Friday, February 26, 2010

On Friday, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett had much to say in the Herald-Times with regard to supposed silver lining in the current budget crunch facing all school corporations in Indiana. But once he got under way, what was offered, far from being silver, was a tired medley of tried-and-true slogans and half-truths with which so-called conservatives have sought to weaken our system of public education. Some even blatantly wish to privatize it. Now is not the time for such political gas-baggery.

A case in point is Bennett's premise: "I don't think our population believes that money automatically brings quality." Certainly not with that skewed adverb "automatically" slipped in. But if more money doesn't necessarily (other people can slip in qualifying adverbs, too!) lead to excellence, does that imply that less money does so? Run that one past an eighth-grader who is being introduced to elementary logic. A does not imply B does not therefore mean that B implies A. But if that's too abstract our state supe to understand, maybe he could ask the citizens of Carmel if they'd like to have the per-pupil expenditures in their district equalized with those of the folks in, say, Franklin. That seems fair, and after all, more money doesn't mean more quality.

The truth is that there are thresholds above which additional money will no doubt yield diminishing returns on the investment. On the other end of the scale, there are thresholds below which the education of children suffers. We do not know exactly where each of these tipping points is located, but I submit that it is disingenuous to pretend that they don't exist.

Or consider where Bennett is willing to locate the blame for the current crisis. On switching from property taxes to income and sales taxes as a source of revenue for education? Oh no, we can't do that. Cutting taxes is always a good idea, and cutting property taxes is such a good fiscal idea that we ought to remove from future legislators the option of ever raising them above a specified cap. The reason representative democracies have constitutional governments is to spell out broad constraints within which democratically elected officials can operate for the public good. Place too many constraints on the future actions of elected officials, and they won't be in a position to respond to future crises. When voters decide this November whether to tie the hands of their yet-to-be elected representatives, I hope they remember the statewide anguish brought on by destabilizing school funding and at the very least prevent the property-tax cap from being enshrined in the state constitution.

Finally, just a word of two about Bennett's purported solutions: consolidation, pay cuts in exchange for some spending flexibility, and merit pay/competition for schools. On the first, I'll just say Ellettsville. This idea isn't new in Monroe County, but for some reason it just never seems to appeal to the folks from Richland-Bean Blossom. Maybe Bennett should pay them a call as well, say, at their next school board meeting and hear what they have to say.

On exchanging pay cuts for the freedom to spend some other designated funds to support the general fund, I'll say this. It's probably coming in some form. The teachers know it, and readers of the H-T know it. But it is a temporary solution to a manufactured crisis and in no way will put the school budgets back on a sound and stable footing. And while Bennett acknowledges that "he's no economist," his attempt to explain teacher pay using such figures as six hours a day and only 180 days per year is laughable. Do he teachers in Bennett's family work such short days? Do they do no preparation, do no grading, and seek no professional development outside of school hours? I don't think so, and to imply that teachers work that way is insulting at best. I hope he apologized to his spouse.

Finally, is anyone else tired of hearing how merit pay and any number of ideas grounded in competition will cause schools to improve? I hope so, because the message is stale, and it wasn't very substantive to begin with. In a few locales (notably Denver), systems involving some sort of differentiated pay scales not based solely on tenure and longevity have proved to be workable. No stunning turnarounds for schools, but workable. These are complex, nuanced systems negotiated with teachers, administrators, and the public involved from the start. Flat-out competitive systems haven't worked well and make the mistake of assuming that education is a zero-sum game, that is, if the kids in my class succeed and I get a bonus, there's less left in the teacher compensation pie for you. Do you want to help me work on my lesson plans to see if I can help my eighth-graders learn their algebra better? Probably not so much.

Educating our children concerns every American, those with children now in schools, those like me whose children have moved on, and those without children or whose children are not yet in school. All of us depend on the public schools to develop the next generation of citizens. For an institution with such an important charge, we expect our leaders to provide stable funding, frequent public discussion of aims and purposes, and, as much as possible, to put politics aside. What we see in Superintendent Bennett's statements to the Herald -Times fails on all counts and is not worthy of his constituents.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you send this letter to the HT. Or write an editorial for them.