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Thursday, February 25, 2010
Where the Wild Thoughts Are

Join me for a few moments in imagining an alternate educational and political universe. Maybe it's crazy, but crazy can be therapeutic. And what if it's not crazy?

One Definition for Two Terms

I feel I should define a term, but I'm having some difficulty deciding which term. Education establishment? Education machine? Just calling it the education lobby doesn't do it justice. I have in mind the Utah Education Association (the state teacher's union), with its locals and its members; the education bureaucracy at both state and local levels; and their endless ranks of obedient minions in the PTA. On one hand, I don't mean every member of a PTA; on the other hand, there are a lot of fellow travelers I haven't listed.

Spoiling Humans

Recently, in a year with an enormous state budget surplus, this education machine demanded that the entire surplus be devoted to public education. More reasonable heads prevailed, and some of the money went elsewhere. This year, with the Utah Legislature facing some very serious budget shortfalls, and with families, businesses, and even local governments tightening their belts, the machine wants to be immune from budget cuts. "Call your legislator," urges the voice on the radio. "Help him understand that education should the first budget priority in Utah" -- or words to that effect. Obviously, we are to embrace the ideas that something else is a higher priority now, and that our legislators are too dense to grasp the importance of education until we explain it to them.

I guess we're not supposed to notice that education clearly already is the number one budget priority in Utah, as it has been for years, even decades. I'm not saying that needs are not real, and I already know that the demographics are daunting, in terms of growing numbers of students in years to come. But I think it might be educational if the education machine decided to be part of society, which is struggling financially across the board, rather than insisting on being above it and immune to its struggles.

Fiscal matters are particularly dire in the Jordan School District, in the aftermath of a much-publicized district split (which itself is fast becoming a cautionary tale). They're threatening to lay off more than 100 teachers. I'm hearing that there's a poll saying residents favor a tax increase to solve the problem, and there's another poll saying they don't. And hundreds of students sluffed school today to demonstrate against the idea of laying off teachers. We should listen to them, we are told, because they are the ones impacted by such decisions. It may be a decade or two before these youth realize that all sorts of folks are impacted by the cost of education, not just the current students.

Why don't school districts ever threaten to lay off other personnel? Why is it always teachers? Sorry, that's a rhetorical question.

My title promised wild thoughts, and the teaser foretells an alternate universe. If you're wondering when we'll get to those, the time is . . . well, now.

Imagine what a real, visionary leader could do at the head of a school or a school district -- in an alternative universe, of course. Let's imagine a "state of the district" speech . . . An early clue that it's an alternate universe will be the emphasis on teaching students, not enculturating them. And be advised that I already know I'm pulling my examples from out of thin air. I'm not asserting that they are the best examples, or even real or practical. The people on the ground (so to speak) almost certainly could offer better ones, if they were so inclined.

The State of the District, or Wild Thoughts from an Alternate Reality

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Phred Pharnsworth. I am Superintendent of the Extraterrestrial School District. No one knows better than I that the mission of this school district is to teach students. We prepare them as best we can for long lives as responsible citizens; diligent, productive, and creative workers; and good, intelligent parents and neighbors and friends.

One of the worst things we can do to them and to our communities and nation is to insulate them from economic realities and teach them that they are a special class of people, entitled to luxuriate in the fruits of others' labors without counting the cost, and while those others are laboring more and more for less and less. In our present economic difficulties, nearly everyone is struggling to do more with less, with the possible exception of the federal government, which seems in some ways to be doing more with more. To demand that voters and legislators protect the public schools from having to participate meaningfully in the struggles common to the rest of society is to betray our mission to prepare students to live well in the real world.

The State of Utah is facing serious revenue shortfalls. Fortunately, they are not as serious as in some other states, but we expect there will be dramatic cuts in many parts of the state budget. Funding public education has always been a high priority in Utah, and it's possible that the Legislature will figure out how to keep education funding at the same level as last year. But we are preparing for cuts. Even if the cuts don't happen, and we have the same funding as we had last year, we will still have to do more with less, because there will be more students next year, and the year after that, and as far into the future as the demographic eye can see. It's exciting to anticipate having more and more students, but it poses some serious fiscal challenges, too.

Some factions are demanding tax increases to enhance our education funding. Perhaps there may have to be some increases, for us to survive in a fully-functioning condition. But we raise taxes in the good years, and we raise taxes in the lean years. I would like to believe that we are creative and intelligent enough to find ways of our own to do more with less, rather than raising taxes again and again and again -- rather than assuming that taxpayers should be willing to sacrifice everything else to fund the public schools lavishly, when they care barely fund their own modest homes at all.

There is talk of laying off teachers, as an answer to budget cuts. This is something we'd like to avoid as much as possible. There are two ways to approach this. Since it is the teachers who do the teaching, perhaps we might find others to lay off, instead of teachers -- but that, too, is something we'd like to avoid. It's not just the students and the teachers who affect the success of our schools.

Or perhaps, again, we could learn to do more with less, like virtually every household in every neighborhood in the district.

The present economic difficulties and the resultant budget problems are a great opportunity to teach students some lessons that are much harder to teach in more affluent times. Thrift, shared sacrifice, and creative problem-solving are among them. If we do our jobs right, the silver lining will prove to be much brighter than the cloud is dark, and we will bless the lives of our students, their families, and our community literally for decades to come, perhaps even for generations.

There are some things the superintendent and school board can do from the top down. For example, my wife and family have already figured out that we can live on substantially less than my current salary this year. I will be returning 30 percent of that salary to the budget this year, and we will revisit the same question next year. I am not suggesting that everyone on the payroll do the same thing -- certainly not to the same degree -- but this is my first way of insuring that my own office can do more with less.

As I was saying, we can do a few things from the top down. But to achieve the needed fiscal results and to teach most effectively the lessons which beckon us, some things will have to happen at every school and in every class and club. We need to engage students, teachers, staff, administrators, families, and the community at large in our efforts.

Our goal is to find ways to save at least five percent, and perhaps as much as ten percent, in our operations without canceling programs that will take years to rebuild later, when the times are not so tough, and without laying off teachers or other personnel. Any successes we enjoy in the lean years will continue to pay dividends in more abundant years.

Perhaps a kindergarten class will decide that it can help us reduce energy costs by turning off every third or fourth light fixture in the room, and by dressing more warmly in winter, so the classroom can be kept a few degrees cooler.

Perhaps the high school football team will decide that they can make do with the same old uniforms for another year or two, instead of buying new ones this year. Perhaps the sewing classes can help, by repairing uniforms which would otherwise have to be replaced.

Perhaps the band and choir will decide that they don't need to buy any new sheet music this year; they can use music we already own, to save money, and they can make due with the old music stands and tubas for one more year.

Maybe the senior class will volunteer to paint the schools, so painters don't have to be hired. Maybe the sixth graders will volunteer for custodial detail, so we can get by without hiring another assistant custodian to replace the one who retired over the summer.

Perhaps teachers and teaching assistants can move more of their operations online, so that we use less toner, ink, and paper, and prolong the live of costly photocopiers and printers.

You will think of a hundred things of which I will never think; that's one good reason to spread the ownership of this mission around. No one thing will solve all our fiscal problems, but every economy, large or small, anywhere in the district, will help.

Our motto will be an old truism, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." It's an old truism for a reason. If you want a secondary motto, I suggest, "Reduce, reuse, recycle."

What if the entire junior high student body resolved to take unusually good care of their textbooks this year, in the hope that they will last years longer, saving the schools, and ultimately the taxpayers, a great deal of money?

Imagine what would happen in families if this attitude of thrift and wisdom caught on among our students and went home with them. What if kids told their parents that they don't need much for Christmas this year, that the old iPod still works just fine, and maybe the family could buy the school library a few needed books instead, from a list posted online by the library? What if hand-me-downs became the new fashion, instead of an embarrassment? What if 300 more high school students decided they could walk to school, instead of driving or being driven or bused?

As I said, we want to get to five percent across the board, but I suspect some groups, classes, grades, or schools can reach nearly to ten percent. There will be ample recognition for every success.

I would love to see these things happen for budgetary reasons, of course. But in my mind's eye, I'm looking well beyond this year's budget constraints. I'm trying to imagine how valuable the lessons will be that we all take away from this. Imagine what a service we shall do for our community and for the world, by sending out hundreds and thousands of young people who don't think the world owes them a living, and who will approach life with uncommon industry, frugality, and creativity.

Opportunities for heroism do not present themselves to us every day. Perhaps you will forgive me if I think there is quiet heroism in our relentless, much-needed new campaign to be responsible citizens and neighbors, and to find significant economies which do not compromise our mission. If we take this goal seriously, we will achieve it.

Thank you, and may God bless the students, families, taxpayers, teachers, staff, and administrators of the Extraterrestrial School District.

Don't Hold Your Breath

Okay, we're back to planet Earth now.

To imagine this actually happening is insane, perhaps. It is to imagine a world in which the education machine views itself as part of society, not above it and immune to its struggles -- a world in which common sense and responsible citizenship overwhelm the voices that demand more and more and more from people who have less and less and less to give. It is to imagine a system which teaches students to resist and break free from the sense of entitlement which grows naturally among young people in a relative affluent society.

I'll be getting in my car and driving to a meeting in a few minutes. I fully expect to hear the same UEA-sponsored, condescend-to-your-foolish-legislator ad at least once on the way, and probably also another news report of students who are coached to resist reality, rather than to address it responsibly.


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