Backwards economics and backward thinking in education

This recent article in the Washington Post sums up another baffling contradiction in U.S. education policy.

Community colleges are getting an education in tough economics.

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next year, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.

Community colleges today are the primary gateway for the majority of those entering higher education in America, yet they consistently receive less resources than either higher education (4 year and research institutions) or than PK-12. In my state, community colleges have to compete with those other two levels for a share of an increasingly smaller allocation. Community colleges, like many of our most challenged K-12 schools, have been doing amazing work, changing the lives of countless thousands despite the disparity in funding.  What is new about the current sitation are the rising enrollments which have pushed even these dedicated and resourceful CC educators to their limit.

Meanwhile, as our state and federal governments put less funding into education generally, they insist that our nation must rise again to the top of global educational attainment. The Secretary of Education proclaims we must learn to do more with less. I know I’m not alone in finding that statement deeply disingenuous, if not downright insulting to those of us who have never been given proper or equal resources with which to educate the children for whom we are responsible.

When children at one elementary school in town can have a library with books and computers, while those across town have to settle for some donated older books on a cart — when one high school has a fully functioning science laboratory where students can engage in hands-on learning — while at the other, teachers have to buy a single lab kit out of their own pockets to show their classes an experiment — as long as these and many other inequities are allowed to continue unchallenged, we are lying to those children in those poorer conditions when we tell them we value them or their education.

This tendency (that’s my nice word for it) to consistently under-resource the schools and institutions that serve the impoverished and working poor in our country is what has led to the historic and continued underfunding of community colleges as well. Community colleges have historically been given lower status than four-year or research institutions because of whom we predominantly serve.

I am among those who support the call for all levels of government in the U.S. to get serious about meeting Opportunity to Learn standards for all our public schools rather than plunge into counterproductive turnaround strategies that waste valuable (and in some places, irreplaceable) human resources. Most of all we are wasting the one chance that millions of poor and working poor families and their children have for the education they so desperately need.

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