Liddick: Higher standards, not more funding, for Summit County schools
October 13, 2014
Ah, election season — when school districts across Colorado whine about the need for more money, and lots of it. After all, "It's for the children …"
Sadly, the implicit promise is a fraud.
This year, we will undoubtedly hear a recapitulation of the sad tale that Colorado is miserly on educational funding. We might be 48th, 40th or just "shockingly low"; in any case, much more will be required to bring us up to the national average. We spend just under $6,000 per student — a pitiful sum. These arguments call for an application of those "critical-thinking skills" we've all heard so much about.
Let's consider Summit County's 2014 budget of $39,050,000. Divided by our 3,287 students, we arrive at $11,880, almost twice the figure usually given and well above the 2013 national average of $10,613. The lower figure often bandied about comes from the $18,524,320 spent on "total instruction" divided by the student population. This is a dodge: we pay the entire amount, not a portion thereof. Even the $6.6 million that comes from the state is paid by Colorado taxpayers, not the Tooth Fairy. But there is a much more serious problem than dishonesty about sums; there is also the question of what we are getting for our money.
In 2014, 55 percent of Summit County 10th-graders were partially proficient or not proficient in math; the figures for reading and writing were 18 and 37 percent respectively. This agrees with the approximately 43 percent of graduating students Colorado-wide who needed remediation in math, reading or writing at the college level. You read that right: more than 40 percent of Colorado's high school graduates don't have the skills to successfully complete a college course.
This isn't a crisis; it's a scandal. And the worst of it is, money won't solve the problem, no matter how much we pour into the educational system. To understand why, consider an average young mother; we'll call her Julia after the Obama crowd's 2012 favorite composite person. She has a daughter, Allison. Neither name is accurate, but their portrait is drawn from life.
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Julia's plugged in: Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, email; while she's hobnobbing in her online "communities," Allison watches television. At age 4, the child gets a starter tablet of her own. The programs are flashy, fast-paced, colorful. It's a babysitter, surrogate, friend. Allison never gets the whole "letter" thing, which requires work, boring repetition and application. So when she arrives in kindergarten, she's both unlettered and innumerate. Furthermore, she's been trained to expect "learning" to be fun and effort-free, so she languishes. But — courtesy of her increasingly-complex electronic companions, she learns other things: that she is free to exchange vacuities with the world seven days a week, 24 hours a day; that "whr r u?" is a perfectly legitimate phrase; that she is the center of a universe she creates.
Allison's teachers have a problem dealing with her. In earlier times she would fail and be held back until she could master the requirements of her grade level. In our more enlightened times parents object vociferously to any hint that their child might benefit from remediation or repetition. Administrators admonish instructors that failure looks bad for the school and may contribute to the child's dropping out — which looks worse. So Allison is passed along until she leaves of her own volition or graduates — only to discover that she has been woefully short-changed by adults more concerned with image than reality.
Education isn't really complicated. From colonial times we have been among the most literate people on Earth, but we've forgotten what that took: agreement that literacy and education were worthy goals, that they required diligence and effort on part of student as well as teacher, and that success was praiseworthy but failure shameful. That a sense of accomplishment and worth is not given, but comes from the achievement of difficult goals. These attitudes can't be bought, no matter how much money is dumped onto the table.
And that's the problem. Without rededication to striving in the name of literacy, numeracy and the basics of knowledge, the ignorance needle won't budge one iota. Spend like a fleet of drunken sailors; flood schools knee-deep with money, it will make no difference. We will still have earnest young people screaming that a school board doing its constitutionally-mandated job is somehow oppressing them — possibly because they can't read the document in question.
Instead of bankrupting ourselves in a vain effort to buy better minds, we should work to change attitudes. It's difficult and will end in a world with harder edges, more judgmental and less inclined to accept sloth as normal. Some people will have their feelings hurt.
But the results will be better, and real.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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