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Clear thinking: the school funding situation

One of the interesting things about doing local advocacy work is that it gives you a whole new perspective on how the public views school funding issues. It can also give you a detailed look at the fuzzy thinking of those who argue that our schools can't, or shouldn't, be given the resources to avoid major cuts to programs and personnel. As part of our "Project Washtenaw," MIPFS volunteers have been engaging the communities in Washtenaw County about the crisis their public schools now face. One year, a failed county millage proposal, and a bundle of desperate budget cuts later, we've learned some important lessons about how school funding is often treated in the public discourse and how that might be changed for the better. We'd like to share them with you.

The Market Myth

One strand of thinking that complicates discussion of school funding issues has to do with our respect for market forces. For most Americans, who work in the private sector, financial troubles means that a business has not been managed well or is not meeting the needs of its customers. Conversely, a business that is doing well must be well-run. But the problems start when people try to apply this thinking to a public service, such as our public schools. Our schools are in financial difficulty, but not necessarily because they have been mismanaged. Rather, the systems we have set in place to fund our schools have come up short. If we are losing "customers," it is not primarily because they are going to competitors - rather, families are leaving the state for separate, economic, reasons. Further, businesses have many more levers at their disposal to control their finances than our schools do: schools cannot control the price they charge (revenue) and are bound not to compromise the quality of their product even in an effort to save money. Private businesses can, and do, make use of both those tools to keep their finances in balance. This is not to say that schools are perfect, or that they are always and everywhere efficient. But those who interpret our schools' budget problems as prima facie evidence of failure or mismanagement are misreading the reality of the situation.

The Illusion of Necessity

Another strand of thinking, at least as common as the one above, encourages us to skip over the "why?" of our schools' funding problems and start with what should properly be the end: possible solutions. One common way of expressing this is that our schools must "live within their means." Some call for schools to "accept reality" and downsize accordingly. If we skip the "why?", we absolve ourselves of responsibility for the situation. After all, if private businesses have trouble in the market, they can hardly blame the market. But for our schools, and other public services, we the people get to choose the "means" we must live within. The structures that provide our schools with revenue have been constructed by our elected representatives and are not the result of impersonal market forces. Whether the economy is booming or struggling, we as a community and as a state must choose what we provide to our schools. We can provide more, or less, but either way it is our choice as a society.

And while we are on the theme of choice, let's tackle a related strand of thought. In these difficult times, many citizens express anger about attempts to protect our schools from cuts. They say, in effect, "I've had to take big cuts and the schools should have to also." It is a very emotionally compelling argument, but it does not stand up to close scrutiny. If your family's income falls 20%, say, do you cut all your expenditures equally by 20%? Twenty percent from the entertainment budget, 20% from the food budget, 20% from the medicine budget, and so on? No family I know does this. Instead, we prioritize: we cut back on the things we can do without in order to make sure we protect the things most important to us - the well-being of our family. Some may say that public education is like the double latte they can live without. In our view, excellent public schools are the most important way out of our current economic dilemma. Good schools attract people and businesses to our community today, and they provide the foundation for good jobs for our children tomorrow. Isn't that worth protecting?

The Planted Assumption

Lastly, we get to the most difficult strands of thought: the arguments that aren't really arguments. People who use this method simply assume certain things are true on their way to making a separate argument. These planted assumptions come in a wide variety of flavors:

  • If school officials can't live within their budget, we should find new ones who can. (Assumes that the budget problems are the fault of school leaders.)
  • Our district spends more per child than neighboring districts - where does all the money go? (Assumes that the costs, the array of programs, and the outcomes are the same. Sometimes people will make this argument using standardized test scores to "prove" that two districts are providing the same education, even though test scores only capture a part of the picture.)
  • We wouldn't have budget problems if there were not so much waste. (Assumes waste, often without evidence. For many, government is simply wasteful by definition, and the public schools are part of government.)
  • Get rid of the unions that are just protecting poor teachers. (Assumes that unions protect ineffective teachers because their sole mission is to unfairly inflate teachers' income generally. That, in turn, assumes that teachers are paid more than they are worth. Alternately, assumes that getting rid of ineffective teachers will somehow save money, which is incorrect unless you simply do not replace them and allow class sizes to grow.)
  • Get rid of certification, and let other skilled people come in to teach. (Assumes that other skilled people would be willing to work for less. Also assumes that an education degree and certification is simply an artificial barrier to entry and is not at all related to the skills needed for teaching. In other words, anyone can be a teacher, and no special knowledge, except perhaps of the subject matter, is needed.)
  • Our schools haven't even tried to fix X by doing Y. (Assumes that just because someone does not know the details of a district's efforts to solve some problem, those efforts must therefore not exist. Schools have been singularly ineffective at communicating what it is they do, largely because educators are trained to do it rather than talk about it.)

The current discussion of school budget problems is rife with these kind of planted assumptions. Assumptions about administrative waste, union greed, teacher ineffectiveness, poor management, substandard education, and so on. These things may exist in some cases, but that's a far cry from saying that these notions must be accepted without evidence or examination.

Learning to Live with Choice

How can we clear our thinking? Before we can even talk about facts, we first need to deal with the ideas which shape our opinions. Among those critical of our public schools, there seem to be two "schools" of thought. One holds that public education is by definition wasteful, because everything government does is wasteful. (After all, it was our State Senate's majority leader who a couple of years ago entered important budget negotiations saying: "We're here to downsize government.") The less government there is, the better, and that goes for public schools ("government schools") as well. In this world view, the current budget crisis is serendipitous, because it will force public schools and government generally to shrink. Another world view admits that education is important, but insists that it should not be expensive. Adherents of this view strongly oppose reducing programs in schools, but are quite willing to slash the pay and benefits of those who provide the programs. In contrast, those of us who support public education, and urge a greater commitment to it, generally have high expectations of our schools and are willing to sacrifice to make sure schools have the resources to deliver on those expectations.

But at the base, we are all talking about choice, and real choice must be based on honest information rather than suppositions or fabrications. We can choose to invest in education, or we can choose to disinvest. We can choose to value our teachers and pay them well, or we can choose to pay the minimum necessary to assure bodies behind teachers' desks. If we focus on choice, we can certainly disagree, but at least we are all talking about the same reality. But other kinds of arguments are intended to obscure the importance of choice. Some arguments make it seem as though economic problems are inevitable, and all that is left to us is to "deal" with it. Other arguments short-circuit choice by offering a fanciful world view, where greater efficiency will be sufficient to solve all our schools' budget problems. Still others bypass choice by minimizing the value of those who educate our children, insisting that we can have our cake and eat it too, rather than having to choose. We as a community need to be honest about our expectations for our schools, and then we need to be honest about what resources are required to provide the services we expect rather than engage in wishful thinking. We need to openly choose the balance between cost and level of service.

If we are to be "free to choose," then we must also be willing to face up to the choices before us.

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