Fight Over Funding the Status Quo

It’s April which means Fairfax County is now coming to the end of the annual school budget fight civil discussion of priorities between the school district (formerly known as both the overly-large school district and my employer) and the county Board of Supervisors.

The continuing conflict that usually comes to a temporary resolution every May arises because our local school board has no authority to raise it’s own local money. They get some funding directly from the state and from federal government programs, but most of their budget comes the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (in something known as the “transfer”).

Early in the budgeting process, the school superintendent starts by laying out the district’s “increasing needs”, tossing out some numbers that will make everything run smoothly, and warning about the programs that could be cut or canceled without full funding. Soon after the supervisors, working totally independently, announce how much money they can afford transfer to the district (and accuse the superintendent of being irrational).

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

After a couple of months of back and forth, the school board ignores the supervisors and puts together a budget for the next year based on those “needs” and other priorities. Of course, the amounts don’t match (in the past five years, I don’t remember them even being close) and both sides ramp up the hype.

School supporters take to local news media and social network channels, attempting to build community pressure on the Board to increase their figure. The superintendent talks about larger class sizes and diminished programs (sometimes even threatening to take away the Friday night gladiator matches, aka high school football), which she says will lead to a mediocre education for the kids.

On the other side, Board members make a lot of pronouncements about the county coffers being empty with nothing more to give, and lecturing school administrators on the concept of living within their means (file that under the heading: do as I say, not as I do).

Both sides are right to some degree. And are also full of crap.

The community in which we live is one of the richest in the nation (second or third depending on who you ask). At the same time, the vast majority of people living here don’t have kids in school and so have no direct interest in one side of the fight. Which means the two top priorities, for most residents as well as most Board members, are keeping taxes as low as possible and keeping the value of their property as high as possible.1

Those Board members know very well that raising taxes – any taxes – is likely to cost them their job; at least attract a very strong challenge to unseat them. And, since we already have “good” schools, at least according to the usual statistical measures, the perceived corrolation between that and property values is already assured. At least until the next election. All is good here in Lake Wobegon.

On the superintendent’s side of things, the school population continues to grow at around 4000 to 5000 students each year. And increasing numbers of students in the system are non English speakers, qualify for low income benefits, or require special education services (or combinations of those categories), all of which add to the cost of running the district. Add in the pressures of providing decent pay and the increasing cost of benefits and you get a lot of upward pressures on increasingly tight budgets.

However, even if the school board got all the funds they asked for, the money is largely paying for very conventional educational programs. Although the superintendent promises “innovation”, preparing “global citizens”, and “creative” solutions to the system’s problems, her plans include very little change in the basic structure of the school process – curriculum, instructional practice, standardized test-based student assessment. Nothing different from what it was in more flush times ten years ago.

School administrators and the politicians who allocate the funding for them should be working together to find alternatives to the way things have always been done. Are there alternative models of “school” that work better for kids with differing interests and skills? Are there alternatives to property taxes that make paying for an educated society more reliable and equitable? Can we make schools more valuable than just supporting property values to the general public? Maybe by integrating schools with those communities in ways that benefit even those who have no children in the system?

I don’t have all the answers but it doesn’t seem as if either side in this debate is even asking the questions.

Instead we have school leaders fighting to fully fund the status quo in an education system that is still riding its successes from twenty years ago 2. And community leaders who are satisfied with schools that are “good enough”, as long as the property tax stays the same, and the Friday night football game starts on time.

Fix It! (But Don’t Expect Me To Pay)

Today is election day here in what my friend Kathy calls the Republic of North Virginia. That implies we live in a liberal region but that is very relative and only accurate when compared to the rest of the state.

Anyway, we have no national races on the ballot, which means turnout will be very low. But that doesn’t mean the vote isn’t important, as brilliantly explained here by John Oliver.

With few particular controversies to campaign on this year, all the candidates alternate between describing how evil their opponents are, and how much they support a wonderful life: better schools, better transportation, better health care, more jobs. The stuff that sounds good in 30 second ads, but is very complicated to accomplish in real life.

The problem, however, also lies with us voters. Just about everyone who will bother to vote today will tell you they want the government to improve life in our area, in some way.

They just don’t want to pay for it. No one ever gets elected to office in our little Republic (or anywhere else in the country, I suspect) if they even hint at asking people to pay the bills.

Transportation is a good example of this “I want it all for free” attitude.

Most everyone around here will tell you traffic stinks. The DC area regularly lands at or near the top of the list of most congested cities in the US. Too many cars trying to get to the same place at the same time, even during non “rush” periods.

But the only solutions that interest our local politicians involve building pay-to-drive car pool lanes along major highways – what are called HOT (high occupancy toll) corridors. Roads that require either three people in the car or payments that can be over $10 for five or so miles of relatively congestion free driving. Projects that suck down lots of money while doing very little to address the larger problem.

Public transportation systems that don’t involve cars? Don’t be silly. Most of our “leaders” (including the Congress critters who live in the area most of the year) don’t ride Metro, much less want to pay for it. Buses are for poor people. Walkable, bike friendly cities are for socialist countries.

So, a few of us are choosing many of our local leaders today. The Board of Supervisors, School Board, members of the state Assembly and Senate, various other offices. But they won’t fix any of the problems mentioned (very) briefly in their ads and speeches.

Because we say we want government to provide good public infrastructure. We just don’t want to pay for it. And they know it.

Dancing Around the Status Quo

Here in the overly-large school district, we are in the middle of the annual budget dance. It’s sorta like an aggressive tango mixed with a square dance involving lots of partners.3 The long, drawn-out process stems from the fact that our school board has no taxing authority. Most of the funding for schools comes from the county Board of Supervisors in a magic formula called the “transfer”, with much smaller amounts sent directly from state and federal governments.

The first movement begins in the fall with the Supervisors declaring that they will only be able to provide this much money for schools, because we are in dire financial straits and (never directly stated) no one is going to be politically stupid enough to propose a tax increase. This despite the fact that we live in one of the richest counties in the country.

A few weeks later, the superintendent presents a budget for the schools system, one that always requires more funds than the Supervisors, along with dire pronouncements of how awful the impact will be on your children if it is not fully funded. For a variety of reasons, this year is slightly more awful than in past years, including class size increases and personnel cuts right up front.

And then everyone dances. At community meetings, in the paper, online, on television, wherever there is an audience. The final steps will come in late May when the Supervisors pass their budget, the school board passes theirs, and the new fiscal year begins with everyone living with the decisions made.

However, in all the claims, threats, and political posturing, one thing is missing from the ballroom: any serious discussion of what this community wants from it’s schools.

The process is all about the status quo, specifically how much of it everyone wants and is willing to pay for. The assumption is that, during the coming year, schools will operate exactly as they have in the past. The classes may be a little larger, the busses a little older, fewer of us lazy central office folks,2 but still the same basic education formula.

At the same time, we have politicians, parents, administrators, business folks, community leaders, and others using phrases like “world class”, “21st century skills”, “life-long learners”, “innovation”, “problem solvers” to describe the lofty (and somewhat vague) goals they want for students and schools. Ideas that don’t at all fit with our traditional teacher-directed, test-focused, fact-transfer instructional process.

Anyway, the bottom line question, if our leaders are really serious about wanting to make those major changes to the way we education our children, is how do we pay for it?

As I said, we live in one of the richest areas in the US, probably the world, able to pay whatever is necessary for a high quality school system, whatever we decide that means.  All the different participants in our annual budget dance need to stop the music and have that serious and comprehensive discussion of what we expect from our schools?3

Do We Really Need “Educational” Technology?

It’s spring so, as with most years, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about TSIP.

For those of you from outside Virginia, TSIP is the Technology Standards for Instructional Personnel, a legislative requirement for all teachers enacted about ten years ago.

Everyone with a teaching license must complete the TSIP requirements, either during their first year in the state or in order to renew their license.

Unfortunately, the requirements haven’t changed in a decade and generally conform to what a college advisor called the “inoculation theory of professional development”: you need it, you get it, you never have to bother with it again.

One shot and you’re done.

My thinking on the whole TSIP concept today just happens to coincides with a call from ISTE and other organizations for people to blog and/or tweet about the lack of any ed tech funding in the proposed federal budget.

However, I’m not entirely sure that’s necessarily a bad idea.

I’m willing to bet that most of the half billion dollars allocated this year had very little impact on instruction anyway.

Most likely it was spent at the state or district level to buy expensive packages from educational conglomerates like Pearson (along with plenty of consultants, of course), promising “solutions” to whatever problem is at the top of your list.

But more to the point, I wonder if there’s really a need for “educational” technology anymore?

Does the artificial classification of hardware, software, web applications and the rest as “instructional” (with the inevitable conclusion that rest of the stuff is not) just get in the way of the basic idea that almost any technology could be used for learning?

And does the process also gives some in our profession the cover necessary to ignore anything considered “non-instructional”?

You know, all that tech the kids play with when they’re not with us or when we’re not looking.

We say we want students to be able to communicate and collaborate, to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, and to become creative and innovative in their work.

Do we really need special “edtech” to make that happen?

Or just a better understanding of how people in the real world are using all kinds of technology to improve their personal skills in all those areas and how to help our students learn to do the same.

Maybe, just like our tech standards that linger from the previous century, the whole concept of “educational technology” is outdated and obsolete.

Cutting the Future to Make the Present Look Better

Back to the continuing budget mess here in the overly-large school district.

The superintendent and others have been holding meetings with employee groups and community members (and distributing poorly worded surveys) to get suggestions on what programs and people should be cut to make things balance financially.

However, he’s asking the wrong question.

Instead the discussion needs to be framed around what we are all willing to pay for.

Just about anywhere you go in the US, it’s pretty much a political given that no elected official would even talk about raising taxes.

And around here, they would likely also be tossed out at the next election for suggesting that schools, or anything else, are more important than adding more asphalt and concrete for people to drive on.

Given those constraints (more like a straightjacket), the larger community should, instead of talking about cuts, be addressing the very difficult question: what will you pay real money for?

Do you want full-day kindergarten? Do you really believe art and music programs are essential or are they just a frills?

Will you pay for the training and support necessary to keep “well-qualified” teachers in every classroom or is that just something we can only afford during good times?

Is technology really a priority or is all that talk about the “future” and “21st century skills” nothing more than nice sounding decorations for political speeches?

Because in many ways, this money discussion is all about the future.

And that that brings me to the title of this post, which is stolen from a recent edition of the Business Week cover story podcast.

In that program a reporter makes the observation that, during economically rotten times like we have now, corporations are “cutting the future” through drastic reductions in their research and development budgets.

We do the same thing as a society with public education.

We slice things that will make future classrooms better – teacher training and technology being prime among those – in order to make administrators and politicians look good now.

So, maybe the bottom line question that needs to be asked about the education budget is: what are you willing to cut from the future to make the status quo look better?

I wonder how all those folks who keep sending me political crap mail and want my vote tomorrow would respond.

Probably not the way I would.