The Dirty Secret of American Education

It’s budget season in most American school districts. Actually the budget season is pretty long. For a lot of people it starts in the late fall as they start to think about their wish list for the next school year. Teachers pass things up to department or group heads who pass things from below and for the department on to the principal. The principals pass things on to the superintendent. Special education goes through a similar process as does plant and building maintenance. Quotes are taken from bus companies and if need be there are negotiations over additional busses or routes. All of the needs and wants are passed up the chain. This is the time of year that it starts to become public as the schools prepare to put their budgets to the voters.

In New Hampshire there are elected budget committees who take all of this information and use it to create a budget that will be sent to the voters. The school board is separate but they will put in their opinions as well. People will discuss what is needed; what is wanted; what is required by law; what is required by contracts and on and on.

There are many ways to look at the budget but ultimately the one filter that weighs more than any other is “how much money will the voters approve?” The general opinion is usually that the voters will not pay for all the “I’d like to have” items. Sometimes the opinion is that the voters will not fund anything but what is required. And sometimes even what is required is a tough sell.

Everyone in the system thinks and talks about what they can do better if only they can have x. X may be smaller classes, an after school tutoring program, perhaps books that are less than 20 years old, or any of a thousand other things. But if the voters will not pay for them no one is going to get them. And that is where the problems start.

California is the poster child for this these days though Oregon is in the running for sure. In California they passed a law a number of years ago that limits tax increases for education. I’m sure it seemed wonderful at the time and a lot of people voted for it (obviously since it passed.) But in reality it means that if costs go up faster than the allowed rate of increase a district is in trouble. That is of course what happened.

Perhaps you’ve bought fuel or paid an electric bill in the last few years. Noticed the rate of increase there? Schools have to be heated and cooled and light up. There really isn’t an option there. Kids don’t learn very well when they are shivering in the cold, sweating in the heat or sitting in dark rooms. How about health care costs? They’ve gone up quite a bit as well. Special education costs are also up. There have been increases in the detection and diagnosis of several difficult conditions – Autism being one that has jumped in recent years. The Federal government has laws and regulations in place to make sure those kids get adequate education. They are good laws and rightly protect citizens who need and deserve help. Congress does not send enough money to pay for these programs though so the states and local districts have to find the money. Oh and have you looked at housing prices in California? How would you like to have to buy enough land for a new school building? Oh yeah that would be fun and cheap.

Not surprisingly California schools have lost the high rankings they used to have. Sure it is fun for a lot of people to pick on California but they are not the only example of a state in trouble. I think it would be harder to find a state that is spending all that it should on education. The debates that focus on “how much can we get” rather than “how much do we need” are going on all over the country. The dirty secret of American education is that while people say they want a good education for everyone they don’t really want to put their money where their mouth is.

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