Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mediocracy

From Fred Grimm in the Miami Herald:

We strive for mediocrity.

Plain ol’ average will do just fine. We’re not asking the state Legislature for anything extraordinary, like spending as much per student as wild-eyed socialist enclaves like Georgia (ranked 20th nationally) or West Virginia (11th).

The Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards will launch a campaign for increased spending Wednesday with a slogan born of diminished expectations: “Fund at 25th.” No one will be singing The Impossible Dream. The school boards, led by Miami-Dade and Broward, hope they can persuade state lawmakers to raise the state from the bottom five in per capita funding among the 50 states and the District of Columbia to the middle of the pack.

Just the middling middle. That’s all we ask.

[…]

Earlier this month, Miami-Dade School Board member Ana Rivas Logan captured the depressing essence of the new campaign. “We’re not trying to be greedy,” she said at a meeting. “We don’t want to be first. We don’t want to be second. We want to be somewhere in the middle.”

Fellow board member Evelyn Greer said Monday the theme was meant to be provocative — get people to thinking about the real-life consequences of an undereducated workforce in a state where only 57 percent of ninth-graders go on to graduate from high school (giving Florida a rank of 49th in that category).

“It’s actually starting to hurt business,” she said Monday. “Try hiring an intake clerk or a project manager. This is about serious, real-life issues. What happens when we can’t find employees who can write or understand a memo?”

We’ve given up on the idea of cutting-edge researchers or innovative business leaders. But even the service industry requires certain basic skills.

The “Fund at 25th” campaign also tells us something about the fallen expectations in Florida since those heady days when the drive to raise school funding was led by then-Gov. Bob Graham.

[…]

Back in the 1980s, South Florida — with an education ethic influenced by migrants from northern states — wielded considerably more political clout in Tallahassee. Power has since shifted toward northern Florida, where notions of public school spending come from the Old South.

Lately, almost all of the once-languid southern states outspend Florida in education. Compared with Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana, we’re sucking school bus exhaust.

Only one member of the Old Confederacy now spends less on students than Florida. And barely.

Greer sighed. We’ve sunk to this. “We’re fighting it out with Mississippi,” she said.

Full disclosure: I work for the school board and I don’t know anyone in the system who doesn’t try on a daily basis to do better. But if you haven’t got the tools and the materials, you can’t do much more than that.