Friday, January 26, 2007

Education is Not About Money

I read a fantastic blog today by T.A. Barnhart of Blue Oregon. His premise? Education is the goal; Money is just a means to that goal. And when we allow ourselves to sink to the level of making Education only about the money and the educational budget, we have lost the argument. He writes:

As progressives, the moment we let any debate become about money, we have lost. We may win the argument over the money, but we've given up the real issue. Our country was founded upon three solid goals: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The Revolution was not fought nor the Constitution crafted to found a capitalist empire where every value was reduced to market prices. One of the greatest sources of strife in the early days of our nation was on just that issue: How important would the making of money be in regard to all other national values? Whose vision would dominate: Hamilton's or Jefferson's?

But even Hamilton would be shocked, I think, by the role of money in our society. There is little worth doing that does not have a price tag attached. For many things, this is fine: a day's work, household items, luxuries, the food we eat, rewards for doing something other people enjoy. Money is a convenient way for us to share our resources with each other. It is, however, an odious means by which to value people or judge our schools.

I encourage you to read his article. He has said it perfectly and sums up my frustration over the whole "education funding" argument that I have found myself in for the last year. As we enter a new era where it appears that Utah is going to pass private school voucher legislation, I think his arguments hold some merit, especially for those of us on the progressive side of the aisle who don't agree that vouchers are the panacea that everyone thinks it will be.

But it's going to pass and it's our own darn fault. For too long we have heard the argument that public education is broken beyond repair, that we have failing educational standards, that too many students don't succeed because we hold them back. As I watch my own children in school, I wonder if the system is really broken, or if we just quit caring about it?

While campaigning for the Utah Senate, I heard people say on many ocassions that "you can't just throw money at education to fix the problem." And that frustrated me beyond belief because that was never what I was advocating. But as I go back and read my blogs, go over my emails and my speeches - maybe that's what it sounded like I was advocating. I talked about "funding" and "per pupil spending" so much that I began to sound like a broken record and mouth piece for the UEA (who never endorsed me or helped me financially, by the way - so I was not beholden to them.) But my biggest downfall, I think, was that I didn't talk about what my vision was for a quality education. And believe me, I have thousands of ideas - I have children in the public school system and there are lots of things that I believe we could change for the better. But instead, I made the mistake of focusing on the "financing" instead of the "fundamentals." What is stopping us from going after every single thing that we think will benefit our children? I think there is some perceived notion of a "big brother" who says we cannot "do" whatever it is we think needs to be "done" and so therefore we just sit and whine about the problems with public education.

So, I don't think the problem lies so much within the system but within our attitude. We keep saying that the problem is about money. Don't get me wrong - our teachers are grossly underpaid in Utah and our per pupil spending isn't near where it should be. That all deserves discussion. But if some parents are willing to spend upwards of $8000 a year per student for the private education of their children, then the issue is not about money. The issue is that we have failed to talk about quality education. Advocates of school choice are not upset about paying for public education - they are upset because they perceive that they are paying for something that they feel isn't working or effective.

As Barnhart states, "I think we must make our discussions about education be about education, not the funding of education. We'll decide what a quality education is, what each child needs, what the future is demanding that kids learn -- and then we'll write a damn check to pay for it. "

Why is this so hard for us to figure out? I truly believe that if we changed our focus away from the money, we would get the education system that we all want. Because it's not about money. It's about the best education we can provide for our children.

Finally, I think Bernart's final premise sums it up: He says:
"If we care about education, we'll set aside the money issues. We'll focus instead on what really matters: the kids, the teachers, the curriculum, the outcomes. We'll focus on education, not a stinking budget. Jesus said, in one of his many treatises on democratic theory, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." What do we treasure, and what does that say about our hearts -- our humanity? Do we treasure the education we give our children, or do we value what it takes from our wallets?"

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