SENSE OF THE CITY Let’s Put Our Money Where Our Minds Are

Has anybody come up with a good reason why children born in certain parts of Texas should be condemned to lousy schools? No? Then let’s support the belated, court-ordered efforts of the state legislature to create a more equitable method of funding public schools. No man-made system can achieve perfect fairness, but our state will be a better place to live if we move closer to the ideal. Geography should not be destiny for our children.

But even after the new system is in place. we shouldn’t assume that all’s well in the schoolhouse. Splitting the pie fairly is a good start, but it’s not the end of the work. Renewing public education means truly radical reform. Some say true reform means virtually abolishing the public schools as we know them-giving up on a cardinal promise of our democracy. Others think reform must wait on the solutions to vast, hydra-headed social problems-fragmented families, violent streets, mind-rotting TV shows. In effect, they say we cannot improve anything until we improve everything.

Such thinking is a prescription for defeat. While we must battle all these enemies along a thousand-mile front, we can’t forget that some ot public education’s problems can be solved without reshaping society. Consider just one, teacher salaries.

The average teacher in the Dallas Independent School District makes $30,900 a year. The highest paid teacher in the DISD makes $41.021-and that’s after earning a doctorate and teaching 24 years. The superintendent, Marvin Edwards, makes a base salary of $135, 239. Various perks boost him to S153,250. Let’s assume that both Edwards and our best-paid teacher do competent, even outstanding work. Why then the huge gap between their salaries?

The last time I checked, schools were supposed to spur and shape the minds of young people, helping them toward their rightful share in the human heritage of history, literature, art, and science. And it is teachers, not administrators, who unlock and stretch those minds. As adults we look back with gratitude on gifted teachers, not deputy assistants for curriculum oversight. Of course somebody must order the books, patrol the halls and make the bells ring on time-but all those tasks merely set the stage. The only indispensable players are the teacher and the student. The real drama of learning begins when the bell rings and the teacher closes the classroom door.

To get our priorities straight, we should adopt this radical reform: No administrator should make one dollar more than the district’s best teachers. If those teachers top out at, say, $80,000 (chicken feed for a doctor or lawyer), start the bureaucrats at $79,999. And if that reform thins the ranks of administrators-or, better still, keeps teachers from moving upstairs in search of decent pay-the first round of drinks is on me.

Our schools are bad for many reasons, but one is surely this: The best minds do not go into education at nearly the rate they once did, because the smart and the capable make better money elsewhere. Until fairly recently we could draw on a large pool of bright young women who had few other employment options. No longer. Of course there will always be a few men and women who sacrifice in order to teach, but we don’t have enough brilliant martyrs to go around.

It says in Economics 101 that a competitive, capitalistic society pays for what it values. We should pay our teachers as if we valued them. But whenever the subject comes up, conservatives go into their Pie-in-the-Sky defense. Oh, sure, they say, we’ll be glad to reward teachers-but only after we get accountability and discipline and choice, and bust the unions, and rebuild the family, and see the Second Coming. The fact is that good money will help drive out bad teachers by attracting highly qualified people. Even in a school-choice system, which deserves study, we’ll have to pay teachers much better in order to create those winning schools that will bring families flocking.

We need leadership to reform the schools. President Clinton could have struck a blow for public schools by trusting his daughter to one, sending a clear, hopeful signal to millions of parents. Alas. The widespread loss of faith in the public schools is the bleakest sign of decay. That’s why we’re lucky to have people like DISD board member Sandy Kress, who chaired the Commission for Educational Excellence and helped push through its reforms. He’s also keeping the business community focused on the schools. And by the way-whatever happened to Mayor Steve Bartlett’s pledge to forge better links between the city and DISD? If it’s happening, Mr. Mayor, get on TV and tell the city. That’s the kind of news we need in Dallas, Texas, USA.

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