Friday, April 8, 2011

Investing in Failure

Are we investing in our future, or are we investing in failure?

Government officials standing with the guillotine like to say that education is the biggest budget item, and therefore, should get at least its fair share of cuts. On the surface, that seems fair. But only on the surface.

Below the surface, there is a lot of dirt. There are things we pay for that were approved by no one, simply because legislators don't read most of what they pass. There are lobbyists for big business who get their pet projects passed with methods the public school system can't afford, and frankly, has too much integrity to employ. There are things we pay comparatively more for that have long been known as failed or ineffective.

Nothing we pay for as citizens of a taxed democracy could be more important than ensuring our future survival and success. Nothing but public education does that. Why, then, do we spend so much money on criminals and so little on children?

In Kansas in 2008, the average cost to the taxpayer per inmate was $25,127 (National Institute of Corrections) while today, we spend $4,012 to educate a child for a year. That figure will likely go down further as budget cuts loom.

Now, there are some legislators who will argue with those statistics; saying that the total money spent on schools is higher. I read an exchange in my local paper between a state senator and the director of operations of the local school district in which the senator told the school official, "Don't do that again (referring to the base student aid per pupil amount), it irritates me when school officials don't include all the money spent on schools."

Well, Mr. Senator, do you know what irritates most of us? When you talk around dollar amounts to avoid the painful truth-that you underfund public education at the expense of nearly everyone for generations to come. The money he was "irritated" about isn't even spent on kids and/or doesn't come from the state. He was referring to grants, federal dollars, and money spent on retirement funds. None of that money can be counted on year after year and most of it never sees a classroom. It is unfair to include this money in the discussion of what is fair and necessary to provide an adequate education. How does the money the state spends on retirement affect learning in the classroom?

More importantly, what is the return on the investment to prisons and jails across the state? How is it that sticking someone in a room with bars costs so much more than providing them with rich experiences that develop useful skills for a lifetime of learning and productivity? It seems to me that if we spent more on the front end of this investment, while children are young, we could avoid quite an expense later on. Giving children the tools they need to succeed eliminates many of the causes of crime.

The choice is simple: we can provide a stellar education for our children; enabling them to succeed in life, deal with its challenges productively, and contribute to the advancement of the human race. We do a pretty good job of that now, even with ridiculously underfunded programs and restrictive mandates that limit what teachers can do to truly inspire students. Or, we can dump nearly six times that money per person into those who we've already failed.

Where are our priorities?

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