Make Education a Priority

Practically all of us live in places with budget conscious governments. How do we take care of the many problems we face, such as crime, poverty, and infrastructure maintenance. There is never enough money to deal fully with all of the problems. And I don’t think there ever will be–as long as we continue to treat only the symptoms.

And that is were I come to the matter of spending on education. I’m going to talk about it as a money problem, because it is a money problem. Yes, there are problems in how our schools are administered. Yes, there are places where there are uninvolved and incompetent teachers and administrators. Certainly there are textbooks that don’t teach the right things or don’t do it all that well.

But the bottom line in this country, I believe, is that we don’t have the educational system we want because we don’t want to pay for it. And when I refer to the educational system, I mean our public schools.

Now before everyone starts trying to point out to me the value of private schools, let me say that I’m coming at this with the enthusiasm of a convert. I was educated without exception in private schools. At one time I believed that we could really do without public schools entirely. But my experience with my own stepson, and with many of my friends’ children has convinced me that we need an excellent public school system, that having such a system will cost us more money than we’re paying for it now, and that the investment would be abundantly worthwhile.

Am I an accountant? Have I budgeted this out? No, I have not. But I do have extensive experience in both the public and private sector, and I do know that what I’m calling for will cost more. I believe strongly that improving education is going to produce a harvest of benefits. What I’m suggesting we do is indicate to our leaders that we’re willing to pay for value, and that if they will produce programs that will provide that value, we’re willing to pay for them.

I know this is out of line with current thinking. But we’re spending increasing amounts of money on prisons, law enforcement, unemployment, homelessness and a host of other problems. We do that because we have to. The problems get too big to be ignored, and finally they get a piece of the governmental money pie. But programs that will prevent such activities are much less urgent. Kids who aren’t yet stealing cars, doing drugs, or killing one another don’t seem to get our attention and our priority like those who do those things. As long as we are so short-sighted as to wait for the problems to become intolerable, we’re going to have intolerable problems to deal with.

I’m going to suggest some approaches to education that we should be prepared to insist on and and pay for.

  • High quality, motivated, and informed teachers
    We claim a priority on education, but we don’t live by that standard. We ought to expect quality teachers in our schools, but we ought to be willing to pay for them.
  • Good instruction in the basics
    This instruction needs to go beyond just knowing “stuff” and extend to motivation and application. The first basic is reading, followed quickly by computer skills, which I would now put ahead of many of the math skills, then our basic math and science. All of those are essentials in the workplace today and will continue to be tomorrow.
  • Buildings and equipment that do the job
    Broken down buildings and inadequate equipment should be sufficient reason to work on improving them. If we are to prepare our children to work in the modern world, we will need the appropriate books and equipment.
  • Responsive administration
    Administrators who are willing to listen both to experts and the community, make choices based on the best information, and then defend those choices to the community. None of us are fully informed on the educational system, and we should demand both elected and appointed office holders who will act in an independent and informed way, and will be prepared to justify that specifically.
  • Constructive extra-curricular activities
    I’ve found that there is a limit to how much more I accomplish by simply spending more hours writing. Writing is good. I make much of my living doing it. I like writing. But sometimes I have to do other things. The same thing applies to our children and basic skills. Their school years should let them learn that there is more to life than grinding through the stuff they have to know in order to make a living. It’s possible to make those subjects more interesting, and there are many good teachers who are doing it. But extra-curricular activities put the life into education and provide motivation. When we cut those programs, we aren’t just cutting fluff–we’re cutting into our children’s lives.

Some of you are probably wondering how one will keep such teachers and administrators honest. If we pay them more, give them good equipment, and open up the opportunities, what is to prevent them from just taking the money and running? How do we deal with incompetent teachers and administrators.

Let me suggest first that if we are providing compensation for quality, then we have a right to expect quality. In Florida, we pay teachers miserably, and then we ask them to accept high standards. We can applaud the self-sacrificing person who will put up with that, and effectively educate our children no matter what, but it is unrealistic to expect it. Similarly, we give tests of basic standards and then take money away from the schools that fail. Shouldn’t those be the schools we work hardest to improve?

But I know of no political problem anywhere that can be solved without people paying attention. That means that the community has to stay involved. Each element of what the schools need to do is matched by something we need to do.

  • As parents, we need to be involved with our children so that we will know what kind of education they are receiving. We can’t deal with teachers, either to commend and reward excellence or to deal with mediocrity, unless we actually know what’s going on. Don’t trust the rumors either. Check up! Perhaps the teacher your child is complaining about is actually doing a great job, and your child would rather not work so hard. Be wise!
  • Do you know the basics? Can you write coherently and do math? Can you make effective use of a computer? Modelling these skills will do more to motivate your child than any amount of talk. You have no business criticizing someone else’s skills if you haven’t made the effort to keep yours up. Ignorant parents will raise ignorant children.
  • Buildings and equipment require money, and we need to know the state of our schools so we can respond. If your school board votes money for a particular project, do you know what it’s going to do?
  • Give the officials something to respond to
    We can’t all be experts in everything, but enough concerned citizens can be aware, and we can educated one another. We also need to demand precise and accurate information from our public officials. When they give it to us, be thankful and constructive. One reason public officials often don’t respond to citizen’s requests is that the citizen’s haven’t put enough thought into what it is they’re asking!
  • Get involved in the extra-curricular activities
    Many of these activities require parental involvement, and often parents don’t want to get involved. It is hard work, I know, but it is definitely worth it. I believe there is nothing more firmly established in education than the fact that parental involvement has a critical, positive effect.

Again many people will be concerned about the bill. We live in an age in which economies in government are the norm. And I don’t disagree with that tendency. I think many aspects of government can and should be trimmed. But some solutions merely sound good. One example is “across-the-board cuts.” There are some things that are better handled by the government. There are others that are better left privately. Across-the-board cuts don’t deal with those issues properly.

The critical problem, however, with government spending is that it tends to be short-sighted, and that is our fault as voters. We vote for politicians who promise quick solutions to immediate problems. More money spent on punishment, such as prisons, appeals to us as an immediate solution. Education does not, because the results are too far in the future. We would rather enforce laws against drug use and distribution than take actions to reduce the demand for drugs. But reducing the demand is, in fact, the only way we can solve the problem.

We need to learn to spend “smart,” and the only way that is going to happen is if we, as individual Americans, demand forward looking, long-term solutions to problems. We should refuse to pay for solutions that don’t really help; we should demand solutions that work, and then be willing to pay the taxes to support them.