2012 in Virginia: something more or something else?

[Cross-posted from Virginia Education Report.]

Dollars by 401KThis week Governor Bob McDonnell unveils his plans for public education in Virginia’s next two-year budget. In anticipation of Wednesday night’s State of the Commonwealth address, I’ve been re-reading the education blueprint McDonnell put forth during his candidacy.

It’s typical education budget double-speak. For example:

McDonnell’s blueprint promises “a bold education proposal that will dramatically increase money for Virginia‚Äôs teachers and students by $480 million a year.” Meanwhile, his budget plans also include “hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, including to child-care subsidies for low-income families and to health and parent-education programs for poor pregnant women.” Families who need social and support services to help their kids attend school and access curriculum won’t benefit from McDonnell’s cuts.

Furthermore, more than a fifth of McDonnell’s proposed bump will go to higher education. Part of the bump will also come from McDonnell’s mandate that districts spend 65% of their budgets on instruction. Other bits and pieces will likely come from double-dipping and cross-promoting of economic development as education spending.

At the same time those in college and business benefit, kids struggling to make it through school lose out: K-12 public education will actually suffer cuts to support staff funding, putting a double-whammy on positions like teachers-aides. As salaries for such positions go down, qualified and motivated aides will have to find more or other work, and it will be difficult to attract equally strong candidates to those positions. Teachers aides absolutely make a difference in the lives of the children whom they serve because they more often act as students’ aides and advocates who know their clients better than teachers do and who form the kinds of selfless relationships with kids teachers struggle with because of their “authority” and responsibility to “discipline” children who act and learn outside the norm. So $480 million doesn’t buy those kids jack in their classrooms.

To put it another way, neither 4% of the money I spend on materials in my classroom nor 4% of the money I make as a classroom teacher would buy 1 site license for a reading intervention program like Read 180. (For comparison, look here and here). I can’t imagine that the money school shifts into instruction will be given to teachers, but if it is, it will be used to save positions, not to boost salaries. Instead, I predict McDonnell’s reallocated millions will be used to buy stuff. When faced with the kind of on-going budget crunch out schools face – the kind that freezes salaries and cuts positions – it’s easier to buy programs that promise results than it is to recruit teachers who live and breathe to teach past the tests. The money will go right out schools’ doors into private coffers.

Moreover, the pressure to keep instructional spending at 65% could accelerate another piece of the governor’s agenda – making the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) a defined-contribution system It should be noted that before that can happen, McDonnell is shoring up the VRS. By mandating 65% spending on instruction, McDonnell can begin to hamstring divisions into a accepting defined contribution systems.

If schools systems have to spend a set percentage on instruction, it would help them budget if they had a defined contribution to make to employees’ retirements each year. Given our whirly-gig economy, that might not be a bad thing for the fiscal health of the commonwealth or of many school divisions. However, the bigger issue here is the continued miscommunication between pop culture and school culture. Educators remember the unspoken social contract between them and society – we will educate your children and take on all the intellectual, emotional, and manual labor that requires in exchange for an arguably low salary, benefits that keep us from having to work other jobs, and time away from school to let go of last year and prepare for the next. (And let’s remember that school is stuck with an agrarian calendar – teachers didn’t ask for the summer off; society told them to take it; let communities support year-long schooling and it will happen; teacher salary and summer vacation should be a non-issue).

Educators remember that contract; money does not. Populist political memory is short and focused on survival. Therefore, a responsible education proposal for Virginia would table retirement and spending mandates until the commonwealth is in better fiscal health and can have a reasonable discussion about how to change school for the better. Teachers don’t want to lose benefits they have been given since the 1940s. If teachers do lose their current benefits, not only do they lose the value of those benefits, but teachers’ unions have one less cause to champion – one less cause around which to rally their members and collect their dues.

Retirement costs need to be addressed; they should be negotiated in good faith, not legislated under fiscal duress. And, frankly, unions should champion exceptional teaching and learning – not labor issues. If society valued teachers’ work more, compensation would be less of an issue. Because the unions and their right-to-work-state equivalents concentrate on labor, they are letting neighborhood schools lose market share in the public imagination.

I look at it this way:

Educators look back. Politicians look at the present. The people want something – anything – better for the future. Until educators leap-frog politicians, politicians’ proposals will be closer to the hearts of the people than teacher are, even though the plight of our teachers is the plight of our students.

So where does all of that leave us?

Right here in Virginia with a likely education budget that does more harm than good to us. The big us. The Commonwealth of Virginia us.

And I get it.

We all want something more – more money, more stability, more assurances, more results. We especially want all of these things during times of crisis. We can afford more ambiguity when we can all afford more, period.

But at some point, we in Virginia have to decide if we want something more or if we want something else.

Are we schooling for higher scores? Higher graduation rates? More students enrolled in the commonwealth’s university system? More revenue, more earnings, more stuff? On one hand, we should be schooling for these things foe our students’ sakes – the more students we help access higher earnings, the more graduates will be able to afford material comfort. The more material comfort our graduates enjoy, the better able they will be to support their schools and communities.

On the other hand, what does any of that buy us that we don’t already have? Another generation sold on a an obsolete industrial model of education? Under-funded, over-mandated public schools staffed by embattled employees in competition with extra-local corporations – and I’m not even talking about charter management organization here (CMOs). I’m talking about the companies that sell the products we buy with tax-payer money that we tell salaried teachers to use in place of their own plans in traditional public schools and the products that bankroll travel for public education officials, including our Virginia superintendent.

More spendings and more savings won’t change our schools for the better. The money is a red herring – McDonnell, for example, is harping on allegedly questionable spending that amounts in nearly each case to tenths of a percent of the money he proposes to spend on education. He’s also belaboring a 59% increase in the state department of education’s budget from 2000 to 2008 – which is the same window of time during which we instituted a battery of SOL tests, the student information system products needed to keep track of test results, and the offices and services necessary to administer sanctions to schools put into “improvement” by failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind. The governor’s rhetoric here is not big on causality.

The money is an uncritical mess; it’s a blunt political construct – shaped by special interests and the exigencies of our election cycles – that doesn’t quite fit through the classroom door. We can’t talk over coffee with our kids’ teachers – or over cocoa with our kids – about hundreds of millions of dollars. However, we can talk about something else.

We can talk about teaching and learning. We can talk about the kinds of schools we see out past the event horizon of standardized testing. We can talk about what’s possible right now and how our choices shape the future.

Our talk about education has to stop being about what to count; it has to be about what to do.

For a fraction of what the commonwealth requires a school to spend, we could open community learning centers – or call them “schools” – that

What value do we add to our schools by tracking dozens of test scores per child for, give or take, a dozen years? What value do we add to our schools by taking up weeks – if not months – of the instructional time McDonnell wants to bolster with test preparation and administration? What value do our schools add to the lives of students who are assigned to class after class of test-preparation for fear that their scores might cost a school and its division their accreditation?

Because of the way we run our schools and validate our tests, we will always need kids to “fail” so that other can “succeed.” The money, despite its amount, as poorly as we’re spending it, won’t change that fact. I don’t mean to suggest that we can magic up all the resources we’ll ever need so that everyone lives like royalty. I mean to say that we could be spending what we do have in different ways and that – if we wanted to – we could get rid of the artificial scarcities created by zero-sum games like class rank (but maybe not state budgeting) by using government to support a broader range of educational opportunities than traditional school. Outstanding educations abound outside, as well as inside, traditional schools and universities.

Education in Virginia doesn’t need a new budget; it needs a new vision. Instead of something more, it needs something else – it needs us, not the commonwealth, to dare something worthy of in education reform so that our kids have can pursue a real-world education of obvious and lasting value to them to and their communities. We need schools – or learning spaces – that will help our kids manage their future better than we managed ours. The schools we have now are driven by the policies of people who were good at counting in school.

We need to send a mandate to our leaders to transform education. We need to stop accepting our leaders’ mandates to transform kids into scores.

While it’s hard to lose sight of money in a budget season, it’s tragic to lose sight of what matters – of what stays possible out past Wednesday night.

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