To give, one must receive

By The West Virginia Record | Feb 15, 2008

Education is what you make of it.

Education is what you make of it.

We're not sure who coined the adage, but it never seemed to inspire Thomas Sturm.

Sturm, you may have heard, is suing the Kanawha County Board of Education for failing to educate him.

According to his complaint, currently on appeal before the West Virginia Supreme Court, Sissonville High School gave Sturm a diploma he didn't earn or deserve. That's illegal, say his lawyers, who want $1 million in damages from local taxpayers (a.k.a. the school district) for failure to provide their client an "appropriate" education.

"They wanted to get rid of him, just pass him through," said Sturm lawyer Barbara Harmon-Schamberger of Charleston. "There was supposed to be a positive behavior plan, none was ever put in place."

She means positive as in the opposite of negative. Sturm's public education seems to have ended after he was caught in school with a knife in 2002.

Now, Sturm is 21 and living on disability benefits provided by the federal government. A "functional illiterate," his lawyers say he is "unprepared to do anything."

Perhaps he's unwilling to do "anything" Sturm doesn't want to do, which could include our economy's many labor-exclusive occupations, where reading and writing are not prerequisites.

It's worth noting that Sturm wouldn't be the only West Virginian relegated to such a career. According to the U.S. Department of Education, some 20 percent of Mountain State adults are functionally illiterate. That is, they "have difficulty performing such everyday tasks as locating an intersection on a street map, reading and comprehending a short newspaper article, or calculating total costs on an order form."

That's not good but still better than the national adult illiteracy average of 22 percent. However, it's not enough for Sturm and his counsel, who base their lawsuit on the faulty premise that our public education system would spit out nothing short of perfect students if the people in charge would only follow the rules.

"I don't think there's any question that the regulations and guidelines and statutes were not followed in this case," said lawyer Michael T. Clifford of Charleston.

As if all that stood between Thomas Sturm and a Rhodes Scholarship was that "positive behavior plan."

No matter what our politicians promise, West Virginia's public school system never will be responsible for fulfilling the career hopes and dreams of our children. It will never be capable of making its students financially self-reliant, or gainfully employed in jobs they like.

Our schools are no more blameworthy for not guaranteeing Mr. Sturm's literacy than they would be for failing to secure your son or daughter admission to Harvard.

There is no causal relationship between teachers following "regulations and guidelines" and students reaching their educational aspirations.

In the end, there's only so much our teachers can do. That's especially true when they have other students to worry about, including ones carrying a knife.

We have the right to an education. But that doesn't mean we all choose to take advantage of it.

Taxpayers mustn't be forced to pay for Thomas Sturm's regrets. Enough tax dollars have been spent defending this suit already. The high court should dismiss this case in short order.

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