The Government Loots, But Children Can Still Learn

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My students respect the term “TANSTAAFL (sound like tan-staff-el), which means, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch,” which Richard J. Maybury uses in his book, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? We keep the term on the blackboard and refer to it often as we discuss a wide range of topics. The concept was easy for them to understand, and they assess and critique educational and political issues in light of how programs or decisions mesh with the fact that ‘nothing in life is free.’

Eager to tease me, some claim to like the term because it provides their only opportunity to use ‘ain’t’ within my hearing. In truth, they understand, believe, and wisely discuss this economic truth — a philosophy that adults at every level of government, from local school boards to the President, find foreign and choose to ignore. Such adults, in failing to apply this idea to fiscal responsibility, are proving to be very poor role models for our children.

This is especially true in the world of Education, where teachers and administrators interpret ‘federal grant’ to mean ‘free money.’ They give presentations to school boards and parents, advising districts to grab as much of this found money as possible. They either fail to understand, or purposely hide the fact, that the money must come from somewhere. They never advise the public that the somewhere is: parental pockets; my pockets; your pockets; the debt load left for our children!

Schools receive grants to install kitchens and laundry facilities that are used by a small percentage of the students, during limited lessons. Often it is teachers who use the facilities, some even doing their personal laundry at school to save themselves time plus electric and water bills at home. Schools receive grants for ‘reading’ programs that use audiotapes instead of phonics. One small district received $80,000 to purchase audio equipment, tapes and the accompanying books. When the memorization rate showed gains, the school received a follow-up grant! It is difficult to believe that listening to a story until it is memorized would be considered a reading program and thus qualify for looted tax monies.

Many grant applications are like these — written in hopes of finding a Magic Fix for the problems that are destroying public education. The latest of these ‘easy fixes’ is the Sixth Grade Laptop computer program. I was so proud of Michigan’s Governor Granholm when she nixed Michigan Representative Rick Johnson’s (R) proposal to provide every 6th grader in Michigan with a PDA or laptop.

However, before I could say, “TANSTAAFL” — the No Child Left Behind law was stripped to its skivvies, and lurking there is a huge technology fund. These NCLB grants will provide HP laptop computers to students, a large percentage of whom are incapable of reading or writing — using print, cursive, or typing — anywhere near grade level. I suppose the teachers will now have to prepare their class notes in Early Caveman font, then ‘beam’ the drawings into the child’s computer. If schools are not going to teach children to read and write, are they not dragging our children backward in time, even as technology tries to cover up that fact? The alphabet and penmanship are out; drawings and beaming are in. What will be next — hieroglyphics and cuneiform?

I see this new grant-supported gimmick as yet another example of aiding and abetting the schools as they pretend that teaching and learning occur inside those dumbed-down, consolidated buildings. I use computers extensively, but I would not be using them in any scholastic manner were I not a good reader! There is no easy fix to the mess that public education has created by reneging on their weighty responsibility to “Teach Every Child To Read Before Third Grade." If any ‘beaming’ is going to be done, I wish Scotty would ‘beam’ uneducated, unethical, and anti-scholarship educators and administrators up and out of this galaxy.

Recently I spoke out at a school board meeting to question the sense, and the ethics, of this 6th grade laptop plan, but my question was all but demonized by an administrator. I was bluntly informed that laptop computers are the ‘wave of the future'; that our district should have the right to be on the cutting edge. The point was stressed that people used to be negative about telephones, as I was perceived of being about computers, but that nearly every home now has one, and many people even carry one. A jacket was lifted to display the cell phone on the administrator’s belt. I wanted to shout, “The free market put those phones in your homes and on your hip — not a grant from Congress using ill-gotten monies from overburdened taxpayers!” My students understand that logic! Why can’t administrators, school boards, state legislators, federal legislators…Presidents?

Here is the ‘sweet’ deal: HP will lease laptops to the schools for $275 each. (What did you have to pay for yours? Hummm? More than $275, right?) Despite that exceedingly low price, the NCLB grant will reduce that cost even further! Schools will pay only $25.00 — per computer, per year, for four (4) years! — so, $100 per student!

It gets better. (Or worse, as far as the taxpayer is concerned.) At the end of the four years, the schools can buy the leased computers from HP for $1.00. A buck! (Let’s see…adjusted for inflation and the theft of the American gold, would that now be equivalent to about — one penny?) The administrator’s description of this new found money was, “As close to a freebie as one can get.”

I have long been concerned about this new ‘gimmick-at-our-expense’. I have since read that many districts are opting out due to the unclear language in the contracts and the fear of excessive maintenance costs involved in caring for hundreds of laptops that will be hauled around buildings, thrown into lockers, dropped on floors, taken to homes where no one has ever been taught how to, let alone why to, care for expensive items that were paid for by someone else. I expressed my concerns to the Board, and by so doing, I made the front page of the local paper, “One…school teacher cited some recent research that indicated school districts were not happy with the laptop program. She also questioned whether the new laptops would overburden the tech staff with repairs.”

In response to my concerns, questions were asked regarding the contract with HP and whether it included maintenance. No answers were available, but no one suggested tabling the motion until the contract could be clarified or stipulations added. The motion was made to accept the plan, without even reading or understanding the contract. The newspaper expressed the spirit of the moment quite well with, “After much discussion, the board took the plunge and unanimously [voted] to move ahead with the grant application.” How ironical that on page 4, the paper had a long article entitled, “PENMANSHIP IS IMPORTANT.”

Boldly naming stolen taxpayer monies as “feebies” does not change the fact that the act of the theft is neither lawful nor honorable. Our children should be taught, and certainly are capable of learning, that “There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.”

May the day come when free market economics are carefully taught to everyone, the young and the old, alike. Then, and only then, might America begin to heal. Until such time…the looting continues and the foundation upon which this country was built, visibly moves, cracks and weakens.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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