A court decision in New York last week put an odd twist on a long line of legal rulings aimed at helping Americans better run their public schools.
State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse warned lawmakers that he would intervene if they didn't ensure New York City's students were educated to become "productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment."
He said the state Constitution requires that students have "adequate" education in order to be effective jurors, voters, and workers earning more than poverty-level wages.
For a judge to order school reform from the bench with such vague and immeasurable goals is a scene out of Don Quixote: The motives are noble, but the means are ignoble and illusionary. Even principals at small schools have difficulty implementing such goals.
As New York's newest US Senator might say, it takes a village to raise a child - not a court order.
Process vs. results
Still, in nearly half the states, judges have intervened in various ways over the past decade to rearrange the way states support public schools. The judges usually stick to the process of hard-number funding and taxation in trying to define what's fair for public schools. The New York ruling, however, portends a path of court-dictated results in educational achievement.
It's easy to sympathize with the judge's lament over the faults of the nation's largest public-school system. It's a mess. About a third of high school students don't graduate, and most "leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society," he wrote in a 182-page decision. He gave lawmakers until Sept. 15 to provide answers, such as targeted funding to reduce the number of pupils per classroom.
Trend away from local control
Like other judges in such cases, he was asked in a lawsuit to put the burden of reform at the state level, reducing the responsibility of local communities. That's a worrisome trend among reformers who neglect what drives education to begin with.
Most parents still believe they can buy into quality public schools by buying a home in a well-to-do community. But that's become less certain as low-income parents persuade state judges that one town or city should not have to educate its children with substantially fewer dollars than another.
That demand for equity in school funding assumes more dollars will lead automatically to better education. That's not always the case. Parental guidance has far more influence than school budgets.
The New York judge found that state aid was being distributed according to a formula that left New York City shortchanged in educating the bulk of its students, who are poor and minorities.
New York legislators must now follow other states - Texas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Vermont, to name a few - in redesigning formulas for state funding. That's often been a political upheaval.
Here's why: Parents in better-off communities rightly ask whether their ability to tax themselves to provide more funding for better schools will be denied just to maintain some official measure of statewide equity. And states will be perplexed if highly motivated communities raise private funds for public schools, further creating disparities.
Finding new ways to pay for public schools requires innovation. Each state has different needs in defining "adequate" education.
But any court mandate for equal funding per pupil or specific reforms is not practical if local decisionmaking, a pillar of American education, is to be preserved.
Qualities driving education
It's a tall order for judges to set standards for public school graduation. Not least because the matter of resources goes far beyond money to such critical elements as the creativity of curriculum planners, the dedication of teachers, and the encouragement of parents - to say nothing of the motivation of students.
Judges may be overextending their reach by trying to reform schools so fundamentally and in ways that put them virtually in the classroom. They could easily fail, and in the interim, do damage to the essential local nurturing of public education.
That's a lesson many parents may not want to teach their children.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society