Years ago I had dinner with an elderly neighbor and he said something to me that I have never forgotten. I’ve mentioned it before. It was something like this: “There is no excuse for the size of the school budget. Classes are too small, and kids get too many expensive services. When I was in school, there were 30 kids in every class and we sat in five rows of six and did what the teacher told us. And if someone didn’t, well, nobody had any time for that foolishness and so that child was expelled.”
Where to begin addressing that straightforward yet highly complex statement? I didn’t. I remember at the time having the distinct feeling that nothing I said would change his mind, and the good old days were not going anywhere under any circumstances.
Today, positioned squarely in middle age, I have increased confidence and decreased ability to suffer fools lightly. This blog post could be pages long…a dissertation-length magnum opus in answer to the question the old man never exactly asked me. Or, it could be relatively short, and certainly shorter than most of what I write. Let’s go with that.
Why does it cost so much to educate children today and why are classes smaller? In no particular order:
- Under IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), special education and related services should be designed to meet the unique learning needs of eligible children with disabilities, preschool through age 21. Students with disabilities should be prepared for further education, employment and independent living. This did not exist 50 years ago, and students who were not typical learners fell by the wayside, which was ok with everyone else.
- The American family is in trouble. More students come from broken homes, from poverty, and from environments that are not conducive to learning. They arrive at school and cannot check that baggage at the door.
- There are more children with disabilities because more are identified, and because the actual incidence has increased greatly. Why? There is much conjecture:
- Technology and screen time are affecting brain development and leading to increased incidence of ADHD among children.
- Delayed childbearing/infertility treatment have been linked to the increase in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
- Pollution, chemical additives in food, and other environmental factors are contributing to the prevalence of developmental disorders, food and airborne allergies, asthma, and other childhood illnesses.
- Medical advances are making it possible for smaller and smaller premature infants to survive—often with disabilities.
- Medical advances also allow children with conditions like epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and many other illnesses to not only survive, but to attend school with their peers. Infant and child mortality rates have steeply declined, leaving a larger population of children with physical and cognitive impairment.
- Children with genetic diseases who survive into adulthood now can get married and reproduce.
- Computers allow individuals with ASD’s to find each other and have children. Silicon Valley, and other high-tech enclaves, have a higher prevalence of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism—coined “geek syndrome”—and the incidence of ASD’s is rising in other parts of the country as well.
This is a list I pulled out of my head, but I researched each idea to be sure I was not inventing them! I’m sure the list could go on. The point that I wish I could have made to my dinner companion all those years ago is that times have changed, children have changed, and the old educational models are not applicable to today’s school population. The belief that all children deserve the best education we can give them contradicts the Darwinian selection process that was at play 50 years ago. This has a steep price tag.
I would argue that the price tag 50 years ago was even steeper.