State and local support for public education has received a lot of attention lately after school districts in the Commonwealth announced major cost reductions and plans for laying off teaching and support staff in reaction to projected revenue shortfalls. These budget reduction plans put in focus the role of public education as a huge economic driver in our local communities, in the Commonwealth and in the nation. Despite that awareness, public education appropriations in our state became big targets in the economic crisis as the Governor and the legislature looked for ways to balance a strained budget. The same exercise is happening at local levels as boards of supervisors and city councils are faced with plummeting revenues.
This focus renewed the debate on public education and its cost. The critics sing the familiar lyrics of inefficiency, administrative inflation, overpaid senior administrative staff and too much spending on special education. We start hearing comments that “public schools just do not get it” and “serious cost reduction is sorely needed.” On the other hand, we see resistance from some school officials to reconsider their approach and to put everything on the table.
As a parent and as a citizen of the greater Richmond region, I am led to one of two conclusions: either the schools really don’t get it, or we have a serious misunderstanding as to what public education is about in the 21st century for every child and in the context of a global economy. The schools are already doing more with less, and have done so for years. The burdens of unfunded state and federal mandates have had a significant impact on the cost of public education. In addition, housing and land use policies have put unfair pressure on public school budgets for decades. Thinking the good times would last forever, governments in the past several years have cut taxes (ultimately at the expense of education). Added together, these actions and policies, coupled with a demand for accountability have multiplied public education’s financial stress. Such pressure will come at a price – the level of support per student will decline in real dollars to the extent that government funding will not keep pace with inflation nor will it provide the education the public expects. At some point in the very near future, I fear, further cuts will undoubtedly require compromising quality. K-12 public education as we know it will be measured mainly by a standard of teaching our children at the cheapest possible price tag. Continued cost reduction for its own sake in public education is neither a sustainable long-term business model nor a smart fiscal strategy.
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly support cost efficiency and believe that public schools should be responsible stewards of public funds. Public school systems need to review all of their administrative and academic programs – as do all viable, well-managed entities. Review and streamlining are needed not just in reaction to revenue shortfalls but to take advantage of future educational opportunities. It will also afford school officials an opportunity to fashion innovative and creative approaches in order to meet the needs and requirements of their students and families.
As we sink deeper into this economic swamp, state and local legislators will be under enormous pressure to reduce expenditures to balance budgets in the face of falling revenues. We citizens must emphasize to the elected officials that investing in public education pays a high return. As the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently, “The best thing we can do is to educate our way to a better economy.” Yes, the future is full of uncertainties. However, our elected officials can work with public education officials to develop a rational plan that takes into consideration the requirements of a quality education in the 21st century that gives credit for past accomplishments, reviews current programs and develops new strategies based on that knowledge. The General Assembly could, and should, do the same, taking into full account all of the successful outcomes that public schools across the Commonwealth have achieved and work with them to continue that record of achievement.
We all want our children to succeed. We want them to be the best they can be. We want them to be able to earn a good living. We want them to achieve at least as much as we have. But what are we doing to give them the tools to succeed in today’s world, much less in the evolving world of 10, 20 and 30 years from now?
Unless public schools fill the knowledge gap between perception and reality, they will face an untenable position very soon. So too will our great country. Pitting public education against safety or health services divides our communities. Pitting special need students against the rest of the students is not healthy. It is about our children, all of them.