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We Owe It to Ourselves to Fix Funding for Public Education

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Have you ever seen the movie "Dave"? If you haven't I'll give you a rundown: when the president of the United States, who happens to be a complete jerk, goes into a coma, his closest advisors hatch a plan. They identify the owner of a temp agency, a guy named Dave, to impersonate the president. It works because Dave looks just like him, see. In the movies these kinds of things are so easy.

The only thing is that Dave turns out to have a conscience, unlike the real president. For starters, he woos the First Lady, who doesn't take long to catch on to the fact that her incorrigible husband has suddenly turned into a sensitive everyman, meaning that the sensitive everyman is not the man she thinks he is. But Dave also has other plans: in a heated meeting with the president's chief of staff, one of the evil politicians who orchestrated his installation as a stand-in for the president, Dave tries to protect federal funding for a pet project favored by the First Lady. In anger the chief of staff tells Dave he can have the money if he can find it in the budget—assuming, of course, that he never will.

The gauntlet thus thrown, Dave brings in a buddy of his, an accountant named Murray Blum. At one point, poring over the nation's pitiful finances, Murray declares that if he kept his books so poorly he'd have gone out of business a long time ago. But he figures it out! He finds a way to save that program and, in the end, Dave even manages to get the girl. The chief of staff, who had hoped to become president himself somehow (don't ask) is foiled. And American democracy lives on. It's actually a pretty good movie, in fairness.

I was thinking about it this morning as I was thinking again about the profound crisis gripping some of our schools as they try to do the impossible like Dave and Murray did. Here's how it works in Hollywood: you start with the idea that our government has unlimited amounts of money that it "confiscates" from us, and then spends profligately on meaningless projects and back-slapping favors extended from one member of the government to another. If we could just get an uncorrupted everyman to step in and review the books we'd be able to see it, and probably even fix it. It's just a matter of choosing the right priorities.

There is an element of truth to this. The federal government, for all intents and purposes, does have a practically unlimited supply of resources it can call on to support public programs; this is why people all over the world invest in bonds backed by the U.S. government—because, over the past century at least, they have posed zero credit risk. But we're turning our backs on all that now because some folks have convinced us that when the federal government spends money it's only done in a blatant attempt to take our liberties or something.

The states aren't a whole lot better at this point, as more local politicians have discovered that winning elections is easy when you promise to lower everyone's taxes. Never mind if they can't deliver, or if they can but only after eviscerating public services. The folks who used to crow about the importance of balanced budgets don't seem so concerned about them now. They talk about belt-tightening and sitting around the kitchen table to make responsible choices like homeowners would, but then those choices never seem to be made. They keep tightening the belt when it comes to public spending but can't fall over themselves fast enough to turn around and hand that money back to someone else in the name of "tax relief."

What does this have to do with education, you ask? Well, everything. Education is a public expense and a public responsibility. If you don't believe that then you don't believe there's any point in trying to even pretend that we live in a society held together by anything more than circumstance. When our system of government was created it was created, in part, based on the idea that people could govern themselves. That was a radical idea then, and somehow it has become radical again now. Why? Because we have disinvested in education. It's hard to trust people who deny facts and reality and then go out and cast their votes based on that. As Moynihan famously said, we're all entitled to our own opinions—but not our own facts. If we want people to be informed voters we need to educate them. 

Our failure to invest adequately in education has not only fed but also been fed by the sense that our political system is irretrievably broken. Make no mistake about it: schools are the most prominent of all of our institutions of self government, as they reach into our communities and touch the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. If schools appear to be ineffective all the money we spend on them can look like it was wasted. That may be all it takes to convince ourselves that we just need a tough everyman (or -woman) with common sense to step in and remind us of what really matters, just like Dave did. It also might explain why reformers are often selling back-to-basics curricula and regressive discipline programs and worshipping at the altar of efficiency. They tell us they can do more with less. They promise us the moon and deliver us, at best, a handful of stars. If we're lucky. 

We make their jobs easier for them with stories like this one about how ridiculously inequitable funding is in states like Pennsylvania. Or this one about how a school board turned its back on students trying to make their way in troubled south St. Petersburg, Florida. Or any story about the sorry state of public education in Detroit. I could, unfortunately, go on and on. All of this failure only feeds the beast, helping reformers redouble their efforts to transform public education with "market disruptions" and faddish solutions to complex problems. Not all reform is bad—not by a longshot—and our schools do need to evolve and change. But too much of what passes for reform these days gets its juice from the self-perpetuating narrative that public education is a legacy idea from an earlier time that could never work for us in the 21st century. I, for one, don't buy it.

There are communities all over the country where pride in the local public schools is real and is evident. These tend to be places where heavy investment in public education is made possible by high local property values and concentrated wealth. Until we figure out a way to stop wealth from concentrating in certain communities, at the very real expense of others, we'll never actually make measurable improvement in our schools. We can't rely on local property tax income to fund our schools anymore; it's uneven, it's unfair, and it's inequitable. At the same time, we need to reconnect to the idea that education is a public expense because it serves an important public purpose: it prepares people to make informed decisions in public life, one of which might be "where am I going to find some income?," another of which must be "which one of these candidates is actually telling me the truth and representing my interests?" Inequitable school funding inevitably perpetuates an inequitable political system. Connect the dots on that one, folks.

Fixing it won't be as easy as it was for Dave to find money for the First Lady's pet project, but this ain't Hollywood. Maybe there's a happy ending in here for us after all, though. I'd like to find out.

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