Occam's Razor

The stark headline in the Feb. 24 Daily Tidings read: "Ashland lays off six full-time teachers, others." That was followed by the news that the district faces a $3.5 million shortfall and will release contract teaching staff as well as classified personnel to include administrative and maintenance positions.

Granted. The country is suffering through its deepest recession since 1929. Shortfalls in all sectors are painfully commonplace as unemployment creeps toward double digits.

But wait. Even in the harshest of economic times, do we seriously want our children's education to take a serious hit? Or is the way we fund education so massively shortsighted as to be jaw dropping?

Why, if a state falls onto lean times should the quality of the education received by our children be impacted? It shouldn't. This capital "R" recession will pass. But the years Oregon spends scrambling to balance its budget by making serious cuts in education can never be given back to our students. Such cuts will affect the depth and breadth of the education offered, and will be reflected in test scores and overall preparation. Qualitatively, how could it be any different?

First, states and local districts should not be responsible for financing our children's education. It is a system that is inherently flawed and unequal. Children living in poor states or in poor districts receive an inferior education; those students who reside in more affluent areas benefit to a far greater degree.

Daphne Whitington, in a paper titled "School Funding," references a longitudinal study conducted by the U.S. Dept. of Education of 40,000 students which found that younger students in poor schools score, on average, four grade levels lower in mathematics and reading. By the time students reach the seventh grade, those same students in wealthy schools score 50 to 75 percent higher in both reading and math.

The quality of our children's education should not be tied to the fluctuations of state or district budgetary committees' bottom lines, politics or fiscal irresponsibility.

Right now, the federal government contributes some 8 to 9 percent of the total funding necessary to run our public schools, K-12. In the alternative, a massive educational trust, not unlike Social Security or Medicare, should be created, and from that trust our children's public education should be funded. Think of this as financing our educational infrastructure.

The trust should be inviolate and funds allocated to states based on demonstrated need, population and much needed reform. Let no students go to school in semi-condemned buildings or be given texts that are outdated or in short supply. And let no teachers face the uncertainty of layoffs and salary cuts or ever be confronted with the necessity of walking a picket line to be heard. It's demeaning and unconscionable.

As a nation we should commit to giving our children a world-class education: Let's agree on what that means, establish national guidelines (not edicts), conduct a dialogue regarding assessment and then commit to preparing every child for the 21st century.

Of course, there are those who will say that such funds will come with federal strings attached (as did No Child Left Behind). However, the only strings should be those requiring that districts not discriminate on the basis of gender, race or socioeconomic backgrounds. Districts will be reminded that standardized, reductive assessment alone should never be the holy grail of education, and good curriculum is never designed with a test in mind. Teachers and their classrooms should be the nexus of pedagogy and that is where assessment begins.

And finally, all schools, nationwide, should be first-rate, all books state of the art, all teachers well paid and well trained. Let schools reflect their communities; let boards of education make local decisions regarding matters of personnel, curriculum, student support, quality of staffing and facilities. And free our educators and school boards from the vagaries of finding the funds from local taxpayers (property owners) to pay for local education.

Let there be math and music, reading and art, science and sports (intramural and intermural), small class sizes, lots of counselors and much mentoring for students and teachers. It's time for a renaissance in education.

To use two tired clichés: If we can go to the moon or retool America during WWII, then we can step forward and solve educational funding and reform, top to bottom. It's complex but also elegantly simple: Occam's Razor.

To educate our children well is to give them a gift that will endure for a lifetime. Education can, like no other endeavor, level the socioeconomic playing field, and it is an enduring investment in our future as a nation. We ignore education at our peril.

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