07 December 2010

Money, money, money

Roughly 18,000 years ago, there was a little rock and roll band that came from Liverpool, England. Perhaps you've heard of them. Now, there's a slim possibility I'm referencing them because they have had a massive impact on society or education.

Nope. I just wanted to put them out there because they recorded a little ditty that has become the clarion call for most educators. Are you a communist, and don't know what I'm talking about? Check out this video

You see, that song, and this post are about the same thing. They're about money. Public school teachers (and I speak with considerable authority here) are chronically underpaid. I haven't had a pay increase, even for cost of living, in three years. My first year teaching(2002-2003), I made $27,072. I would have made more managing a Taco Bell. (sad but true)

Often, reformers make the claim that if we could simply find a way to pay teachers more, we would attract better candidates, and all of the research shows that better teachers equals more learning. 

I'm not sure that's true, but that's a post for another day. Today, I want to talk about the money schools get (or in most cases, don't get) for spending on things that aren't staffing. 

Education is a fantastically expensive thing. In America, we make it even more expensive by using educational facilities to also build community and foster youth athletics. Schools are facilities that receive exceptionally heavy use. In many communities, they house more people at one time than any other building. They need to be heated and cooled, to serve the needs of an extremely varied population, and to foster that always hard to capture "school spirit". We expect them to be safe and to inspire creativity and learning. They house bands, and artists, host theater productions, and teach the basics of home repair and construction. They are warehouses for books (often tens of thousands of them) and computers. They are often lit and heated or cooled for 14 or 15 hours a day. 

They serve as the home for athletic opportunities for young men and women who could never afford those opportunities in a private club setting. They offer facilities for clubs that could never meet anywhere else. They have gyms, and weight rooms, and locker rooms, and facilities to feed a thousand teen-aged mouths a day. In short, schools are the greatest community centers ever envisioned; when they work properly. Even when schools don't work properly, they're still better than 75% of community centers.  

Schools do all of this on your dime. They are supported, in great part, by tax dollars. Generally those tax dollars are local. More and more often, local people are unwilling to support schools when the schools ask for more money. I personally feel that this is because schools are being held more "accountable". As I've addressed before, these measures are misguided, because the tests which are used to demonstrate accountability are deeply flawed. Now, it may be admirable to let the taxpayers see where their tax dollars are going.

The problem is that many admirable things are also stupid. You see, people will only look at the numbers, and won't think about all of the things that schools are doing for that money. I think schools are a great value. American schools routinely spend less per student than other developed nations, expect our schools to do much more (especially extra curricularly), and we still manage to score in the top 20 versus our peers. (according to this data, we rank 43rd in the world per pupil spending as a percentage of GDP). So really, public schools are a great value. 

But, because people are stupid (see the hair-dryer corollary), they don't think about the value. They think about the $6 extra dollars a month that they'll have to pay on their property tax. I actually work with a teacher who voted against a bond which would have completed our building. Why? He felt as though he already paid enough in taxes. Seriously. So, thinking about those higher taxes, and not the benefits of them, taxpayers often defeat school funding bills.

People need to be protected from themselves. I think education is like politics, which in turn is like sausage making. No one really wants to know what's going on, unless they understand. For example, my building uses $10,000 worth of paper a year. You (and many people) might think that is a lot, but it's less than $1 per student per class. This a prime example of facts that average people don't need to know. They will freak out about this expense, without thinking about the second half of it. Schools are generally pretty good with money. It's just that the job they're doing is expensive.

Listen, I don't want the schools to have hallways paved with gold. I don't need a Hogwarts. But I think schools should have enough money to not worry about the amount of money they spend on paper.

Or on the furnishings for the teachers' lounge; which should of course be cashmere couches. Oh, and while we're at it, there should be a masseuse there too. And free gummy bears.
Now that would be money well spent.

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