My second grader’s elementary school will be closing at the end of this year due to district restructuring and budget shortfalls. Some members of our school community agree and some don’t agree with the decision. In the newspaper’s letters to the editor and out in the community, the school budget debate has had a divisive undertone. We will probably have a school funding bond measure or two in the next election cycle, which will generate even more debate and a lot of money will be spent to influence public opinion. We are doing all of this for the kids, right? So, what are the kids seeing and hearing about the worth of their schools and their education?
All of the chatter from politicians, administrators, voters, bloggers, and the endless opinionated commentary on cable news was pretty consistent up until mid-December. They said that some of our schools and programs are failing so we should cut them. What to cut? Where to cut? Don’t raise taxes and don’t spend more money. This sums up the public education priority for the last few years. It is what our young people are hearing and experiencing daily. Funding cuts mean that class sizes are up, there are fewer school days and teachers’ time is stretched thin as they try to make up for the lack of staff to teach P.E., art, music and other supposedly non-essential curriculum.
After the school shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the national conversation has changed in tone and focus. We were asking, “Why are schools failing to make students smart?” Now people are asking, “Why are schools failing to keep students safe? How quickly can we get perimeter fences, barbed wire, and armed guards? Why don’t we have them already?”
Some fringe organizations new to the public education debate say we can make schools safer without spending money. They call for volunteers to act as armed guards at our schools. I can imagine the future advertisement in the local paper:
Suddenly we are trying to solve the wrong problem with an absurd solution. We require kids to attend school and then turn around and tell them that education is not a priority for our society by slashing programs and opportunities. Suddenly people don’t feel safe and they are ready to spend any amount of money in order to put up fences and hire armed guards. This sends disheartening mixed messages to our kids.
So what can we do, as parents, educators and public leaders?
First off, let’s involve our children in the conversation. Ask them what they think about the lack of funding and how that makes them feel. How do they think it will affect them?
Second, stop asking our already over-worked school leaders and staff what we should cut and instead ask them what we should be investing in. Let them know that we want to make an investment in the things that will benefit future generations: basic curriculum, more days of school, art, sports, music, debate, political science, economics, STEM programs, programs for students with special needs, social services, community support and outreach.
Third, keep an eye on the big picture priorities. We must teach our children so that we can build a stronger economy and society through training and education. Beware of limited, shortsighted priorities or those with single issues like “safety” or “testing”.
Let’s change the fear-based, reactionary, negative conversations to big picture, objective-based, positive conversations. Don’t make decisions solely on the need to save a buck on taxes. We need to send a positive message to our children and let them know that they matter. It is okay to care, support and make commitments to each other by investing in and working together to better our social fabric. That should be what schools teach students and us. Remember, our kids are listening to, learning from, and watching us. Let’s try to set a good example.
How can we have budget conversations in a positive way? Please leave your comments.