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Cutting and Pasting


An involuntary disconnection from all electronic communication for the past week has left me with a mountain of unread blogs, e-mails and must-read network postings. A lot of those are centered around a common theme: Guess what else just got cut at my school! Can it possibly get any worse?

There's a lot of slicing and dicing going on in school staffing right now. It's incredibly painful, because teachers view the cuts--rightfully--as talented and valuable people, their colleagues, losing their (important) jobs.

There are other ways to think about educational budgeting, of course.

We could compare our school budgets to patterns of expenditure in other countries. Some high-achieving nations spend far less than the typical system in the United States. Do we really need all those state-of-the-art gymnasiums, weight rooms and swimming pools in each school? Consider that other nations see schooling and competitive sports as two entirely separate things--or that the minimum driving age in most European and Asian nations is 18, making parking lot security and enforcing safe teen driving a non-issue for schools.

Do we need broadcasting studios, interactive white boards and automated library checkouts--are they enhancing achievement? In other words, are we spending more on expensive stuff than we are on instructional expertise--something we don't see in, say, Finland?

We could also ask why we're paying people to monitor the lunchroom and patrol high school bathrooms and grounds. I do get it--if we don't pay for these services, terrible things happen. But those people and our security-system mentality are not addressing root causes, only the awful symptoms of not having our priorities straight. In some ways, our school systems are like our health care system--bloated, inefficient, and spending good money on all the wrong stuff.

Here's an interesting way to think about it: suppose the money available for next year was in a single pot, and all the spending for your school district or building could be re-allocated. Who should get more money? Who should get less? Whose work is just not valuable enough to keep? Which programs, supplies and equipment are most essential?

When you think of it that way--what's most important, not who's losing their job--it's pretty clear that exercises in budget-cutting are generally political rather than mission-driven. Huge proportions of all school budgets are encumbered; when the axe falls, it's not usually about trimming fat and waste or re-focusing on the core purpose of public education. It's about keeping the system running, rather than creative change.

Some of the things my teacher buddies around the country are most concerned about losing--instructional coaches, elementary counselors and foreign language programs, school nurses--are things we've done without in my system for years. It's tempting to say that the world won't end if your Mandarin teacher gets laid off. But that's the wrong way to think of it, competing for scarce resources.

It's a shame that schools are getting the shaft once again. We keep operating on the same old competitive patterns, however, rather than looking at the resources we have and using them better.

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