“Class” Dismissed: Budget Fights and the Big Issues in Education

 

School busI put my kids on the school bus last week, just as I would any other day. They are way beyond preschool now, and were never eligible for Head Start, so they are not among the thousands of children whose programs were closed as a result of the government shutdown.

As a parent, it is sometimes hard to see how the government shutdown, the threatened debt-limit default, and the already implemented sequestration action will have any impact on my small-town school district. No doubt the buses will still run, the doors will still open, and much to my children’s dismay, homework will still be assigned.

However, as a long-time school board member, I’m familiar with the flow of funds and policy from the federal level to local schools, with the state often acting as gatekeeper. The potential for this protracted clown show on Capitol Hill to cause real problems for all kinds of children is great. For instance, while certain programs designed to support special needs students are funded until the end of the year, school nutrition programs (think free and reduced lunch) are only funded until the end of October. In their quest to gain the upper hand, Congress has at best, abandoned, and at worst, deliberately targeted, a population they know can’t vote.

Though I am technically an elected official, I’ve often despaired of the tug of war between funding and education; between politics and learning. When I think of schools, in spite of my high tech background, I still see apples and blackboards and chalk. I see bright, happy places built on reading circles and math facts. We’ve moved from blackboards to smartboards, and while apples are still in classrooms, but they are rarely of the edible variety. I’m by no means naïve, but it can be very tempting to romanticize the one-room schoolhouse ideal. My state of Massachusetts has long touted its belief in local control of schools, though it hasn’t been the reality for decades. The changes to those models are sometimes for the better, sometimes not; but almost always based on the arguments and the influence of people far from our doors.

Part of what I have tried to do as a school board member is to demystify for others why things are the way they are in schools, translate the “eduspeak”, and explain where the money goes. In this and subsequent posts, I’d like to try to bring some of that experience to the readers of The Broad Side. As I look beyond my community to big-city mayoral races in the news, I see that education is a hot topic. Though I have strong opinions about the proposed solutions, I’m thrilled that there is public discussion, and I hope to be able to illuminate some of the issues. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am a passionate supporter of public schools. I see them as the bedrock of our American belief in equal opportunity, though I acknowledge that they don’t always get it right, in part because they are so fraught with politics. I try to be honest when I think we can do better, regardless of my personal politics.

To get us started, I’ve listed some of the issues I’ve been discussing recently with my neighbors, as well as some of the big ones making headlines across the country:

Common Core – The Common Core Initiative is a set of proposed standards for what children should learn across the country. What’s wrong with having a national curriculum? Plenty, say critics from all sides. The Common Core has been adopted by 45 states, yet a recent study suggests that many parents are unfamiliar with their content and potential impact.

Charter Schools and Vouchers – Both of these are public schools alternatives. Charter schools are supposed to be public schools. Vouchers are taxpayer-funded “coupons” toward tuition at participating private schools. Both are contentious. We’ll look at how both of these systems are working for the populations they serve.

Special Needs – With Autism spectrum diagnoses around 1 in 100, and the survival of lots of children who might not have lived had they been born in previous generations, the public school population is not what it was when I was in school. We’ll discuss the changes this has brought to both the classroom and the school budget and look at some of the ways that different states are handling these challenges.

Technology – iPads, iPods, and Apple TVs, oh my! Does your school have a Bring Your Own Device policy? Has it changed the way your child learns?

Data-driven instruction – “Big Data” is a buzzword everywhere, and education is no different. Testing has brought us massive amounts of data about students, but what does any of it mean? Is it being interpreted accurately?

STEM & STEAM – Science Technology, Engineering, and Math or Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math? Every time you read a story about schools these days, it seems we’re falling behind in these areas. What are we doing about it?

Higher Education challenges – We’ve all heard about the increasing costs of tuition, and the debates over student loans and their interest rates. What does this and the advancement of technological tools for learning delivery mean for the future of a college education? Or, as some maintain, is college elitist and unnecessary?

Look for posts on these topics in the coming weeks. If there is a topic you’re curious about or one you would like me to discuss a particular aspect of, leave me a comment or Tweet me at @MMTingley.  I’m always learning something new!

Melissa Tingley is a writer, instructional designer, and twelve-year veteran of her local school board. A history and political junkie, she showcases the stories behind heirloom objects at her new blog Artifactual

Image courtesy Melissa Tingley. All rights reserved

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    I’m really looking forward to your series. Like you I’m a big supporter of public schools, but unlike you, my only knowledge is based on my own children’s experiences. I’m hoping for your insights!

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    I eagerly await your continuing comments about each of the areas you have highlighted. Thank you for serving on the School Board.

  • There are a lot of issues in education today and this is one of the most important things that we need to tackle. Budget issues and financial concerns is one of the problems of schools and universities worldwide, especially the institutions that are being handled by the government.

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