Monday, February 1, 2010

Furlough Fridays

I am fortunate to have a broad vantage point on education that spans kindergarten through graduate school.  In addition to my position at Hofstra I have served on two school boards, the first at a Quaker School my kids were attending at the time and currently I serve on my local school board where my kids now attend. I also serve on the board for ProjectGrad Long Island, which provides extra support for economically disadvantaged school districts.  And I have worked closely with Hofstra’s NOAH program, which was the template for New York State’s HEOP program, for over 25 years.

Based on all this experience,  it is clear to me that success in higher education depends on the strength of the foundation a student receives in his or her K through 12 education (or afterwards but prior to beginning the full college educational experience, such as in a HEOP program).  There is no substitute for this foundation; past schooling and past performance is a key indicator of future success in college and beyond.

Imagine my surprise then, when I arrive for a vacation in Hawaii, to find Furlough Fridays.  In part, Furlough Fridays means that for 17 Fridays there will no public school whatsoever in Hawaii, and that the schools will in fact be totally closed. New York has also cut back on payments to school districts and across the country there is more of the same though none seems as draconian as the Hawaii position.

State and local governments need to have balanced budgets and to achieve such budgets in the midst of a severe economic downturn requires sacrifice from everyone.  One form of sacrifice is that the government workers are furloughed for a limited period of time.

But local governments and state governments need to develop priorities and just as safety should not be compromised, education should not be compromised either.  Think about all the kids involved, all the grades involved, and all the education that will be unavailable during this time.  How could this have happened?

Part of the reason is that forgoing education is, for a period of time, an invisible loss.  It won’t be clear for months or perhaps years what the actual loss is.  It could be students who don’t read as well as they would with more time in class, or the math or technology skills will be compromised; perhaps the SAT scores will ultimately be lower—fewer students will get into the schools that they potentially could get into; some students may be discouraged from or left out of higher education.  Ultimately the state involved or the country will pay the price—a less educated population; less able to function in a complex global environment; who earn less and pay less taxes that the states and localities have great need of.

There may be another factor involved in Furlough Fridays and other cuts in public education.  There is a feeling that teachers have a tremendously good deal and so they should sacrifice more to keep school open and school districts whole.  Teachers have summers off, they have numerous holiday breaks, and their day is over often by the middle of the afternoon.

What this doesn’t take into consideration is how difficult teaching is, how highly educated and up to date a teacher needs to be, and how critical good teaching is to the continued success of our country.  If we want the best possible teachers, we need to provide the incentives that will encourage such individuals to pursue teaching.

Now I know there are examples of unions that have successfully negotiated for too many conference and planning days or too many salary steps, and I know there are examples of tenured teachers in the public schools that have lost that passion that one needs to be an effective teacher.  I don’t want to minimize these issues. Unions need to do their part to curb excesses; and teachers need to be part of a continuous peer review process that moves ineffective teachers out of the system.

But the answer to these issues should never be the withholding of education from our kids.  Our generation has certainly left enough world, national, and local problems unresolved.  Our kids deserve better.  At least we should make sure they have the best tools and the highest skill levels necessary to help bring about that better world that we have been unable to secure for them.

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