or $30 million more on consultants to create a "facilities cost index" on your office, your home or your car and likely would find that each is wanting in some respect when compared to the most up-to-date standards.
   But what would we really learn from such studies? Families have been happy in shoddy cottages and have fallen apart in mansions. Following the logic associated with this report, if your 16-yearold son or daughter isnít driving as well as youíd like, the best money spent would be on a new car.
   Granted, there are some pressing physical plant needs at some schools. But Arkansans already are highly taxed in ! relation to our per-capita income. We canít afford $2.3 billion worth of therapy just so state educrats can feel better about our schools.
   Any billion-dollar-plus education expenditure should have a direct, positive and demonstrable effect on student classroom performance.
   Two needs consistently identified during the 89 local "Speak Up Arkansas" forums the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Public Education held in 2002 were more student discipline and greater parental involvement. Whereís the $9 million study designed to assess and offer recommendations to improve either of those things?
   Dana D. Kelley is a free-lance writer from Jonesboro.

This story was published Friday, December 10, 2004 in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.  Printed by permission of  Dana Kelley.






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