A Broken Citizenry fails to pick Leaders who can make responsible long-term decisions…

I’d like to call your attention to an excellent post from my friend Lee Wilson’s Education Business Blog titled “A Broken Senate Fails America’s Children“. Hie thee hence…

Unless you’ve stopped believing that Government is of, by, and for the people, this debate needs to happen around every family dinner table (or pub or workplace if you don’t have a family). In the end we get the government we deserve. My comments (also submitted to Lee’s blog) follow:

It seems as if SLGs were asking for a bridge (to carry them over the chasm with level funding) or at least a parachute so they could land at a lower level with minimum damage. Unfortunately, like Wily E. Coyote, they’ve been handed an anvil.

Given that 80% of the costs are labor – and a lot of that labor cost is biased towards the longest-serving teachers (whether or not they’re the most-effective ones) – which of the options do you perceive as most likely? Are there other alternatives that could lead to a “best-worst” outcome?

Option 1: Act as if this is a bigger-than-usual funding blip but do more of the same belt-tightening. Throw all non-teacher spending under the bus and apply last-hired/first-fired policies enshrined in union contracts. You have to layoff a lot more junior teachers to close a funding gap (because they’re much cheaper).

Option 2: Restructure costs the same way a corporation in an aging/dying industry does. Cut the senior/expensive staff (and give more responsibility to any stars that have been stuck due to lack of growth opportunities), flatten the administrative hierarchies and paperwork, and outsource non-core functions ruthlessly. I’m not sure that education has figured out its “core business” given all that they’ve taken on as a generalized social services delivery mechanism.

Option 3: Use what little capital exists to fundamentally change the business model. In industry, the percentage of companies that succeed is small (although the performance of turnaround successes are great). I think only the strongest districts could attempt this without dedicated capital – and they’re the ones most likely to try and hold on (because they can and because it minimizes risk).

The scary thing about a pending collapse is that it will be uneven. Some schools and districts have sufficient finances (via conservative budgeting over the years) and sufficient social capital that they will get through this. Others will have a collapse so complete that they’ll look like Detroit (or worse yet, like Ciudad Juarez). We may not be able to afford to fully fund education, but that’s far cheaper than permanently subsidizing citizens and immigrants forever closed off from family-wage opportunities!

States will need to restructure their budgets for the long haul. Oregon, for example, built its budgets for this year and next assuming no further stimulus would pass. The outgoing governor had also created a “Reset Commission” whose recommendations have just been revealed. Rather than continually cutting and squeezing across the board, the proposals call for government to divest itself of a number of missions and permanently shut down those services deemed less necessary to the long-term health of the private-sector.

This in the end is the big battle – what level of public services are we willing to pay for? One vision says “pay less for less” and another says “pay more for more”. I’m not sure we get either of those options because we’ve had a number of years of “pay less for more” using debt financing and we’re not likely to be happy about the “pay more for less” that we may have to endure over a generation to work down those same debts.

I’ll close these (rambling?) comments with a quote on Democracy from Lord Macaulay that reminds me of the dangers we’ve been running for most of my adult life:

“A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest democratic nations has been 200 years. Each has been through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith.
From faith to great courage.
From courage to liberty.
From liberty to abundance.
From abundance to complacency.
From complacency to selfishness.
From selfishness to apathy.
From apathy to dependency.
And from dependency back again into bondage.”

– Lord Thomas MacCauley, May 23, 1857

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