VOICES | Question assumptions about school funding

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As Northeast and Columbia Heights voters prepare to elect school board members this fall, voters and candidates need to question even the most basic assumptions about public education, including the funding mechanism. Admittedly oversimplified: Under the current system, we give educators the amount of money people are willing to spend on education, and we tell them to do the best they can with it; knowing full well that we didn’t give them enough to do everything we expect. This virtually ensures that we will be dissatisfied.

A fundamental change is needed: As a society, we must decide, in very specific terms, what skills and knowledge each student at each level must have, and require the education system to produce those results…no matter what it costs. We must tax as needed to pay for it. It’s way past time to put educational results first and politics/economics second.

Either we have public education or we don’t. If we’re going to have it, it must be for everyone, irrespective of economic, intellectual, English-speaking, behavior or disability status. Everyone must have safe, secure, well-maintained facilities; sensible transportation; and all the materials and supplies they need. The job isn’t done until each student has mastered the specific skills and knowledge that society determines constitute an education. Persons whose learning disabilities preclude full mastery, or whose abilities exceed those needed to meet society’s requirements, must be helped to achieve all that they can.

What does this mean? Let’s start at the very beginning, because by the time many children are 5 or 6 years old, their educational fate is sealed. Untreated medical conditions, poor nutrition, hearing and visual deficiencies, abuse, neglect and lack of educational stimulation can put children at a severe disadvantage before they ever enter the schoolyard gate. Society needs to re-determine its standards for intervention in these cases, and situations that will cause a preschooler’s failure to thrive in the educational setting must be alleviated. Everything needed to prepare these children for school-based learning must be done without hesitation, no matter how much it costs.

Doesn’t that mean we’d be expecting the medical, legal and social welfare systems to do what should really be the school system’s job? Perhaps. But the concept of commingling these services is not unprecedented. We do it now, in the opposite direction. The schools are expected to take major responsibility for children’s health (school nurses and clinics), legal (school-liaison police officers) and social-welfare (school social workers, breakfasts and lunches) needs. If we’re altruistic, we’ll say, “Anything to help the children.” If we’re practical, political and/or a tad cynical, we’ll say, “Turnabout is fair play.” The result, though, must be achieved: Children are ready to learn when they start school.

Once a child is in school, the educators should be held responsible for bringing each student to the proper skill and knowledge level for each time frame. What does this mean? It means unlimited tutoring and translating as needed, no matter what it costs. It means that if a child is disruptive, s/he is removed to a setting that prevents class disruption yet does not violate the disruptive child’s right to education (remember, disruptive kids are not adults who set out to disrupt, they’re children). The schools must have or be readily able to acquire the medical, psychological and social-work wherewithal to reliably deal with the disruptive behavior and get that student back on the educational track. As costly as that might seem, remember that we will have saved an education not only for the (formerly) disruptive student but for all the students whose education s/he was disrupting.

We’ll have to provide intensive help for those who are in the system when the “results-required” rules are adopted, or who move to a results-required system after they’ve started school. Tricky, perhaps costly, but very doable if providing the education is allowed to take priority over saving money.

What’s more important than education? Is it even possible to teach our kids too much, or too well? Of course not. It’s time to stop “prioritizing” in education, and to decide that we’re going to have it all. We need to decide what constitutes education, provide it, and pay whatever it costs. That might seem scary. But the prospect of continuing the dropout rate, the achievement gap, the transportation nightmares and the deteriorating facilities that come with our current funding system is far more scary. As a society, let’s do the math, while we still can, and pay what’s needed to get the results we need.