Monday, March 8, 2010

School Funding Fallacy and Folly

Throughout the state we see headlines about school budget slashing that actually avoid the overarching topic of school funding in favor of budget tinkering chatter that will not, in the end, deliver the resources schools desperately require. We need to understand how we arrived at this point. Public schools are under pressure financially due to three reasons:

- Repeated assault from the right to ultimately push schools into the privatization sphere where the selfish use of personal resources will determine education outcomes and a new business paradigm of education delivery will arise to create profits for investors. This privatization effort is characterized by an over reliance on high stake testing to create winners and losers. Instead of concentrating on egalitarian success for all, there is a drive to deprive the losers of funding while funneling a lopsided amount of cash resources to the winners, presumably charter and private schools. Underlying this privatization effort is a distain for unionized workers and hence a great deal of meaningless talk about merit pay and meaningful emphasis on non-union teacher forces. In the end, should the right destroy public education, schools for the general populace will continue to exist as dilapidated warehouses for those without voice or capital full of advertising and low cost service delivery but profitable for some investor. Private schools will become like private colleges, expensive and out of reach but securing a network for a small upper class and the financial elites to which vouchers will be applied in part toward the cost.

- The funding of education is inordinately built on a myth of local control. In days of yore, local control meant a community building a schoolhouse, hiring a teacher, and providing financial support. This small town 19th century approach is no longer applicable because localities are so much of a part of a larger web of services that are appropriate to be delivered by government and funded with broad based taxes. Localities also had their own industries, sheriff, poor house, et cetera which became outmoded as towns became suburbs, cities evolved, and rural population percentages and jobs declined. Education’s role in society became of increased interest of national and state politics. However, the national role became one of authority by issuing mandates with little funding role. States became an unreliable funding partner dependent on the ups and downs of the national economy that also issued unfunded directives. Rules, laws, and expectations have grown far beyond the scope of local control and thus the myth within local control is that it really is one of primarily local control of limiting budgets to keep at bay upset property tax payers unless it is a wealthy community.

- Education is not a priority in the United States of America. It gets much rhetorical lip service, we hear constantly about our solemn duty to children through education, and the vital importance of excellent education in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive world. But that is where it ends; we will not place education as a funding priority. We seek ways to tinker with this enormous system to tune out a few bucks toward a goal of efficiency. We have blinders on to the fact that excellent education may not be efficient with a traditional business bottom-line. Sure, the bus routes ought to make sense, the buildings should be smartly designed, and wastefulness of financial resources that do not support or create knowledge value ought to be controlled. But the largest expense, staffing, especially if contracted is not going to improve education. Our emphasis on high stakes testing or racing to the top creation of winners and losers does nothing to establish and maintain a critical funding foundation to be placed under all students to maximize educational success on an egalitarian basis. To simplify the understanding of our priorities as a nation, one needs only to look at the portion of our budget devoted to defense versus that devoted to education. Would balancing the two or reversing the equation be of greater strategic value to the United States? This is a debate we seem to avoid at all costs to avoid costs that may in the end create the greatest costs.

We need to repel the right’s assault, dismiss the myth of local control and get on with a national debate to quickly yield solid funding for public schools as a strategic priority.

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