The Friday Editorial: Treat education as an investment, not an expense

It looked like a light agenda.

The School Board of Alachua County’s (SBAC) March 3rd meeting had all the earmarks of a light news day, but then, School Board Member Gunnar Paulson took unexpected aim at the Florida Legislature near the end of the session.

“They are starving it, and they know they are starving it,” Dr. Paulson said about legislators and representatives in Tallahassee.

Board Member Tina Certain also agreed:

“The required local effort continues to be rolled back and makes absolutely no sense given the cost of doing business as a school district continues to rise. Healthcare costs, fuel costs. We’d like to increase the salaries of our employees via cost of living raises. That’s hard to do if they’re constantly rolling back the millage rate that we’re able to access here locally and raise money.”

School Board Member Rob Hyatt was also frustrated.

“It really helps us to put things into perspective. If we’re gaining $40 per student and yet our expenses are $80, then we aren’t really getting helped. There’s sort of this bait and switch, or at the very least, no full disclosure.”

School Board Chair Eileen Roy was just as candid as her members.

“It’s just another dirty trick by the State to take money from employees and not put it in the retirement system, which is what they’re paying for, and then send us the bill for the shortfall $2.5 million sprung on us. We’re getting $40 a student and having to pay them $80. It’s another ploy to kill public education. One of many.”

It was a surprising shot across the legislative bow of Tallahassee by the SBAC, but one that does not go without merit. However, it’s merely scratching the surface. You get a $4 increase per student when you need $8? Why aren’t you shooting for $16?

I have a suggestion for the School Board of Alachua County, and for the Florida Legislature – aim higher.

Stop treating education as an expense and utilize it it as a long term investment. This isn’t about getting parents to vote for you, it’s a strategic look into the future with a return on investment coming in the form of a far better educated and qualified workforce.

In her book “The Class,” Heather Won Tesoriero spent the entire 2016-17 school year with a life-changing teacher named Andy Bramante, and his group of world-changing students in perhaps the most innovative classroom in the United States.

In “The Class”, Tesoriero writes:

Andy’s science research class is unlike any other class at Greenwich High, a Connecticut public school behemoth with 2,560 kids. There is no curriculum, no tests, textbooks, or lectures. Students pitch individual projects that they work on the entire school year with the goal of taking their discoveries and their inventions out on the national and global science fair circuit. This is not the stuff of vinegar volcanoes and ant farms. Kids tackle problems like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, heart disease, cheap water filtration, and carbon dioxide capture, sometimes making discoveries that elude adult scientists three times their age.”

No curriculum, no tests, and no textbooks yet they are taking on the most significant issues our world is facing with expert-level approaches. How is this possible if we can’t measure our students’ performances? And how can a public school afford such a class?

Perhaps buying-into education as investment is more important than testing.

Connecticut is a small state with a budget of approximately $43 billion, but they spend just under $19,322 per-student each school-year and pay their teachers an average of $73,113 per year, according to an August 2019 study done by businessinsider.com. Both of those figures are in the top five of what states spend on its students and teachers.

In contrast, Florida is a large state with an estimated $88.7 billion budget, yet it spends only $9,075 per-student each term and pays its teachers an average of $47,721 per year (according to the same study). Florida’s per-student budget ranks 44th among other states, and its average teacher salary ranks 47th.

It defies logic that a state the caliber of Florida, the third-largest by population and home to a booming economy, could rank so far down the list in education. But this is not a poison-pen-letter about the Florida Legislature. I’m calling on Washington DC, Tallahassee, Alachua County, Gainesville, and everyone reading this editorial…

When it comes to education, aim higher.

Not just bigger than your opponent, or bigger than last year’s budget… but implausible big. You’re not going to double the education budget of Florida, but that’s the place to start the conversation. What would doubling the budget do to unharness the future intellectual capital of this state?

 There are plenty of conservative vs. liberal debates floating around.
  • Should the government raise taxes and fund projects that benefit society, or should they lower taxes and let people keep more of the money they’ve earned?
  • Will the economy expand if government’s spend aggressively, or should they cut spending and reduce the debt?
  • Should lawmakers focus more on the environment, worker’s rights and the minimum wage, or lift un-needed sanctions on businesses?
 Those questions are up for debate and probably always will be, and for short-term to mid-term fixes, both approaches may be right at different times. But is there a silver bullet to fix all the issues if given enough time?
 
How about a long-term approach to increasing the education budget?
 
A steady flow of well-educated high school and college graduates into the Florida workforce could be the rising tide that lifts all boats. It could be the “teach a man to fish” principle in action. An incredibly effective school system could be the springboard to success we have searched for.
 
But I’m not talking about subtle changes. This would take a monumental new outlook in constructing the budget.
 

 Schools would be palaces. They would be architectural masterpieces that would invite and inspire. They would define the communities they serve, and students would rather be at school than any other place in the world.

The competition for Teacher of the Year would be fierce, and the prize would be significant… like winning the Nobel Peace Prize significant. Teacher salaries would be six-figures and more of the best and brightest college graduates would apply. There would be no more teacher shortages, in fact, these would be the hottest jobs in the state.
 
What if Florida’s goal was to become the number one state for education?
 
I know what some of you are thinking. These lofty goals are starting to sound like a socialist utopian notion that would eventually bankrupt the state. To this, I would say thank you for reading as far as you have, and I would respectfully push back and say this is a very pragmatic, capitalist investment into our economy, our healthcare, our environment, and just about every aspect of our future.
 
The result might be higher taxes, but a generation of well-educated students pouring into the workforce and our communities would pay this state back in every way imaginable. The economy and the state budget would not suffer from an investment in intellectual capital.
 
Quite the contrary.
 
 Before I conclude, I would like to thank the Alachua County School Board and the Florida Legislature for your service to this community and to the state. I know its easy to write  editorials on what you should be doing and how you should spend taxpayer money, while you are both doing the hard work of managing a school district, and a state.
 
 However, I would ask that you aim higher when it comes to Florida’s teachers and students. It is perhaps the most important subject you will face in your careers, not just for our children, but for our state.
 
And besides, no one ever lost an election talking about education. 
 
One day I’d like to write a column about a life-changing teacher from Gainesville or Eastside High School, and a group of world-changing students in perhaps the most innovative classroom in the United States.

Op/Ed

The Friday editorial is a weekly op/ed from members of the Mainstreet Daily News staff. It offers our analysis and opinion about news, or issues that relate directly to the Gainesville and Alachua County communities. We welcome your comments, opinions, and letters to the editor on this or any other article on Mainstreet Daily News. Email editor@mainstreetdailynews.com

 
 

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