Facing a clouded future

Part I: Reflections on the defeat of the Washtenaw Schools Millage

by Steven J Norton

Let me begin by saying that I supported the Washtenaw Schools Millage; in fact, I was the campaign manager for Ann Arbor. As a result, I spent much of the last several months of my life working as a volunteer for its passage, and I was extremely disappointed (to put it mildly) when the measure failed on November 3rd. So when I first sat down to write this article, I was prepared to state the case again: schools given meager increases for years, a funding cliff because of state tax policy, the importance of investing in education, and no palatable choices available. This all remains true, and it will need to be said again.

A funny thing happened on the forums

But then something intervened. In the comment thread of an article posted on another news site, something remarkable was happening. Some millage opponents were having a real dialog, and a relatively civil one, with the president of the Ann Arbor teachers’ union. No one was being convinced, perhaps, but the comments began to sound less like wild sound bites and more like real expressions of what people fear, hope and believe. And that made all the difference.

I don’t mean to overplay the comparison, but this budding exchange brought to mind another event not so long ago: then-candidate Barack Obama’s speech on race in the 2008 campaign. What I found remarkable, and hopeful, about that speech was that it asked every American, of every background, to acknowledge the pain and worry of those with whom we disagree. A real effort to heal the wounds of racism in this country, Obama argued, must begin with an authentic effort to understand each other. Pointing fingers by itself will not bring us closer to reconciliation.

I believe something similar can be said about the questions we face about public education in our community. The pain felt by people throughout our community who have lost income, lost their jobs, lost their homes, and seen their hopes for security in their later years vanish — this pain is real. So is the hurt and frustration of the teachers who live in our community, who work very hard doing a job few people can do, in increasingly difficult conditions, with minimal rewards — and yet spend each day caring for and nurturing the children of the citizens who seem to hold them in low esteem. Likewise, the fear that tax dollars, drawn from hard-won family income, will simply go up in smoke, is authentic and not entirely without justification. But equally authentic is the fear that a decline in the quality of our schools will undermine the prospects of our community and sharply limit our children’s future.

A solution that must come before other solutions

So, where from here? We as a community will be faced with unpalatable choices as we try to close the $15 to $17 million budget gap that Ann Arbor’s schools will face over the next year, with more cuts to come in the coming years. But before we can make sound choices, we must have a real understanding of what our schools do and what resources that requires. And in order to do that, we must get past the caricatures which were painted during the millage campaign and instead speak to each other as real people with real concerns.

The public forums planned for January by the AAPS leadership are a good place to start. But we must break the mold of similar discussions held in the past — not just by increasing overall participation, but by having authentic discussions among all stakeholders about what we want, what we hope, and what we are willing to sacrifice. There is no question that keeping our schools strong will require sacrifices from every part of our community. But the main task before us is arriving at an understanding that allows us to trust each other and recognize each other’s sacrifices.

Let us all come prepared to speak, and to listen. Listen to the people worried about losing their homes, listen to the people trying to help children grow and keep others from falling through the cracks, and listen to the people trying to square the school funding circle. Once we have done that, we may have a chance — just a chance — of finding a way forward that protects as much as possible all the things we value in our community.

What you see depends on what lens you use

Of course, finding the real solutions will be the truly hard work, the detailed, boring, convoluted, and incredibly important work. We cannot do justice to it in one article, and I hope that many productive new ideas will emerge from the conversations we must have as a community. But it is worth taking a birds’ eye view of the problems and some solutions that have been offered. And from that lofty vantage point, let’s start by looking at how people think about the problems facing our schools.

As Stanford linguist and political advisor George Lakoff likes to say, “The facts will not set you free.” What he means by this is that our values shape how we see the world, and how we see the world shapes how we understand the details of what is happening in it. Even the “facts” themselves can be interpreted differently by people with different viewpoints, and one person’s facts will seem like nonsense to someone who has an opposing world view.

For instance, in the recent millage debate, three very different views of our schools could be seen. One, which I share, views public schools as a project by and for all the members of our community. Schools bring short term benefits (attracting people and jobs to the community) as well as long term ones (providing our children with the tools to be prosperous in the future). If you subscribe to this view, schools do deserve “special treatment” in the effort to meet the needs of the community. The logic is similar to counter-cyclical “stimulus” spending — we agree to sacrifice in times of need to make sure that we “prime the pump” of future economic recovery and long term prosperity.

Another view, ostensibly held by the leaders of the campaign against the millage, is that while schools do bring benefits, they are also “captured” by administrators and teachers’ unions (“special interests”) and as a result are nearly as wasteful as they are beneficial. Proponents of this view rely on the basic premise that government is by definition less efficient and more wasteful than the private sector; that unions are likewise a source of inefficiency; and that as a result, “government schools” must be saddled with waste and inefficiency since they are comprised of both government and unions. Many opponents’ calls for greater “transparency” hinge on the presumption that shedding more light on school finances will inevitably highlight easy places to cut costs without losing services or even cutting employee pay. While our school system’s finances are complex, they have not been hidden. I believe that, after years of districts having to trim their budgets, the proponents of this “easy cuts” view will find little fat left to trim.

Lastly, the third and least generous view sees public schools, and government generally, simply as a burden on those who make an honest living. Public schools are run for the benefit of someone else, but sap resources from productive people much as a parasite does. (One writer to a local paper went so far as to compare our public schools to a tapeworm.) In this view, schools should be sharply limited to the very basics (the “three R’s”), and do not deserve to be treated any differently than the private sector during an economic downturn. (They also do not deserve to share in the benefits of an upturn to the same extent, however.) Teachers and administrators are, almost by definition, overpaid; requirements for higher education and certification serve no purpose but to protect the jobs of union members. “Lavish” health and pension benefits are simply proof of the ability of these “special interests” to suck resources of out the “real” economy, the private sector. As with government generally, we need to “starve the beast”; this crisis is an opportunity to downsize public schools.

I like to think that most people in our community would subscribe to the first view if they could feel reassured about certain things. People who are frightened for the future, who have taken major economic and personal blows, are likely to be skeptical even of their public schools if the schools ask for more money in times like these. One point of those conversations I described will be to reinforce the message that schools do bring benefits to everyone and that our schools have not shied away from many hard choices in recent years. But our school leaders are not accustomed to airing these issues quite so loudly, and they have been reluctant to talk about the problems they face and the cuts they have made for fear of scaring families away. For everyone’s sake, this must change — starting now.

A close look at some of the options available to our schools, and their costs and benefits, will be the subject of part II of this essay.

Steve Norton was campaign manager for the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee, and is Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools, a public interest advocacy organization working to secure stable and adequate funding for public education and to encourage citizen participation in local school issues.