How to lose the future

About a year ago, the New York Times reported that schools that used to simply require students to bring in glue, scissors, and crayons are now demanding that families provide everything from paper towels to garbage bags to liquid soap. Budget cuts had pushed schools so far, they couldn’t afford paper for printers or plastic cutlery for cafeterias.

In May, this looked even worse, with public schools forced to charge steep fees for classes and activities — AP classes, chess club, school choir, Honors Society — that always used to be free to students and their families.

Still squeezed for cash, many schools are slashing the time students are actually in classrooms.

After several years of state and local budget cuts, thousands of school districts across the nation are gutting summer-school programs, cramming classes into four-day weeks or lopping days off the school year, even though virtually everyone involved in education agrees that American students need more instruction time.

Los Angeles slashed its budget for summer classes to $3 million from $18 million last year, while Philadelphia, Milwaukee and half the school districts in North Carolina have deeply cut their programs or zeroed them out. A scattering of rural districts in New Mexico, Idaho and other states will be closed on Fridays or Mondays come September. And in California, where some 600 of the 1,100 local districts have shortened the calendar by up to five days over the past two years, lawmakers last week authorized them to cut seven days more if budgets get tighter.

Welcome to Austerity in America. We can afford tax breaks for millionaires, but can’t afford five-day school weeks.

I often think about a story President Obama told a while back, after he returned from a trip to East Asia. He shared an anecdote about a luncheon he attended with the president of South Korea.

“I was interested in education policy — they’ve grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said, ‘The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.’ He said, ‘Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.’ He said, ‘I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they’re all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.’ That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

“And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they’ve got 25 million people in this one city. He said, ‘We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. ‘

“That gives you a sense of what’s happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about.”

Yes, used to be.

Now, however, it’s more common to see voters electing Republicans who cut education funding as an alternative to tax increases.

Maybe education can be a sleeper issue in 2012?