Looking back on the educational scene from about 1997 to 2007, it seems that while school boards and the state had their differences, the world operated fairly smoothly. School funding could be uneven, but in most districts it increased (being held to flat funding was the worst you could expect). Yes, the public and the state legislators demanded more accountability, primarily through standardized tests, but there was little real debate about school employee compensation and work structure.
There were pockets of schools with low achievement (there still are, especially in our poorer districts), in most districts. Overall, academic achievement was on the upswing, and there was a feeling of optimism about our education system.
Those days, Eden-esque as they now seem, are long gone and irretrievable. Nor should we try to go back.
Recently, after listening to a discussion about the 2 percent cap, a board member told me that we in education need to realize that the faucet of funds is not flowing like it once did. He is right. Some in education might point to Gov. Christie’s state aid reductions as the root of the problem. In fact, the event that precipitated the funding crisis was the economic collapse. That collapse was a body blow to all government services nationwide. Taxpayers looked anew at how much they are willing to spend on public education. In this new world, the old arguments do not resonate with the public.
You want proof that the state’s financial situation is a major contributor to the education reforms being proposed? The Democrats in the legislature are proposing their own reforms to public workers pensions and benefits.
Like anyone who has suffered a loss, we are going through the seven stages of grief: Shock and Denial; Pain and Guilt; Anger; Bargaining (Finding someone to blame); Depression and Sorrow; Testing; and Reconstruction and Acceptance. Many of us are stuck in the early stages of this grief continuum. We are in shock, anger, bargaining and even depression over our fear that our public education system will go the way of California’s. That just might happen if we don’t begin to move forward.
We in the education community need to create a vision for the future for 2015 and beyond. For the foreseeable future, there will not be the funding for education that once existed in this state, so we will need to change how we compensate public workers and provide services. Our state leaders and the public in general are not willing to open the funding faucet at this time.
Arguing that things should be the way they used to be isn’t going to work: Our state leaders have moved on. In fact, it seems that the education agenda is primarily being driven by non-educators. And we better find our voice soon because change is coming whether we are all on board or not.
What will the new voice sound like? Gov. Christie has been very successful arguing that his focus, whether it concerns school choice, vouchers, tenure reform, or other issues, is on what is best for the kids, not the adults.
School board members are uniquely positioned to advocate for New Jersey’s public schoolchildren. (When administrators and teachers argue passionately about benefits and salaries, they play right into arguments that they are more concerned with the adults and than the kids.)
School board members should argue that we need to have a form of compensation for our staff members that is sustainable during this economic crisis and which attracts high- quality professionals into the classroom. While money is not always the answer in education, cutting effective programs so that we spend less will have a negative impact. When cuts are being debated, we need to talk about the quality of education as well as the savings involved.
In any event before we can move forward, we have to accept the new world in which public education must operate. If we continue to live in the past, we can’t affect the future.