CONFESSION. As a 15-year observer and some time participant in Joint Finance Committee meetings, I am bored.
Once again, we hear the same old tropes from politicians who don’t want to fulfill their responsibility to fund schools. The district puts together a budget that is largely pre-determined by the weight of the existing system, and asks for a minor increase, below the 4% cap imposed by state law. Usually, even the meager request for an increase is turned down.
Why don’t you go to the state to ask for money? But the state has said the towns need to contribute more money. Also, Bristol and Warren contribute the lowest portion of their budgets to the schools of any municipality in Rhode Island.
Good education doesn’t require pouring more money into schools. Except, um, it does. Wealthier districts pour money into things like capital projects which do not get calculated into per-pupil cost. Wealthier districts have students whose needs are largely met by their wealthier families, whereas students in poorer districts have to rely more heavily on services provided by schools… which cost money.
Why don’t you cut administrators first? This is a very popular one as it sounds like “attacking bad bureaucracy” and allows politicians not to advocate for reducing teachers’ salaries or benefits. But it is myopic and misguided, and really acts as a fig leaf for the actual (but unpopular) desire not to fund schools. Administrators are not CEOs; while they make somewhat more money than teachers, they’re not Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. I’m not a huge fan of administrators, but cutting administrators does very little in real dollar terms while leaving the district less organized.
Can the towns contribute more money to school budgets? Yes. Are local property taxes a regressive and stupid way to fund schools? Yes. Both things are true simultaneously, even if they are contradictory. Both things undermine public schools.
Every year, someone brings up the need to revisit the enabling legislation which created the Bristol-Warren Regional School District. Yet every year, somehow, no one ends up revisiting that legislation. And so every year we are in the same situation, again.
Honestly, it’s exhausting. And infuriating. American schools are chronically underfunded in the richest country in the world. The BWRSD is hardly the worst off, and yet every year, it’s a struggle with mixed and mostly mediocre results. Even in that rare year when the JFC fully funds the request, like last year… Well, here we are again.
Regionalization was a good step, but it didn’t go far enough. Regionalize all schools! Make Rhode Island one district! Redistribute property taxes to benefit the poor! Raise money for schools from increased corporate taxes! Make schools a priority in practice and not just in rhetoric!
Most of all, fund the schools but give teachers, parents and students the collective ability to decide what is best for schools! Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the government is insisting on standardized testing. Abolish the tests! Stop paying corporations for producing useless tests! Stop subjecting children to exhausting trials that are designed to undermine their self-confidence and love of learning!
It has been an exhausting year. You would hope that we could take stock and learn some lessons. Pre-COVID normal wasn’t actually all that great. Can’t we take the lessons of COVID, both bad and good, and reboot? And yet here we are, having the same damn conversation as always. Schools will do with less, and they will still perform because we teachers make it happen. We don’t want to let our kids down, and so we perpetually over-extend and burn out. Children will accept less because they don’t know any better. And that less will be the starting point for their generation. At the end of the day, children are the losers, teachers are stretched to the limit, public institutions that are the basis of democracy will be starved and maligned, and the people who have the money to change it all… will hold on to their money. Unless the crisis erupts and forces the people with the money to pay.
Do we need to be that crisis? If so, how?