If we really care about public schools and believe it's time to improve them, it's time to stop picking on the schools and the teachers, and time to start picking on the state legislatures and legislators who are responsible for the condition of American education.
Despite their sorry record of providing good public education, legislatures have escaped the criticism so generously applied to the schools. Why? Because most people don't know that the public schools are a state responsibility. Because a great many citizens believe that they know something about education, but few claim to know much about the legislative process. Because individual teachers are much easier to pinpoint than individual legislators. Because legislators have taken advantage of the amorphous nature of lawmaking to perfect techniques for avoiding the responsibility of its results.
Despite the oft-repeated myth about local control of education, public schools are a local responsibility only to the extent that state legislatures delegate authority to local school districts. And that authority legislatures can - and do - take away, whether by changes in major laws or by an endless series of almost imperceptible revisions that add up to major change.
Legislators sitting in statehouses decide how much money schools will get, and what kinds of taxes will be levied to pay for schools and where those taxes will fall on the citizenry. Legislators decide who may teach and who may not. Legislators decide what courses schools must offer and, often, what ''extras'' they may provide. Legislators have concerned themselves with everything from school board elections to school sanitation, from pupil discipline to the permissible distance between the local school and the nearest saloon.
Opponents of federal financial support for schools have long posed the question ''Do you want Uncle Sam sitting on your local school board?'' - implying that federal aid means federal control. But no serious questions are raised about state control. State legislatures ultimately determine the quality of education in American classrooms and have managed somehow to sit on the school board and remain invisible.
Now, with prescriptions for reforming elementary and secondary education making national headlines there is a deluge of legislative proposals to bring schools up to snuff. The call is for ''reform,'' and the watchword is ''excellence.'' We haven't seen anything like it since 1957 when the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik and the schools were challenged to make the United States No. 1 in the space race.
Of course then, as now, it wasn't the schools that got the money to make the nation strong and great. Now lawmakers are concentrating more on ''standards'' than on money. In states as diverse as Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Mississippi, legislators have been tackling math, science, computer literacy, high school graduation requirements, the length of the school day and the number of school days per year, the proper level of teacher salaries , and the proper coursep for teacher certification. Teacher competency has drawn much attention, and pupil behavior has come in for its share of statehouse discussion.
Those are important matters. Most thoughtful citizens would agree. But how about focusing on some matters that are really crucial to the quality of the public schools: the matters of legislators' competency and behavior?
State lawmakers are great at telling people at the local level what to do and sometimes even how. They're superb at specifying not only ''standards'' and requirements but also restrictions and prohibitions. But when it comes to adding up the cost of complying with all of their mandates, well, how about a competency test for legislators - especially in arithmetic?
Responsible behavior would dictate willingness to face facts, to recognize the costs of complying with legislation, to affirm the obligation of the state lawmaking body to carry out constitutional requirements to provide for education , to arrive at ways of funding the schools, and ultimately to enable the schools to do their job by consistently providing the necessary money.
This is not to say that legislators don't try to do their job. Like teachers, like pupils, some try very hard.
But over time, and across the nation, the legislatures' support for schools has been a sometime thing. Sometimes legislatures adjourn without solving state budget problems, leaving school funding up in the air. Sometimes the money they promise for schools is appropriated to other purposes as deadlines near and the budget crunch looms large. All too often, the legislative budget battle becomes a battle over school financing, and in the end the state budget is balanced on the backs of the schools. Instead of providing the money to carry out the laws they have enacted, legislators in effect tell school boards and educators, ''Here's what's left. Now get busy and do everything the laws require you to do.''
On-again, off-again funding, inconsistent requirements and unrealistic expectations - the kind of legislative irresponsibility causing the mess schools are in.
The public looks at the local schools and says, ''You've failed us.'' Next time around, how about looking at the state legislatures instead.