Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Education: Part I

I have been a high school history teacher since 1984, and have spent the past 23 years in the New Jersey public schools. This is my first post about education and I will return to it from time-to-time as events unfold.

On Tuesday, July 12, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration released the figures on how much more state aid school districts will receive for the 2011-2012 school year.  To see the actual breakdown, visit the link below.

The Governor's Office also released a statement about how the aid should be used.

“The additional education aid included in this year’s budget is an opportunity to reduce property tax burdens by lowering local property tax levies for this fiscal year or the next and move closer toward real reform in our schools," said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts in a statement.
“The administration strongly encourages using this additional aid to lower taxes and make the important step toward new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improving student achievement, rather than increased spending.”

Herein lies the biggest problem with  how Chris Christie, and most other radical Republican governors, view education funding. There is no rational connection between giving taxpayers money back and making schools more effective.

How does taking more money out of the school system that could be used for hiring back teachers that had to be laid off after the $850 million dollar cuts from 2010-2011, or for reinstating art, music and sports programs that had also been eliminated, or by buying more books, computer technology and other learning tools, make the system more effective and efficient? It doesn't, and it's foolish to even consider that it does. 

I've heard the endless argument about how money doesn't make schools any better. It's usually presented as "throwing good money at the problem." What's interesting is that when we're "throwing" money at athletes, or at hedge fund managers or at entertainers, we're somehow making those industries better. Government spending on vital services? Always a waste of time. Paying teachers more? Well that's just silly because everybody knows that teachers do not go into teaching for the money.

And of course the final nail in this contradictory coffin is that anti-government zealots will also say that they want our best and brightest college graduates to go into teaching, and wonder why they don't. Could it be that other fields are more lucrative? Could it be that they have better working conditions that include air conditioning, lunch periods that don't have to end when the bell rings, and bathrooms that only adults use (the luxury of actually being able to use the bathroom whenever you need to go is lost on people who are not teachers)? Why would anyone want that, plus the added value of the disrespect currently being heaped on teachers? 

The honest truth is that we don't want only the best and brightest to go into teaching. We need the best teachers to go into teaching, and for the most part, that's what we have. New Jersey ranks number 1 in the United States in the very test scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, that the governor would use to evaluate the public school teachers in the state. Yet when those numbers were published all his former Education Commissioner Brett Schundler could say was that, "it's still a wretched system."

The suburban schools in this state regularly produce graduates that have advanced skills in the subjects they've studied. In the urban schools the challenges for teachers are akin to an educational Mount Everest, yet the Christie administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the very institutions that could save a child's life. Is there corruption in New Jersey's cities? You bet. So why doesn't Christie the former prosecutor go after the crime and graft? Who knows. I guess it's easier to blame the victims than to actually make it easier for them to succeed.

The other reason Christie's statement makes no sense is that every major corporate executive knows that in order for us to compete we must prepare our students to think strategically, cooperatively and analytically using the most up-to-date technology and teaching methods. And every consumer knows that you get what you pay for. Yet the United States is currently experiencing a "cut-the spending" frenzy that will result in our children not being able to avail themselves of what the public schools are supposed to provide: a comprehensive, free education for all children. This is a serious moment in our history and governors like Chris Christie are making the exactly wrong decision when it comes to education.

So by all means, let's give the money back to the taxpayers. In the average suburban town, the average homeowner would receive anywhere from $15-$100 back on their taxes for the year. Some might argue that any tax relief, even a small amount, is a start. As a taxpayer and homeowner, I can respect that. But there is a far more efficient and effective method to strengthen schools, and that's by putting the money towards education, including rehiring teachers (or, heaven forbid, paying them more) and making classrooms more technologically advanced so that students can compete with countries that spend more on schools.

We can only educate a child once. Woe unto us if we sacrifice that opportunity on the alter of ignorance, short-sightedness and political expedience.

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