Sunday, February 7, 2010

Aspiration or Abandonment

Perhaps it is a consequence of our time that “we the people” allow our politics and elected representatives to desert a core service to our society. Public education in the United States is a failure and it now primarily exists in a netherworld of directionless drifting and woeful defunding. A lack of commitment with an articulated vision is not expressed nor supported by any current stakeholders. American education is a ship of cut spars, with failing systems, anchorless, and drifting just prior to sinking.

For decades, the primary focus of education has not been improved evolution of the delivery of knowledge to propel our society forward but rather the shedding of educational concerns to pare down to a focus on the mechanics of funding. This is not to say that there has not been lip service and limp action using the language of caring about education; there is a wealth of such activity and some of it is genuine in its concern. But by and large all the talk about concentrating resources in the classroom, no child left untested, charter schools, and other varied “pop” education chatter have been driven by a desire to live (fund) within our means that we have decided, by the manner in which we prioritize our expectations, as being meager. We are starving education and are talking as if it were not so. “Putting our money where our mouth is” appears not to be a challenge we willingly rise to meet.

Yet there is a yearning for our children to have the best education and recognition that a global economy demands more of our forthcoming generations. There is a recognizable need for functional literate entry into adult society and an even deeper realization that our democracy benefits from an educated electorate. Yet the countercurrent flowing against our desires that we have paid most heed to is money. We have decided that education is too costly even as we say it is a top priority. We have decided that taxes to pay for education are too high as we unconvincingly say that teachers are underpaid. We prioritize military security borne from fear over that of societal security delivered by a superior educational system. When we allow the blind weight of budget cutting to fall heavily upon schools rather than taxing to meet our aspirations, we make a deliberate choice.

Local control of schools is long past its relevance from when a community banded together to give their children the blessings of an education. It has become a financing scheme for passing the bill to the pauper. The national government, largely without any significant role in direct basic education funding, makes rules that push costs down allowing it to control its financial deficits by allowing knowledge deficits. It refuses to tax with its broadest span of ability or prioritize its expenditures accordingly to fund education. It creates paper visions not backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. Our state governments in turn see the forest but clear cut the trees as they refuse to use their broader taxing authority to push away costs. Their self imposed or constitutional limitations to operate without deficits rely only on half of the budget equation when it comes to schools; expenses will be cut but revenues will not be raised to support education. Finally at the local level, where the taxing is most direct and most unequal, the pauper municipal or school districts face the voter who cries thief at what is seen as throwing money at dysfunction and there is dysfunction aplenty.

In Maine we have played our part in this sad theater. There is no core vision for education currently despite once being a leader in core curriculum development. As the wheels of finance came off the school bus, we abandoned all principle in fear of a tax revolt. A poorly conceived and ill designed scheme for school consolidation with cost cutting of administration as its sole true goal was ineffectively implemented. And now curtailment order after curtailment order given arbitrarily with out regard to neither harming education nor examining temporal revenue measures is wreaking destructive damage on our schools.

Throughout this Maine state story we have never addressed aspirations, articulated a vision, solicited opinion on educational delivery design, but only focused on our purse. Maybe a counterintuitive increase in administrators is needed to support teachers with more specialized resources from literacy specialists to human resource managers. Perhaps a well designed unified system operating under a powerful vision that adequately invests in education as a top priority from birth to adult training and enrichment might become the top enticement for creative people and families to live, work, and create work in Maine. Most discouragingly, we are making short-sighted definitive choices right now that a second grader in need of reading assistance will not get it, that a middle school student will not be introduced to the benefits of another language, that another high school sophomore will drop out, that access to higher education will be out of reach for someone, and that thousands upon thousands of our future potential citizens will have a poor education.

A pathway to having a renewed discussion on education and an emergence of leadership for educational excellence lies within this year’s Maine gubernatorial race. As voters and citizens we must press our national representatives to demand national vision on education, full funding of every mandate, and a more rational prioritization of education. At the local level, we need to expose the abandonment of principle forced upon us and identify the local stop gap measures that we can enact. However, a broader state conversation on establishing a genuine vision that meets our aspirations for the forthcoming generations could be best facilitated by a candidate for governor willing to lead on this issue with a focus on excellence and a willingness to forthrightly address the revenue commitments necessary to meet the investment challenge. Please step forward.

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