Last year, the Board of Education for the Zanesville, Ohio, City School District was handed a hammer capable of striking a blow for the forces of good in the battle over the direction of public education. Unfortunately for this community, the board dropped the sledge squarely on its foot, seeking immediate relief by planting the appendage squarely in its collective mouth.

The issue involved an attempt to increase the minimum academic standards that students must meet before participating in athletics or other extracurricular activities. To her credit, board member McFerren deemed the current standard—at least a cumulative “D” average before the start of the academic quarter—insufficient to warrant a pupils participation. Under the terms of her proposal, this cumulative standard would be raised one letter-grade, to a “C” average, and the student’s performance in each class would be monitored weekly during the quarter of participation. The student’s eligibility for participation in the activities of the subsequent week (team meetings, practices, and games) would be contingent upon the maintenance of a “C” in each class. Below average performance in any subject, according to her plan, would require the student to sit it out until these minimum standards were once again met.

Pretty reasonable, I think. The more benighted members of the board, however, thought otherwise. Despite overwhelming public and parental acceptance, the board voted instead to maintain the lowest possible standards allowed by the state. In an attempt to jettison academic principle for the more popular cargo of equity, board member Grosshandler served up this grammatical gem: “[Stricter standards] would not be fair to students who genuinely try and whose main reasons for attending schools was [sic] to play sports.”

This refusal to implement higher standards merely reflects the wholesale shift away from objective, quantifiable measures of student—and, by extension, teacher—performance, hi the absence of such measures of their ability and conduct, the educrats can issue rosy public statements that effectively deny the reality of an incompetence that has become endemic to public education. Consider the unremitting outcry from the Ohio Education Association to the state mandate requiring all high-school students to pass a standardized ninth-grade proficiency examination (PE) as a condition of graduation. “Unfair,” “insensitive,” “racist,” it wailed. “Regressive,” it whined. Indeed, it is unfair, regressive, and insensitive. It is unfair to employers seeking competent high school graduates to have an applicant pool whose communication and clerical skills are scarcely beyond that of an eighth-grader. It is unfair to colleges and universities, which must design and fund remedial way stations to elevate the mathematical and grammatical competency of these youngsters to the 12th-grade level. It is regressive because it imposes upon the market increased prices due to added production costs in the form of training and reeducation of workers, which often involve teaching them how to read. Finally, it is insensitive not only to employers, collegians, and consumers but to the student population, which is receiving the short end of the education stick.

Yet to the educrats, it is unfair because it demands accountability. The scandalously high number of students who fail the PE on their first try can easily be blamed on incompetent instruction. The inability of several thousand students to pass it after a second or third sitting can be blamed on poor curriculum content and design. Educators used to shift accountability for their pathetic instruction through grade inflation and the elimination of the “F” and all other marks indicating “failure.” If, in a class of 30 students, 25 received A’s and B’s, the teacher must be pretty good. Put an apple on his desk and dole out part of that union-guaranteed annual pay increase. But the PE cut him off on the way to the bank. If those 25 students achieved marks of “B” or better in his English composition class, then presumably they should breeze through the verbal portion of the PE. But on average, 40 percent of these 25 did not. As a result, the obvious question emerged: How can a student receive an “A” in senior English and subsequently fail the verbal half of a ninth-grade proficiency test?

But he can if the school system lacks money, said the education establishment. Enlisting their conventional justification for any problem plaguing their realm, they enlightened us to the fact that such pathetic test results were the product not of a lack of instruction, but of a lack of resources, most of them financial. What followed was a torrent of emergency funding initiatives and ballot measures designed to raise the cash necessary to bolster up the PE scores. Overnight, signboards reading “Levy or Armageddon . . . You Decide!” sprouted on the lawn of every teacher in the district, followed closely by appeals to “Save the Kids.” Yet they saved the best for last. In what will long be remembered as the most outrageous piece of showmanship in the history of public education, those Ohio school districts boasting the poorest performance on the PE filed suit, with the assistance of the farcical ad hoc Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding (CEASF), against the state of Ohio for, among other things, the “necessary [money] to provide students [of these districts] academic realities which [sic] translate more readily with those of students from districts facing less challenges.”

Such solicitations, of course, are nothing new. Over the past four decades, educrats have perfidiously convinced American parents and legislators that any hiccup in public education could be cured with additional funding. From 1950-1989, despite hundreds of studies showing absolutely no correlation between spending and educational achievement, average per-pupil expenditures rose in real terms from $1,333 to $4,931. This fourfold increase in real spending, however, has brought no academic improvement, but significant decline. Indeed, from 1963 to 1990, combined SAT scores fell on average 95 points from 980 to 885. Over this same period, statisticians have labored furiously to build subfloor after subfloor to accommodate American students in the academic performance house of industrialized nations. In an international study conducted last year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, only 20 percent of American college teachers surveyed felt that American schools had adequately prepared college enrollees in writing and speaking skills, while a mere 15 percent saw adequate preparation in math and quantitative reasoning, results which placed Americans last among the Held of 14 countries. Curiously, across the street in the financial house of industrialized nations, where one’s digs are based on the average per-pupil expenditure for education, the American kids are in the penthouse and swimming on the roof.

Fortunately, such evidence does not appear to have been wasted on the voters, whose patience with the “inadequate funding” argument is wearing thin. Since November 1993, Ohio voters have rejected eight of the ten balloted school tax levies, increases, or renewals—some failing by as much as 40 percentage points. This response is tantamount to a referendum against throwing good money after bad or rewarding nonperformance. Casting further light on this shifting sentiment has been an exponential increase in the incidence of “bright flight”—the transfer of the most intelligent (and often the most moneyed) students to more effective districts.

Consequently, the educrats have been scrambling to their last line of defense: depreciate the results and significance of specific testing instruments, such as the SAT and PE, and objective, quantitative grading systems in general. The general name for this is OBE, “Outcome-Based Education,” which seeks to dispense with Carnegie curriculum units altogether and institute in their place vague “new basics” based on a mishmash of “learning outcomes” defined and established by the educrats themselves. Rather than mathematics, science, and language arts, the euphemistic buzzwords of this paradigm are “fairness,” “diversity,” “self-esteem,” “confidence,” “sensitivity,” and “emergence.” How a child writes or what he writes is far less important than how he feels about how or what he writes. Next to literacy in the museum of public education is historical scholarship, which is being revised and contorted so as not to exclude or offend am hyphenated sub-classification of humans, plants, or animals. For example, I have learned that Africa was the cradle of math and engineering, that a sub-Saharan black discovered America, and that Negro soldiers single-handedly liberated the German concentration camps in World War II. The verity of such feats, let alone their difficult reconciliation with the present state of the Dark Continent, is of little importance provided they play well to the group they seek to assuage and serve to discredit the contributions of less-hyphenated peoples, particularly white European males.

All this in the name of “fairness” and “self-confidence.” In reality, it is in the name of job security. In the marketplace, shoddy work and poor product quality generally result in the elimination of the producer and its products. But the education establishment is not the marketplace.

Incidentally, I have received complaints about one of my workers napping on the job—sometimes napping for two to three hours at a time. A supervisor has suggested that I codify more austere policies against such nonperformance. After much thought, I have decided that stricter standards would be unfair to employees who genuinely try, and whose main reason for coming to work is to catch up on their sleep.