Schools are the foundation of our future

This article was published in the Other Voices series of op-ed columns by the Ann Arbor News on Sunday, June 14, 2009. The version posted on the Mlive.com web site is available here.

The school budget news from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and other communities in Washtenaw County is disturbing, and for good reason. School officials say that in the next two years we will all be driving over the edge of a “funding cliff” that threatens to injure our public schools for years to come. Some school districts are on the brink of failure, while others are having to cut teaching staff for the first time in recent memory. The depth of the coming crisis varies for each district, but the crisis is coming just the same. The question is, should we try to do something about it? Should we the people, the taxpayers, be worried?

The answer should be a resounding “YES!”

If the current economic crisis in the state of Michigan teaches us anything, it should teach us that education will be important to our state in a way that it has not been for decades. Our economy is changing, and our schools will be central to preparing our children for the future. It’s much easier to dismantle good schools than it is to put them back together. What price will we all pay for the lost time, for the half-generation of children who will receive a sub-par education? The demand for a good education has never been stronger, yet we are on the verge of telling our children “Sorry, come back in about ten years.”

For those who are more concerned with today than the future, schools offer an important benefit in the here and now: jobs. It goes without saying that we want to attract new business, new employers to our community and our state. But who will want to locate here if our schools are constantly in crisis? What employer will want to re-locate their key staff here, or try to attract new professionals to the area, if school budget cuts dominate the headlines year after year? Who will want to buy a home in a school district that is crumbling?

And lest we forget, schools are often among the largest employers in our communities. The teachers and staff whose jobs are at risk are your neighbors, your customers, your clients. What we invest in our schools comes back to our own communities – now, and in the future. No far-flung shareholders, just us.

It is tempting to say, as many do, “we have what we have” to spend on schools. But the truth is that we have the money we choose to spend. Dr. Glenn Nelson, economic consultant (and AAPS school board member), has calculated that our state’s commitment to public education has been falling steadily since 2000. Even adjusting for good and bad times, Michigan has committed a declining share of our personal income to schools – a silent cut that represents about $900 per student state-wide, or nearly $40 million a year which the schools in Washtenaw Co. will not receive. Most districts’ per pupil funding has lagged inflation since 2000, and many (including AAPS) have seen inflation erode their funding for fifteen years. Our schools have had to make continuous cuts for years as their costs, including energy and health care, have gone up much faster than inflation. Now the chasm opens up before us. Yes, these are difficult times. But with all that is at stake, it is our duty to focus on the future. Otherwise, our sacrifices of today will be for nothing.

Besides private giving, which is important in its own right, we have by law only one option to raise money to help run our schools. We have the right to approve a property tax that is levied equally on all property in the school districts that make up the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. All the proceeds would be shared out equally among the school districts based on how many students they have. Because this money can be used for school operations, it will go straight to the classroom. If we approve this tax, it will not magically make our problems disappear. But it will make going off that cliff merely painful instead of disastrous. Until our state lawmakers tackle the broader problems with school funding in Michigan, this is our only option.

In their editorial of May 31, the Ann Arbor News asks us to “rethink our expectations” for our schools. Yes, investing in our schools has a cost. But what price will we pay for lowering our expectations? Instead, let us pull together as a community and choose to protect our schools, to invest in our future today. Contact your local school board and ask them to support a Washtenaw schools millage. Give them the courage of your convictions.

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Steven Norton is executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, a non-profit advocacy group based in Ann Arbor which is leading efforts to find regional solutions to common problems in Washtenaw County and beyond: http://www.mipfs.org/washtenaw