By Shayna Steinfeld
(originally written for her monthly column addressing the Atlanta Bar, as their president)
By now, those of you who were following the election have heard that I narrowly lost my race for DeKalb County School Board by 252 votes of nearly 20,000 cast in the runoff. It was an interesting adventure into Georgia politics. I appreciate your support and willingness to allow me, in a few of the columns this year, to indulge my passion for the education of the most vulnerable members of our society.
As Bill Ragland so kindly pointed out, this is my platform. I have sought to use it to encourage you, my reader and Atlanta Bar Member, to think about ways that lawyers can and should contribute to their own lives, to their families, and to society at large in a more positive way. We should strive to be our own everyday heroes.
We, as lawyers, are fortunate to be educated members of society. In fact, we have reached one of the upper levels on the pyramid of education. Therefore, we have the ability, and arguably, the obligation, to speak out for those who are unable to speak for themselves. Once again, please indulge me in the topic of where I believe we, in Georgia, have gone astray in education and what we, as individual lawyers, may be able to do to make a difference. This is different from the general solutions and interventions proposed; too often those on the left throw money at the problem, and those on the right argue for vouchers. A better solution is being sought by strong educators like Michelle Rhee, the new Chancellor who has taken Washington, DC schools by storm; she was featured in Time Magazine the week of November 26, 2008 in an article that notes that young Americans today are less likely than their parents were to finish high school and that America is behind most developed nations in math and science even though we spend more per pupil than any other country.
Maureen Downey, in her November 24, 2008 AJC Editorial, posited “Better schools will bring better jobs to Georgia.” She has called to our attention that “new reports cast doubt on Georgia’s strategy to use low costs rather than an educated work force as its calling card [for bringing new jobs to Georgia].” States that lead the 2008 State New Economy Index are Massachusetts, Washington, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia – and these are all states that have high achieving schools. Georgia, however, ranked 18th in 2007 and 21 in 2008 on this index. She contends that this is the result of our reliance on low taxes, low wages, and a declining emphasis on schools.
Thomas Jefferson first proposed creating a public school system and his ideas form the basis of the public systems developed in the 1800s. One of Jefferson’s main concerns was to make schools available to all regardless of their status in society. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, free public education at the elementary level was available for American children in order to create good citizens, unite society and to prevent crime and poverty. By 1918 all states had mandatory attendance laws for elementary school. The first publicly supported high school was founded in Boston in 1635. By the middle of the eighteenth century the demand for skilled workers increased and Benjamin Franklin established a new kind of secondary school in Philadelphia in 1751. As we progressed in the Twentieth Century, most states passed laws requiring attendance in school through age sixteen.
From the beginning, individual states, rather than the federal government, have had primary authority over education. Each state currently has a department of education and has enacted laws regarding funding and financing, hiring of personnel, attendance and curriculum. Generally, local districts oversee the administration of the schools, with the exception of licensing and rules concerning health and safety. Public schools rely mostly on property taxes to meet expenses. Under President Bush, Congress enacted No Child Left Behind legislation, which asserts federal mandates on local school issues. This legislation leaves the curriculum decision to the states and requires regular criterion-based testing of the students to determine if they are meeting the standards of the state-based curriculum.
A few years ago, I personally asked Senator Isakson why we didn’t have a Federal curriculum standard for No Child Left Behind and I was referred back to “State’s Rights”. I submit to you, my friends, this month’s frustration: Georgia, which tends to be ranked towards the bottom of all 50 states in education, for decades, in a country ranked towards the bottom of industrialized countries in education, develops its own curriculum rather than selecting the best curriculum from states in the top 10. Further, we seem to lack options for our students who are not college-bound (that 25-30% we’re losing through the dropout rate addressed in last month’s column).
This month’s plea to you: as we get underway in the Gold Dome, there are laws that can be passed to improve our educational landscape that require minimal (or no) funding. We can begin to re-think how we educate our children and how we develop curriculum. I believe that the only curriculum we, as a state, should be creating from scratch is Georgia Studies. Every other subject that our students are learning – at every grade level – is taught in another state. There are at least 40 states doing it better than we are. Why not stop reinventing the wheel and instead start cherry-picking the best of the lot, by subject? (Not just curricula, but the associated proven texts, tests, lesson plans, and teacher training methods.) Instead of developing a math curriculum from scratch over the past few years at taxpayer expense, we could have chosen the number-one ranked Massachusetts’ curriculum, which has been proven teachable and effective.
House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Rep. Fran Millar are re-introducing their BRIDGE bill this term. This Bill seeks to allow students, who are not interested in attending college, to earn a certificate to allow them to pursue a technical career (e.g. in aerospace, health care, elderly care, agribusiness, life science, energy and environmental, logistics and transportation, information technology, teacher education training, engineering, science and mathematics, humanities and fine arts) with an introduction to these areas in 9th grade and concentrating in one area beginning in 10th grade. This bill, as proposed, exempts these students from some current graduation requirements and this has drawn criticism from educators. There is merit to giving the 25% to 30% of the students who are dropping out some alternatives. Perhaps, some support from constituents would make a difference?
Let’s start teaching our kids what they really need to know. Let’s give them tools to become successful in life. Let’s focus on English and math basics. Let’s teach everyone up-to-date computer skills. Let’s make sure no child leaves school without being financially literate. Most importantly, let’s allow them to fail if necessary, at early ages so they can understand how to work hard, win and succeed in high school and beyond. Albert Einstein experienced failure. Chipper Jones strikes out. Litigators lose a case every so often. Why are we so afraid to teach young kids the art of losing a game?
I will get off my soapbox now. I really wish we, as individual lawyers, could urge our legislature to require our State Department of Education to implement the best educational practices from around the country, to utilize the best curriculum from one of the states that are in the top five -- in toto – not modified where any child must be a guinea pig. Plus, we need to give our students critical life skills and alternatives – so we can make the American Dream possible for future generations of Georgians and keep our State and Country strong. In the process, we would re-invigorate Georgia to pull back in those jobs Maureen Downey says we are losing to other states because our system of education has been weak for too long.
Be an Everyday Hero and participate in the legislative process in the way you best see fit. While you are at it, thank your colleagues who have taken the plunge and have succeeded in being elected to public office.
Many thanks to Shayna (who is herself, an Everyday Hero in my book) for allowing us to reprint her article here on the blog. I think she has done quality research and made excellent points. Although she is addressing her peers - lawyers - I hope this article inspires some creative, thoughtful conversation about how each of us in every occupation can work to improve our local schools. - Cere