Monday, January 28, 2013

Global Orientation

At the last Board of Education meeting, in addition to dealing with the critical issue of security, we also continued our discussion of FLES—the teaching of language at the elementary school level as well as our discussion of a world languages orientation. Often, at the college level, students look to minimize their course work in foreign languages. But in a global environment, where English is not the only world language, such an orientation is clearly short sighted.

The recommendation of the Superintendent, which we accepted, was that students would begin learning Mandarin in kindergarten. From kindergarten until third grade, Mandarin would be the only foreign language option, after which a student could decide to take Spanish instead of Mandarin. Both are key world languages and both are being taught at an ideal developmental time for our kids. Then in seventh grade, students would once again have a choice, this time between continuing with Mandarin or Spanish or beginning French, Italian, or Latin. Each of the additional language options is an important and valuable alternative that works well strengthening the academic preparedness of our students. For me, my priority in an extricably interwoven world would be the world languages that will dominate the 21st century. But there are other good and valid reasons for studying other important languages and as a school board member, I am pleased we are providing these language options. All serve an important purpose.

In making this decision, there is another important part of the equation that needs to be factored in here, as it does for the security issue that I discussed last week. We are living in a time where resources for schools are constrained, often as in this area, via a tax cap that effectively limits increases. As we increase our options in and commitment to foreign languages, are there areas where we will be less able to provide the options or the commitment that would also serve well the needs of our kids. Will we be able to do less in the vital STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas? We know how competitive the world economy is today; doing less in STEM would not be a wise strategy. Will be need to offer less in the arts or music? Will athletics suffer? All have a tremendous value in the education of our children. Should we let class size increase? Reduce the time in class for various subjects, etc? Or will we do less than is called for in the security area? In addition, there are recommendations to increase the length of the school day or the school year that we are hearing more frequently. How compatible are these with the constraints we are facing?

I am an advocate for not raising taxes and not raising government spending but I am also a realist. Important priorities for our children or our country should not fall victim to arbitrary taxing and spending constraints.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Global Competitiveness

At the last school board meeting there were two distinct discussions, both excellent. The first, not surprisingly after the tragedy in Connecticut, dealt with school security and the second dealt with an early exposure world languages program. For the school security discussion there was a wide range of opinions expressed. Some parents wanted armed guards, bullet proof doors, a sure double door entrance system while other parents felt strongly we should not overreact to what was a tragic but still isolated incident. My opinion, which I voiced at the meeting, is that security needs to be both substantial and at the same time unobtrusive. And clearly my opinion is to some extent defined by the very suburban, very middle class area that the schools are located in. But what does substantial and unobtrusive mean. The terms seem in conflict but nevertheless are exactly what we need. One example relates to the windows at our neighborhood schools, which are plentiful, especially at ground level and are often open to some extent especially during the fall and spring months (since the buildings are for the most part not air-conditioned). I would not want bars on any of the windows; a school shouldn’t give the impression of a prison. On the other hand, I am cognizant that with so many windows that are unlocked and even partially open, security revolves around more than a door buzzer and an entrance guard. Screens (that can’t be cut easily) can provide at least somewhat of a deterrent (even though there needs to be a way to open them if necessary from the inside) and should be seriously considered.

I want our kids to be safe but I also don’t want them to feel threatened or anxious. Guns in schools don’t foster a sense of peace and tranquility and should never be more than a last resort. I also recognize that the k through 12th grade populations is very different than the higher education population and that the openness of a college campus is not what would work for our public schools. As we grapple with what more we should do, our school district is likely to bring in a consultant to work with us. Real security that is unobtrusive is what we need; what more do we need to do to make sure that is what we have?

There is an important economic element to this discussion that needs to be recognized going forward. In past years, when school budgets were being discussed, there were often advocates of spending less on security. Five buildings, each with an unarmed door person during school hours, plus cameras and monitoring add up to real dollars that impact a tight budget. I have always been against reducing security but now I think it is clear that even more needs to be done. A person should be at the entrance doors anytime the building is in use which is substantially more than regular school hours. In this era of tax caps and constrained budgets, more spending for security translates into less spending in other areas. There is no choice.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fiscal Cliff part one

I usually ease off on reading news stories during the time period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It isn’t that the news is less important, it is just that I find this an ideal moment to just relax and enjoy quality family time. This year was different. I was focused on the cliff, the ominous fiscal cliff. I had always thought there would be a solution, an acceptable compromise that would unite most Democrats and Republicans, and it came (in the Senate) just as the ball dropped at Times Square. This part of the cliff solution was the easier of the two major parts. There was never a doubt that taxes would rise on the wealthiest taxpayers and there was never a doubt that there would be some greater limits on deductions and exemptions as incomes rose into the uppermost percentiles. The only ultimate surprise is that it took until the last minute (or slightly thereafter in the House) and maybe that wasn’t a surprise at all. Perhaps the give and take on both sides required waiting until the last minute to be acceptable. For Democrats to raise taxes less than they wanted and for Republicans to raise taxes more than they wanted was not pleasing to either party, though it did come together at the end as a well thought out moderate response to the tax side of the equation.

The agreement on taxes also bought time for the other critical aspect of any long term workable solution to be worked through. Sequestrations, which are virtually across the board spending cuts, are delayed for a two month period so that more intentional and surgical but still critical spending cuts can be agreed upon. Spending cuts have always been the more difficult part of any compromise for it requires deciding not only what to preserve but more critically, what to curtail and or what to eliminate. Raising taxes on the most wealthy is easy compared to inevitably alienating a constituency that supports a program that is slated to be diminished or eliminated. And the reality is that virtually every program has such a constituency that will try to convince you that the less important is really the most important (which for the constituency involved, may be completely correct). We all want and need a strong social safety net, and we all want and need a strong level of defense preparedness but clearly there will have to be adjustments in both areas. Social Security and Medicare as well as defense expenditures will all have to be adjusted in some ways. I know that some people will say that we should be able to do more with less or the same with less and note that with proper efficiency that will happen. More than likely, gains in efficiency will be marginal and the result is that we will have to do less with less. And also more than likely, the Federal government will try to force states to contribute more to maintain certain programs, which most states are not easily in a position to do. There will clearly be pain associated with the spending cuts. And yet with scarce resources there are no choices, something has to give.

We have avoided the fiscal cliff for now. But the reality is that all we have done is make some tax cuts permanent and others, on the wealthiest tax payers, have gone back to the levels of the Clinton administration. For those of us who believe in a more progressive tax code, this is progress. However, compared to doing nothing at all (and allowing all tax rates to rise), which I think would have been a serious mistake, the federal deficit has increased further. Therefore, the really hard work still lies ahead and the next sixty days are critical. We need significant spending cuts, which will clearly be painful but are necessary to curb a rapidly accelerating national debt. And just as it would have been inexcusable for Congress and the President to not come to a compromise agreement on taxes, it will clearly be equally inexcusable to not come to an agreement on spending cuts.