Economic Hypocrisy

This being the overly-large school district we are, the economic mess now in progress means that we get to go through yet another round of armageddon-sized budget cuts.

To give you some idea of how large, the amount we’re supposedly in the hole is about the same as that spent annually by more than a few much smaller systems elsewhere in Virginia.

So, what gets hacked and what do we keep?

As is usual in these situations, the school board directs the superintendent to come up with a list of proposed “savings” and then all the different constituents muster whatever pressure they can to save a particular program.

However, there are two big problems with this particular political dance.

Almost everybody, even those with no K12-aged kids, claim they want “good” schools in their neighborhood (good for property values).

And almost none of them want to pay the bill.

It’s not just schools.

Too many people in this country expect the government to provide them with all kinds of services (even most in that super-hypocritical government-is-evil crowd), while at the same time demanding that someone else pay for them.

Leading that hypocrisy parade are politicians like the candidates in this year’s gubernatorial race, along with most of those for other offices, who make all kinds of promises about improving education all over the state (when they aren’t sliming each other, that is).

While at the same time swearing that they will not raise taxes. Or reduce them.

So, we come back to the real question in this mess: when it comes to public schools, what are you willing to pay for?

Unfortunately, we never seem to get around to having a serious discussion on this issue.

Instead our so-called leaders lie to all of us and display their hypocrisy by way of sound bites, 30 second television ads, and those useless he-said-she-said debates on the talking heads channels.

Educational Neglect

Paul Krugman is a Nobel-prize winning economist and someone who sees a direct connection between education and the economic success of the US.*

He also says that our national “educational neglect” has led to “a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position” in the world.

And the current financial mess is only feeding that neglect.

But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis – its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for “fiscal responsibility” in Washington – deals a severe blow to education across the board.

His focus in this column is on college-level education but much of what Krugman says also applies to K12.

There’s no mystery about what’s going on: education is mainly the responsibility of state and local governments, which are in dire fiscal straits. Adequate federal aid could have made a big difference. But while some aid has been provided, it has made up only a fraction of the shortfall.

As a result, education is on the chopping block. And laid-off teachers are only part of the story. Even more important is the way that we’re shutting off opportunities.

Certainly money is never the sole solution to all our problems, educational or otherwise.

However, an excellent public education system, one that provides an excellent foundation for every child no matter where they live, cannot be done on the cheap.

The longer we wait to provide adequate funding for that system, the larger the number of children who are shut off from those opportunities.

* BTW, I’m one who believes the economic connection is NOT the most important reason for creating a strong public education system.

Recycling Crap

Virginia is an odd place, at least when it comes to politics. Among other things we have an election for Governor and much of the state legislature in this so-called “off year”.

And since the Governor can only serve one term, we get to choose between two largely unknown characters.

When it comes to education, the area in which I’m most interested and one where state policy carries far more weight than even the federal government, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the candidates.

Both claim they want to put more money into schools and recruit better teachers by putting salaries “on par with the national average” along with some of the usual incentives for those in “hard-to-staff subjects”.

They both like charter schools, in vague, non-specific ways, and are also pushing various approaches to merit pay schemes, none of which have any evidence that they actually, you know… work.

However, the absolute worst idea in the mediocre mix of educational improvement ideas being pushed by either side, comes from the Republican candidate, who has reached into the recycle bin and brought back the “65 percent solution“.

This is the overly simplistic concept that was popular several years ago requiring districts by law to spend at least 65% of their money on students in the classroom.

Which sounds like a wonderful idea until you read the fine print that excludes from that arbitrary number such wasteful spending as librarians (and their books), speech therapists, administrators, school busses, and pretty much anything else designed to support teachers in their work.

A plan which reinforces the traditional, and incredibly stupid, idea that teachers work in isolation in their classrooms and that their success depends on no one else outside of those four walls.

Discount Schools

About a month ago, our superintendent presented next year’s budget to the school board. Consistent with the current economic times, it was not exactly happy news.

His proposal is full of small cuts to programs, supplies and services and, of course, no one around here is getting a pay increase.

But the line item that produces the largest single reduction is the one that increases class sizes. Right now the plan adds .5 student per classroom but everyone expects that will be higher when the final accounting is done.

That may not sound like much, but in an overly-large school district, a small change like that decreases the need for hundreds of people, which, of course, is the largest expense for a business like education.

However, the real problem next school year won’t be that teachers will have more students in their classrooms or that they will have less support.

The biggest problem will be that our administrators, parents, and community will expect nothing to change.

Teachers will still be expected to give the same numbers of assignments and tests, and then grade them all in the same time frame as before, while giving each student the same amount of individual attention as before.

Actually, since No Child Left Behind continues it’s relentless march, the expectation will be that test scores will improve and that schools will cross an even higher AYP threshold on the way to 100% in 2014.

So, people will expect to get more while paying less, which sounds pretty much like the basic philosophy of American society in the 21st century.

Give me lower-than-low prices but I still want high quality products like toys with no lead paint or peanut butter free of salmonella.

Chop the price of that $499 50″ TV but still offer free tech support catering to people too dumb to read manuals.

Cut taxes and get rid of all that nasty government spending, but don’t you dare touch any program that provides my family with a service I need/deserve/want.

Somewhere along the line, if we keep rolling back prices, we’ll find ourselves living in the aisles of Walmart.