05/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Schools at Risk: A Unique Perspective

Discussions about the condition of public schools usually center on curriculum, instruction and test scores. Money is sometimes mentioned, usually in a "money-doesn't-matter-don't-throw- money-at-the-schools." (See Keith Baker, "Yes, Throw Money at the Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, April, 1991 for a rebuttal.) A new book presents the condition of schooling from a quite different perspective. Fertilizers, Pills, and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America, by Gene V Glass at Arizona State University is superbly documented, but it reads more like a thriller than an academic treatise.

Just looking at the cover, I didn't get the connection between the three elements and schools, but Glass makes them quite compelling. In brief, and at the risk of oversimplifying, here they are:

Fertilizers. Before the development of artificial fertilizers, farmers used natural fertilizers. These are, naturally, limited in supply. Up to early in the 20th century, most people lived on farms, families consumed what they produced, and children were an essential part of the family production effort.

In 1908 a German chemist, Fritz Haber, invented a process to make fertilizer from the nitrogen in the air. The process was cheap and easy. The presence of large quantities of fertilizer meant increased production and a decreased need for farmers. The urban migration was on. The process accelerated after 1917 when Henry Ford built a gas powered tractor, hugely increasing productivity and again decreasing the number of farmers needed.

The U. S. high school graduation rate crossed 10% in 1910, the year in which Haber patented his process, and had risen to 50% by the time of World War II. Kids were less and less part of the work force and were, in fact, more and more a drain on the family's economic resources. The increase in farm productivity and the rise of the comprehensive high school are highly correlated.

Pills. The pills in question are those that prevent conception and those that extend life. The advent of oral contraceptives radically changed America's approach to having kids -- fewer kids and later. Along with the women's movement, they contributed to more and more women in the work force as well as later and later and fewer pregnancies. In 1976, the average woman aged 44 had had over 3 children. By 1995 she had had fewer than 2.

The country was aging. In 1950, I was 10 and there was much talk about our being half-way through the 20th century. I wondered if I would make it all the way to the 21st (I later learned that the odds then were slightly in my favor). Now, closing in on 68, projections are for something in the vicinity of 85. In 1900, the leading causes of death in the U. S. were pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. Between 2010 and 2050, the number of people older than 85 will quadruple. Older people are less supportive of schools. The Children's Defense Fund and such local voluntary groups as PTAs and PTOs are no match for the AARP.

This advancing age results largely from various medicines that lower the risks from stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and to improved surgical procedures. And in fact, doctors prescribe the pills that extend life far more often today than they do oral contraceptives.

Magnetic Strips. The magnetic strip was invented as a means of identification for the CIA. Banks, however, soon recognized its utility and the credit card was born. In late fall 1966, Diner's Club sent 6 million of them -- unsolicited -- to people in the metropolitan Chicago area -- just in time to buy Christmas presents.

The South Dakota legislature greatly enhanced the attractiveness of credit cards -- to banks -- when it changed its usury laws and eliminated the interest cap that credit card companies could charge. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that these companies could charge the prevailing rate of the state they were incorporated in, no matter where the customers were. Companies stampeded to incorporate in South Dakota.

Personal, unsecured debt soared. It stood at $3,000 per household in 1990, almost $9,000 by 2002. And all this was before the subprime mortgage and credit debacle. So we're older, with fewer kids and tons of personal debt. As Glass puts it, "The implications for the health of public institutions, public infrastructure, and public services are profound. Who will vote for higher taxes to support libraries (California, which spends less on libraries than any other state, recently rejected such an increase), parks, recreation centers, senior centers, and, yes, public schools, when personal debt swells, equity shrinks and savings vanish?"

I can't tell you what Glass sees as the fate of public education because I haven't gotten past that quote which is on page 94 of a 300 page book. It doesn't look good, but it's a fascinating story so far.