Making our schools a top priority: Investment in education will always pay off in society

Bill Baumgart:

When I was first contacted about writing a guest opinion, I thought, “What a great opportunity to share my strong feelings about public education.” Then I realized I need to be aware that everyone will not feel the same as me nor for the same reasons and I must be cautious lest I alienate them. But I was asked for my views, so I will give them.
I believe education of our youth is the most valuable thing we as adults can provide to them. Similarly it is a great responsibility we hold. For the youth it gives them the future. They, of course, must decide how to use it. Often overlooked is the value that is returned to us as providers. If we have done well, we will have real contributors to our society in our future: our doctors, nurses, community leaders, engineers, lawyers, writers, ethical politicians and journalists. And we will provide the teachers for that next generation so this responsibility can go on.
None of this comes free. There is a cost and I agree it is substantial. But if you look at it as an investment, you will find a return on your money. There is the development of the future as shown in the preceding paragraph. There is also the concrete value of your community and the property you hold. It is accepted that the quality of life and property values are directly related to the education provided in that community. We all can think of areas where we would rather not live and raise our children, but you would also find that in many of those you could afford to buy a house. There is a direct correlation between the quality of local education and property value. Why else is an evaluation of the schools always a prime part of buying a house?

My concern is that as a society we seem to be less interested in the education we are providing than we need to be. When our founding fathers were putting this country together they considered an education for all to be a cornerstone of our democracy. They saw it as a differentiator from the rest of the world. And it was! As we moved through the 18th and 19th centuries, widely accessible education was a major factor in making America a world leader in manufacturing, technology, economics, medicine and on and on. Other regimes used the political strategy of limiting education to gain power while oppressing the population.
But what has happened to this fervor for education? We find other countries passing us in a number of categories while we struggle with impossible funding systems in Wisconsin and throughout the country. As you look around Waukesha County you will see district after district cutting budgets. They are increasing class sizes; eliminating programs that businesses clamor for such as technical education, consumer education, personal finance and business education; reducing graduation requirements; closing libraries, reducing guidance counselors at a time when they are greatly needed; and eliminating school nurses. Once programs are eliminated, they don’t come back quickly.
Wisconsin earned the reputation as a state with superior education, excelling at measurements like being among the leaders in the nation in ACT scores, graduation rates, students proceeding to college and teachers produced out of colleges. We are in serious danger of dropping out of the top rankings. I, for one, don’t want to see us follow the example of other states that went from “first to worst.”
I was recently at the state education convention for school board members and school administrators. In the opening session the wonderful music was provided by Kettle Moraine High School. Awards were presented to teachers, principals, the business official and superintendent of the year. Waukesha County shined. But more and more, we are spreading teachers and leaders too thin. With constant cuts in staff and administration plus new mandates at the state and national level, less and less time is available to develop and deliver innovative and valued curriculum.
And consider the stress staff must feel every year at this time when they wonder if theirs is the position that will be gone next year. No organization gets the best out of their people when they live under such a cloud.
We need to decide education is critically important and overhaul the way it is funded. The current system, which allows expenses to increase by about 4 percent or more and restricts revenue increases to approximately 2 percent, is flawed. You don’t even need a basis in economics to see that eventually this will lead to disaster. Some districts in the state are already flirting with bankruptcy. How much is a house worth on the market when that happens? This is certainly not what our forefathers saw as the future.
Education is an investment in the future. Though it comes at a cost, how will it compare in the future with the cost of ignorance?
(Bill Baumgart is president of the Waukesha School Board.)