“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
—James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States

Friday, February 18, 2011

Education as a priority

The frustrating aspect of education funding, or the lack thereof, is that the debate typically gets framed in the context of our own spending habits.
We say, well, when we don't have enough money in our household, we cut back and tighten the belt. Couldn't agree more. That is a reasonable concept and the right response. Experts say a big part of why the economy tanked is because people weren't living within their means.
However, the comparison between state and household budgets is completely unrealistic and irrelevant.
When we cut back at home, we trim frivolous items from our personal expenses. While those priorities change from one person to the next, the list of potential cuts takes a similar tone. Dinners out, shopping trips and vacations are among the first items to go. Next, we may look at cutting off cable or satellite tv, ending magazine subscriptions or dropping cell phone usage. In more serious situations, we downsize or sell our house.
But, we don't stop eating. We take our kids to the doctor when they're sick. We don't abandon major life functions because they are necessities or priorities.
This is education, not a frivolous expense. Everyone, our governor included, pays lip service, at the very least, to the idea that education is an investment and not an expense. Education is our lifeblood, as individuals, as communities, as a state, as a nation.
But surely, folks say, there is "fat" in the budget; there is waste we can eliminate. If that's where we're headed in this debate, then people need to take a good look at the school budget.
The first line item to consider is salaries — 83 percent of the Brookings school budget. So, could we cut positions? Yes, but that will impact the quality of education we deliver.
If we lay off teachers, we eliminate educational opportunities, get rid of arts and athletics, drop counselors, librarians and nurses, and put more kids in a classroom. Look at the list of cuts up for consideration. To paraphrase a speaker at an an earlier session with lawmakers, do we cut off our arm or slit our throat?
No one is advocating to blindly throw money at education. Everyone agrees that times are tough and we need to hold the line on expenses.
But, be aware. Balancing the budget on the backs of our children and at the expense of a quality education may zero out the bottom line now, but rest assured — doing so will cost us dearly in the long run. And then? It will be too late to turn back. Too late for both our kids and South Dakota.
This is the moment when South Dakotans decide whether education truly is a priority, enough of a priority that we will sacrifice to fund it. This is the time when our lawmakers must step up to the plate and show the courage leadership demands.
Cutting the budget by 10 percent is an easy way out. Change — in our revenue structure and our mindset — poses the real challenge and the true test.

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