OPINION | Schools and the mother of all lies

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We’re lying to ourselves, Minnesota. Perpetual schools funding cuts have long and short-term consequences. Until we admit our delusion–that schools can continually absorb decreased revenues without impacting outcomes–Minnesota’s future will be a losing bet.

Here’s the big lie: that schools can regularly do the same with less, that they can maintain high performance and achievement standards with fewer funds. Well, they can’t.

Shoveling one more kid into class works until we find ourselves with 30-40 kids crammed into a classroom and we ask, what happened? Paring curriculum to “core” elements works until we wonder why no one can replace a shirt button, calculate a diabetic’s blood sugar level, repair a door hinge, or sing a scale. Multiple choice tests work until we lose the capacity to write a simple paragraph summarizing our sales quarter.

Rather than responsibly address education’s costs and benefits, we’re choosing to lie to ourselves. When state elected officials delay school transfer payments until a distant financial reporting period, while insisting or at least hinting that accounting shifts carry no real cost, they’re lying to themselves.

Schools will have to borrow money to meet spending obligations. Borrowing money costs money. Everyone with a mortgage or a student loan understands financing fees and interest rates. But, it’s really not state elected officials lying; we’re lying to ourselves.

Every time we rationalize another school funding cut, we reinforce the lie. We accept conservative frames postulating greedy teachers, indifferent school administrators, disconnected school boards and out of control spending. By acquiescing, we embrace conservative public education policy.

It’s not a loving embrace.

Conservative public education policy seeks to discredit and undermine public schools. It creates an unrelenting drumbeat, questioning budgets, revenue streams, pedagogy, staff, students, whatever is required to minimize the most successful, transformative public policy initiative in Minnesota history: a public education.

Rather than examine educational inputs and outcomes, gathering and studying data, conservative public educational doctrine simply attacks. Data is irrelevant except when data can be spun in favor of the policy goal. It’s a deceitful, dishonest approach masquerading as thoughtful criticism.

Minnesota succeeds precisely because we value a strong, first rate education. We find this lesson repeated throughout our history. Consider Charles Ingalls, father of noted children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Charles Ingalls wasn’t a terribly committed, engaged farmer but he was educated. He was elected Walnut Grove’s first Justice of the Peace. He was employed as a railroad construction paymaster and, prior to retiring, sold farm insurance. His education, a value strongly shared with his children, sustained his family when farming could not or would not.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why anyone would turn their back on this tradition. Education grants us options, not just in our work but in the lives we choose to live. Education allows us to quickly adapt to changing environments. More than simply giving us the tools to seize opportunity, education is opportunity.

Conservative public policy advocates repeated insist that schools, like families, live within their means. Schools are not families; families are not schools. One requires the other in a wonderfully rewarding symbiotic relationship, a word, incidentally, that I learned from Burt Tellefson, my high school biology teacher, and savor using today precisely because he taught it to me.

It’s time, Minnesota, to come clean. We’re not simply gutting our schools and forcing ugly, awkward choices; we’re compromising our future. The first step is the hardest but let’s take it together. We admit that we have a problem. We’re lying to ourselves about our schools.

We have the power to change. Let’s get to it.

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