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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Public Education: You Can't Have Everything

The Rapid City School District is facing some significant budget cuts, and a lot of people are upset.

About a week ago, according to the Rapid City Journal, some 1,000 people attended a meeting to discuss these cuts. That same article says the district faces at least $2.9 million in program and staffing cuts.

Short-changing our children's education should upset us, especially since we're paying taxes to finance that education. But it seems the greatest angst at the meeting last week was toward plans to cut programs that have nothing to do with academics. The school board is looking at dropping elementary band and orchestra, which would save $161,925. The athletics program was looked at, too.

I have appreciated music since I was a child--listening to it, that is. I grew up too poor and too far out in the country, and not having anyone in the immediate family who played an instrument, I never learned to make music. But I married a beautiful pianist (yes, she's beautiful physically and plays piano beautifully, too), and my daughter is turning into a beautiful pianist (in the same ways as my wife:-).

But when it comes to a choice of academics or music, academics should win out every time. Our world grows more complex every year, and so does the job market along with it. Even more important than the job market is a sound understanding of life and the world around us; we need a good understanding of the world, regardless of where we work.

And while athletics promote physical fitness, teamwork and (hopefully) healthy competition, they're even lower on the scale of important skills.

Jim Kent's column in the Rapid City Journal today is a much-needed dose of perspective.

Let’s get real. School is for an education — it’s not a 12-year sports camp. Start with providing the basics. After that’s been done you can think about how to spend your after-school hours and tax dollars

Unless we want to continue taxing ourselves into greater servitude to the government, we have to draw the line somewhere. Government--including government schools--cannot do everything, and it should not do everything.

Government is grossly inefficient; only a cursory examination proves this to us (I used to work in government, so I've seen it up close). Just look at the school administration building in downtown Rapid City. It's bigger by far than the building in which I attended 7-12th grade. I looked at staffing expenditures in a column for the Rapid City Journal last year and found teachers make up only 50.6 percent of elementary and secondary education staff. That other 49.4 percent constitutes a TREMENDOUS overhead, in my opinion. But that's typical for government.

I admit it: I get a little impatient with complaints about Program X and Program Y being cut from public schools. Why? Because my family homeschools, and though we pay the same taxes as everyone else, we don't get any of the return on those payments that parents of public school children do.

On top of paying the same taxes, we get to buy most of our own books, do our own teaching (including piano), pay for our own field trips, pay for our own testing, and so on. We spend a fraction of the per-child cost of a public school education, and yet homeschool children usually out-perform public school children. But that's another subject for another day.

The point is, the world doesn't come to an end if our children don't get to play sports. It also doesn't come to an end if they don't get to do band or orchestra.

And if we still insist that government (i.e. the taxpayers) should pay for these things, before we raise taxes still higher, we should look at cutting some administrative non-classroom expenses first.

Fiscal responsibility in government has become an alien concept to us, but it's one we must return to, if we want to continue being a free, educated people.


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