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January 26, 2011

Cut Cut Slash

Idiocracy-no-brain I wonder what it’s like to live in a place where getting your child educated is not an anxiety-plagued prospect that dredges up nightmare idiocracy scenarios of our civilization’s future and calls into question our right to continue as a species. Such places must exist, right? I’ve heard faint whispers of such mythic lands.

The anxiety is running high among Austin parents here lately. My wife and I have a child entering kindergarten in the fall, as do a number of our friends. For the past few years, our discussions about education revolved around questions that were, in hindsight, pretty basic. Should we stick with our area school or put in for a transfer? What’s up with charter schools? How can we be involved? Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.

Now the situation is looking downright grim. The State of Texas faces a budget shortfall of no less than $15 billion, a number so large that it doesn’t even seem real. People who study these things have calculated that you could close every prison in the state and still not close the gap. Every prison in Texas, y’all! And you know how we love us some prisons.

Of course, this spells trouble for school districts across the state. Here in Austin, the school district is looking down the barrel of a budget gap of $100 million. They’re talking layoffs of hundreds of employees. They’re talking school closures, and not just for poorly performing-schools. In short, they’re talking about major reductions in one of the most important government funded services in existence, reductions which have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of said service. Even schools that are doing a lot of things right are on the chopping block.

School closed1
I know Texas isn’t the only place with such troubles. Our friends over at DadWagon provide frequent updates on the state of the school system in New York City. States across the nation face ridiculous budget shortfalls.

Did you catch the President’s speech last night? For the most part, I liked it. It was basically the speech I expected of him. But there were times during the portion about education where I felt like I was watching a broadcast from some other country.

"...as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.”

No, not that part. That part sounded about right. No, it was basically any time he sounded a hopeful tone about public education, or when he mentioned anything about government funding available for innovative schools, funds which our governor was kind enough to turn up his nose at. Because while I know there are amazing innovations happening quietly in classrooms all over the city, the ones we’ve been hearing the most about lately are being done with scissors and red ink. Cut, cut, slash.

There are several buoys of hope that I cling to in all this. One is the local outcry. People are angry about all this, angry and vocal. No telling what good will come of that, as such anger has a way of getting channelled towards any number of red herrings, but it’s nice to see people give a shit. Another thing is that our local school, which is right up the street from us, is actually pretty solid. There are things about it that we’re not crazy about, and if these cuts go through its class sizes will probably increase, but it’s got high ratings in spite of its challenges, parental involvement seems strong, it's fairly diverse, and after touring the place, I feel encouraged about sending my kids there.

Lastly, there’s the fact that I know my wife and I will be as involved as we possibly can, both at home and, where possible, in their school. “Parental involvement is one of the strongest indicators of student achievement.” It’s one of those maxims that I hear so often and see so much evidence for, but that we’ve only experienced in a limited amount thus far as parents.

It irks me though, living in a place whose governance and policies place so little real priority on something as basic as education. Individual parents can and should make decisions for their own kids, but ultimately, education is one of the biggest we’re-all-in-this-together-now propositions we face.


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