School Debate

It will come as no surprise, since I live in a staunchly Democratic city and circulate among other well-educated parents of young children, that the uproar over proposed public school budget cuts is ringing in my ear. Day and night, on the playground and in the paper, all I have heard is emotionally charged talk about how stupid and wrong-headed it is to cut education. It is assumed, if anyone should care about my opinion, that I am on the same page.

To be sure, I have skin in the game. The end of full-day kindergarten comes as our youngest son is on the doorstep of kindergarten, while the trimming or elimination of special programming for foreign languages, arts, and music will have direct consequence on our oldest daughter’s activities in the years to come.

What has disappointed me about the discussion around school cuts is that it has been so politicized and so shallow. Dems vilify Governor Corbett for taking the ax to education funding, as if it is possible to spend money we don’t have. You can make a good argument that he should’ve raised taxes elsewhere to keep funding levels level, but this is an argument that has not seen nearly as much coverage; after all, why reason when you can smear your opponent for being uncaring instead?

At a local level, the School District has responded in a similarly disingenuous way, by advancing the most popular programming as first on the chopping block, and then wiping their hands of any hard thinking about how to run with less money. “Look at what Governor Corbett has made us do” has replaced “Here’s how we’re going to figure out how to give our constituencies the best value possible within the constraints of our limited funding.” Again, why grow a backbone and take a few on the chin when you can play victim instead and make someone else absorb all the ill will?

It all makes for good political theater and absorbing reading in the paper, for sure. But for those of us who are directly affected, it’s a grave disappointment that finger-pointing is substituting for discussion, and blind requests for more money are substituting for reasoned weighings of priorities amidst scarcer resources. I appreciated this quote from Councilman Bill Green: "Stop the fear-mongering, adopt a responsible budget, and treat your partners at the city and state like adults. Restore things that are proven, like full-day kindergarten and early-childhood education, then come make the case for things that aren't yet proven."

Sadly, there’s been too much fear-mongering and not enough responsibility on this issue, with potentially disastrous consequences for children and for the city. As a Republican, a taxpayer, and a dad, I’m tired of the school budget version of “kick the can”: spending money we don’t have, getting ourselves in a hole, pointing fingers instead of buckling down, and then asking for money from taxpayers because “surely we can bear higher taxes for the children.”

On that note, my colleague alerted me yesterday afternoon to Mayor Nutter's proposal to resurrect discussion of a sugary drink tax to help pay for extra money for the School District. Again, it's better to throw money at a problem, and/or make the other side seem uncaring in the process, than to actually think through the tough choices of doing more with less, right? Sigh.

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