Walbridge Grade School is a two and a half story brick and mortar building in north St Louis Missouri. It was built in the a early 1920s as a result of the "baby boom" which followed the First World War. It was the type of building my parent's generation would have attended; my parents being part of what TV journalist Tom Brokow calls "the greatest generation." According to the Internet Walbridge is still being used for educating the current generation.
I arrived at Walbridge about 1949. The building, from my child's perspective, had very high ceilings, "to allow the heat to rise". Since school in Missouri continued through the second week of June and began again the day after Labor Day, the rooms on the sunny side would get to use one of the two school owned fans. Sometimes the teachers would add their own. The playground was covered with asphalt. I wonder if there was any school year in which I did not bleed from one injury or another. Teachers took turns being schoolyard monitors (also as "gym teachers"). Our seventh grade teacher pointed out this meant that one day a week she had only one break -- for lunch.
I remember when the first TV was brought into class about the third grade. The big treat, though, was an occasional movie shown in the only room with dark shades. Grade school was eight years (there was no Middle or Junior High school). For most of these years I walked home for lunch. It was that, take my lunch, or go to one of the local confectionaries and buy something. When I got to High School I had to buy my lunch, along with paying bus fare to get to and from.
Every two years there was a citywide vote on something called the Tax Levy. This meant the School Board had to go to the taxpayers and ask for enough money to keep the schools going. A two-thirds majority was needed to pass. If it failed, as it did at least once, the Levy went back to the State Constitution mandated minimum set sometime after the Civil War. We students from Kindergarten on were enlisted to work for the new levy; always a hard sell as it represented some degree of increase. In the end parents were usually convinced they should give their children more than they had received.
Since those days Kay and I have reared five children, moved numerous times, and met innumerable teachers in a multitude of school districts. We've seen our kids though good schools and bad, rich and poor, and even one low budget non-profit institution.
Funny thing is, from Kindergarten to today, I have never seen a School Board which thought they had enough money. Inevitably comes the clarion call which begins "for our children's sake", followed by some new "need". I wonder what "the greatest generation" would have thought of these "needs?"
Throughout most of American history local schools have been financed by property tax. The theory, I suppose, being that landowners had all the money and they should pay for educating the next generation. And, throughout American history there have been School Boards seeking ever more taxes from ever more landowners for ever more needs of ever more children. Somehow it never occurs to anyone that none of this has worked. Nor does it seem to occur to anyone that no one ever cries "enough."
In two-hundred years of American history nobody has come up with a better system. I for one am open to suggestions.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.