Public schools are America's promise

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Lew Finch, guest columnist

Other than parenting, and perhaps the ministry, serving in America’s public schools is the highest calling to which a person can aspire. It is the public school system that most accurately reflects the Promise of America, where everyone is welcome, regardless of economic status, religious conviction, gender, race, political persuasion, language of origin, or mental or physical challenge.

Iowa public schools continue to perform well notwithstanding the continued failure of a segment of the General Assembly and Governor to support adequate, reliable and equitable funding of the system. As a result of the lack of support, public schools across the state are forced to consider staff reductions, increased class-sizes, and a reduction of programs and services for students.

It comes at a time when our public schools are serving the most diverse student population than at any time in the history of the state. This is accompanied by higher expectations and the ever increasing demands of our complex society. While diversity contributes to a rich educational environment, it also elevates challenges and consequently, costs. Even our best schools are simply not good enough, despite graduating over 90 percent of Iowa students statewide. We still have more to accomplish. And these changes and challenges are confronting districts of all sizes.

When confronted about why the failure to adequately and equitably fund Iowa public schools, those responsible have a litany of responses including:” school districts need to be more efficient”; “you can’t simply throw money at the problem”; “there is insufficient state revenue”; “public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector”; “increased revenue will simply be given to teachers”. Let’s take a look at these responses.

“Public school districts need to be more efficient.” Any independent audit and analysis of public school management of resources will clearly demonstrate that the typical system is extremely efficient. As a result of such an audit and analysis in one of our districts by an independent task force, in a final report the opening statement of the task force chairperson was, “There is no wanton waste in this school district.” Many private companies could take a lesson in efficient management from the public school in their community.

“You can’t simply throw money at the problem.” I’ve served in public education for over fifty five years. Just once I’d like to see the decision makers “throw money” at the system. All financial resources directed to public schools will most likely be wisely and efficiently used on behalf of children. Historical endeavors, such as landing a man on the moon, have proved that large sums of money directed toward a specific public good, can accomplish what might previously been thought of as impossible. Let’s give it a try just once, i.e., “throw money at us”.

“There is insufficient state revenue.” This is the current favorite of those opposed to adequate, reliable and equitable funding. Guess what. The lack of revenue is self-imposed. A certain segment of the Iowa General Assembly and the Governor have determined that tax cuts for friends and supporters is a higher priority than investing in Iowa public schools. Don’t be fooled by the “insufficient revenue” excuse. It’s a question of values. The message to Iowans is clear, even our early pioneers knew better than to eat their seed corn! Continuing on the course of underfunding public schools is tantamount to mortgaging the future. This is unconscionable and must stop.

“Public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector.” How often have we heard this one? In an interview, the CEO of a very large manufacturing corporation was asked how they were able to produce a product of such high quality. The response was, “We start with the very best raw material, and if we get less than the best raw material, we throw it out and start over.” Thankfully, we in public schools do not select our raw material or “throw out” the less than perfect. Every child that enters the system is welcome, nurtured and entitled.

“Increased revenue will simply be given to teachers.” This comment often comes from some of the same people who admonish us to attract and retain the very best teachers and administrators possible. In all public schools, nearly eighty percent of the budget is invested in personnel because that is how we deliver the critical services. You can be assured very few people choose a profession in public school education to become rich. Too little invested in staff deprives students of meaningful attention and encourages the private sector to recruit low-paid talented teachers and administrators, scientists, mathematicians, and literate communicators from our ranks. Of course a good portion of revenue will, as it should, be invested in the employment and development of personnel.

Public schools continue to be America’s Promise. However, due to continued lack of adequate, reliable, and equitable funding coupled with unrealistic mandates, Iowa’s public schools, the very epitome of the American dream, are in serious jeopardy. Folks, this is no time for the timid or reticent. You and I must be willing to be visible, vocal advocates. Not just for school boards, administrators, teachers or even for the school system. We must be advocates for the thousands of children who arrive in Iowa’s public schools every day, and whose future well-being depends on what we do today.

• Lew Finch is executive director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa.

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