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Early warning system wrong answer to schools with deficits

A recent release form the Michigan Department of Education says that there are 48 school districts running deficits into the new school year. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan advises there needs to be earlier warning signs so authorities can intervene sooner for districts falling financially behind. What this recommendation fails to address is why school seem to have so many budget issues in the first place.

I wrote an article for Bridge Magazine a while back explaining how part of the school finance issue is a result of poor policy decisions. It also demonstrates through Munetrix how school districts from just a few years ago, which were on good financial standing, increasingly fall into financial risk.

It does not seem like there needs to be any more warning systems, but an awakening to the reality of school funding. Simply taking the temperature of a child can point to illness, but it is not a diagnoses or progresses toward treatment.

When any institution needs to cut a budget, it comes back to wages. An institution either needs to cut salaries or cut the number of positions. In the end, teachers will face the bulk of the budgetary burden.

At the same time, though, when Detroit Public Schools proposed cuts to teachers and larger class sizes, citizens protested against such measures. As much as the electorate might want fiscal accountability, it should not come at the cost of diminishing professionalism. It also points out that budget shortfalls are not a best practice for making schools more efficient or more effective.

The nature of the school in society must be funded adequately so that the system of education can function without hindrance. Limiting school funding holds back a district in the same way a business is held back by a lack of cash flow. The difference is the school is not a business because, as John Dewey once pointed out, the aims of the school are different than the aim of a business. The aim of the business is to be profitable, and the business may need to cut wages in order to maintain profitability. The aims of a school center on the education of students.

Education, in the United States, is considered a right and therefore its role in society is different from that of say a service provider.

In order then to secure this right, policy must provide the most practical funding methods. Education as a right is also different from many rights endowed upon Americans. It takes effort, commitment, and work on the part of students and those employed in the educational field. It should be practiced as a means for furthering freedom. Yet unlike right like freedom of speech or voting rights, the definition of education is played out in the schools and not as much in the courts. Inhibiting funding to schools limits the right of education and then limits freedom for generations to come.

Running a school takes money, and, although tax dollars demand to be spent in accordance with electorate expectations, it should not be a cycle of districts falling into financial stress. As some want to pay emergency managers or pay advisors to struggling districts, other point to the impracticality of schools needing to advertise for students.

Why should society need to advertise a right? School funding should always be accountable, but when so many districts fall into stress it points to larger funding issues that need to be solved with smart policy.

Paul Ruth
Paul obtained a M.A. in English from Marygrove College and is a high school English teacher at East Detroit High School and adjunct college English instructor. He has been published in various places around the web, and seeks to write on topics that impact the greater community.