A revealing moment occurs a third of the way through the great movie, The Right Stuff, the story of the first American astronauts of the Mercury program. A Washington insider sent out west to recruit hotshot test pilots to fly into space tells this truth about the necessity of funding: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” If there is no money, dreams don’t fly. This sentence applies to all public institutions.
Public education in Pennsylvania faces a severe decline in funding, but it must still find a way to teach kids. It must still find a way to help lift children into the realm of real dreams.
Governor Tom Corbett introduced a 2011-2012 budget that proposed cutting basic education funding by $550 million. He wanted school districts to freeze their employees’ pay even if it meant reopening contracts, and he wanted legislation that would allow the dismissal of teachers for economic reasons; seniority would not apply.*
There is worse news.
Governor Corbett’s Budget Secretary is anticipating a $750 million dollar budget shortfall for 2012-2013 due to an “erosion of revenue”.**
Tax receipts on the state level have declined. Therefore there is less money to fund state programs. This Republican administration, suspicious of public education if not outright hostile to it, will not raise taxes. Therefore, cuts will come down the pipeline. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
School Boards must balance their budgets, but iron boundaries have been placed around their ability to raise property taxes. The mood in the electorate as a whole is anti-government and anti-tax. Public faith in government is low, weakened by ideologues, big money and more narrowly focused interest groups than one can follow; on top of it all, many citizens believe that “the whole system is rigged.”*** They believe government operates to serve those in government and their allies. Therefore, they are angry with every kind of government; school boards are face to face with that anger on an intimate, personal level.
How school boards respond to a poisonous political climate and diminished funding will define for some time to come the ability of public schools to serve their communities in their essential charge — in how they prepare their students to be literate, wise citizens.
As the “bucks” disappear, Boards may choose a piecemeal approach to reform and year after year send out an educational scarecrow until finally there is nothing left of their programs but ratty clothes on a stick. Or they can choose to be bolder and set out to answer these two fundamental questions: How can we best make the argument that public education deserves public confidence and tax monies? How can we reshape our schools so that a smaller, leaner design can produce good results?
Those two questions breed more questions: Why should a community pay for the education of every child, whether citizens have children in school or not? How can a community be persuaded that the schools are wisely spending their monies? For the tax money they do receive Boards implicitly promise to deliver an informed, flexible, and self-educating graduating class each year. How will they do this with leaner budgets?
School Boards must answer all of these questions, and they must do so consciously and publically. No one in the public schools can assume that their communities understand their mission. The mood of the electorate now demands of its governing bodies clarity of objectives and an accounting of how those objectives are being met. Boards must set aside some business as usual and give answers to those questions to the public they profess to serve.
They are uniquely qualified to take on this mission — they were elected by the community. They receive no pay. They believe in public schools. They are not professional educators, and therefore have standing outside the insular pressures and received wisdom of the employees they govern.
Smart, well-spoken Superintendents and principals can be of enormous value in adding their eloquence and passion to the Boards’ answers. They would also be wise to use the persuasive skills of the most respected teachers in their districts; let them add the evidence of their devotion to the Board’s response. School districts have entered an era where all employee constituencies must pull together for the common good, not in a defensive encampment, but in open meetings where the concerns of the community are met with honesty and passion.
Boards might begin by addressing the most fundamental of all the questions: Why are public schools important? This is my shot at an answer:
Public schools promise an education to all who enroll, one free of ethnic or religious favoritism and predicated on fairness of opportunity for all. Public schools make an implicit promise that all children will be treated with respect but also held to moral and intellectual standards of behavior and performance that will provide them the means to succeed in a broader range of life. In the last two sentences the word all is repeated three times; public schools make their promises to all children, the broken and the lucky, the brightest and those whose handicaps seem crippling, all children, and that universal acceptance coupled with its two promises makes public education an American virtue.
* www.metro.us/philadelphia.com: March 8, 2011; Alexandra Wigglesworth
** www.essentialpublicradio.org: December 20, 2011; Noah Brode
Pennsylvania is not alone in struggling with how to fund public education. California faces a $9.2 billion dollar shortfall. Unless a package of taxes is passed, he will cut basic education funding by $4.8 billion.**** The Governor of California, Jerry Brown said that “when they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he said, ‘because that’s where the money is’…. Well, education is where California’s money is.”***** One can expect Governor Corbett to look for cuts in the same place.
*** www.nytimes.com: January 9, 2012; David Brooks, “Where Are the Liberals?”
**** http://latimesblog.latimes.com: January 5, 2012; Anthony York
***** http://www.csmonitor.com: January 6, 2012; Daniel Wood