Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reality Check for Education Funding

This is another column where the "Seriously" title is appropriate.

I cannot fathom, comprehend, understand any part of a government that is willing to cut education spending.

Much less cut education spending in one state by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Wisconsin Legislature committees are working on Gov. Walker's proposed budget now. He initially wanted $900 million in education cuts.

That is as short-sighted and wrong a decision as one can possibly make if you have ANY sense of the future.

That kind of cut puts large districts, especially Milwaukee Public Schools, in serious trouble.

And with districts already having to cut budgets to the bone over the past four years, cuts now mean larger class sizes and fewer services to kids. Larger class sizes means classes of over 30 kids.

That's no way to educate students. Thirty kids in a classroom has been a realistic magic number. I've had classes of 25 and classes of 29, and the difference is remarkable. It's as if there is a critical mass of bodies in a room that results in more disruptions and less learning.

I can only believe in some kind of institutional racism or class war when a government choose to cut spending to education. The districts that hurt the most serve the most needy students. In Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and other large districts in the state, many, if not most, of the students are black.

How can anyone expect kids in poverty to make something of themselves if they don't receive a quality education? The only answer I can come up with is they don't. Those in power want those in poverty to remain in poverty and uneducated.

That's about as pessimistic and conspiratorial as I will get. But it's the only conclusion I can draw.

The situation in MPS is dire. If the brave teachers who remain there have classes of 35 to 40 students, many of whom are special needs, there's little chance of any quality education happening, no matter how good those teachers are.

We should be pouring more money and more resources into districts, including districts in rural areas, with high populations of kids in poverty. Not less.

Here are two solutions:
1. Raise sales tax for education. Sales taxes are reasonably progressive because poor people buy less and rich people buy more so the percentage of income is relatively balanced. And to Republicans who seem like they can only say "Cut budgets and don't raise taxes," it's okay to raise taxes to directly fund education. It's okay to invest in our children and future.
   Unless, of course, my conspiracy theory is correct!
2. If you're going to trim school budgets, cutting teachers is not going to work. Get creative with funding:
- Provide bag lunches for kids with a sandwich and an apple.
- Require a sliding scale pay to play program for all sports programs. I know that's the sacred elephant in the room (to mix metaphors), but sports programs require huge amounts of district money when our purpose in education is student learning!
3. Either expand or eliminate funding boundaries. It's fundamentally unfair for suburban districts to be able to spend more per pupil than urban districts. And it's unfair and regressive to require MPS to draw from a smaller taxable pool than suburban districts.
   Creating Milwaukee County school districts, for example, would eliminate many spending inequalities.

Gov. Walker seems intent on cutting education funding. How that will help him create the 200,000 jobs he promised is beyond me.

By raising taxes and redoubling our state's commitment to education, we could create many new jobs that would directly help student learning. We'd have to do things differently, to be sure.

Spoken like a true liberal, my conservative friends will say: Tax some more and spend some more!

And they'd be right. I see education, though, as a greater good for our society, one that will ultimately produce more jobs, more educated people, and a better society.

Unless, of course, that pesky conspiracy theory is right.

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