Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

We’ve met
the enemy
and it is us

It's sort of odd that the people on the forefront of fighting for civil rights and, for the most part, being very successful at it, are in prison.

These are the people who screwed up so badly that society locked them up. Now, they file lawsuits over everything from what they eat to how they are treated. Most surprisingly, they have demanded and gotten access to libraries stocked with everything from girlie magazines to law books.

If they had put just an ounce of that kind of effort into their school work, they would have graduated, gotten jobs and possibly avoided the joint altogether.

The irony is while prisons improve, the country's public schools are becoming cesspools. Inner city schools are crumbling. Students are shoved from grade to grade without learning the basics, then they're out the door. And, that's only if they choose to attend.

This is like an automobile plant cutting costs on the production line and sending out cars that break down as soon as they hit the streets. Then the plant is put under federal court orders to spend millions of dollars to "fix" the junkmobiles.

It's backward. It's stupid. It shouldn't be happening.

Now, there is a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that just might reverse this trend. It is a sexual harassment case filed by the mother of a 10-year-old girl who was harassed by a fellow fifth-grader. The interesting thing is the family is suing the school, not the kid who did the harassing, under a federal discrimination statute.

If successful, it will be a strong message to all public schools that they are responsible for the safety of their students.

T he problem is, people talk about "public schools" as if they are private enterprises run by some hazy, unidentifiable third party. Public schools are us, folks. Things have gotten so bad that we have now begun to sue ourselves. And, who knows? Maybe it will work. We haven't been listening to ourselves up to now. Maybe we need to sue the pants off ourselves to wake us up.

The schools are US. Say it. WE are the public schools. We have met the enemy and we are it. Our money pays for public schools. Our money pays to settle lawsuits. Our money should be providing the best education that the world can provide. The reality, however, is we are throwing our money into the Dumpster by the handful and don't give a rip about what happens to it.

Why? For the answer, I go to my sage and spiritual guide, P.J. O'Rourke, the Rolling Stone magazine associate grump who travels around the world getting ticked off about every little thing. He believes the problem with public schools, as with just about everything related to government, is money.

O'Rourke points out there are only four ways money is spent: 1) You spend your own money on yourself; 2) You spend your money on someone else; 3) You spend someone else's money on yourself; and 4) You spend someone else's money on somebody else.

No. 3 is the most fun, but No. 4 is what happens in government. Elected officials are used to spending someone else's money (ours) on someone else (public schools, which the kids don't attend.)

But, it is an illusion. When it comes to the public schools, we are not spending someone else's money on someone else. We are spending OUR money on OUR kids. And, doing a crappy job of it. OUR schools will improve when WE take control of OUR money and control OUR schools through smaller, local school boards that are immediately responsive to OUR students' needs. If we have to sue ourselves to wake us up, so be it.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or

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