Fiscal responsibility: At what cost?

I’m following the the Fargo School Board election closely (early voting has started, June 10 is election day) and the host of fine candidates in the article I have linked to had the difficult task of answering two big questions in what looks to be about 250 words.

1. What are our schools’ most pressing needs and how would you address them as a school board member?

2. What makes you qualified to make decisions and be a voice for a fast growing school system that takes care of thousands of students?

None of them precisely echo the current School Board priority established at their May meeting: increase funding for ELL education. I’m pleasantly surprised (shocked really) that the School Board set this priority, although a tragic loss of life in the district this year probably re-aligned some priorities.

Some of the candidates come close to identifying a similar priority; they all, more or less, offer reasonable priorities like sustainable and suitable funding, better technology integration, and respond to the needs of a growing and increasingly diverse student body. Many of the most appealing statements, however, are often pared with a caveat about costs: excellence with affordability, responsiveness with fiscal responsibility.

These pairings are part of a larger discourse about education and economics, one in which the value of education is increasingly questioned and the short comings of public schools are increasingly used as a call for privatization. Education is framed as training; education is narrowly goal directed—college and career readiness; increases to educational funding are derided by some as government handouts instead of smart investments; promises of educational reform are often tempered by the reality of fiscal responsibility.

I’ve been in the classroom for over 20 years now, and the single most powerful moment of my career had nothing to do with me being fiscally responsible, although I do try to save paper and make sure my books don’t cost my students too much money.

I attended the graduation ceremony of a friend and student, Joseph, in the spring of 2008; I was sitting with two of his sisters, some nieces and nephews, and our good friend Deb. As Joseph walked across the stage, Deb said something like, "Can you imagine what his non-literate parents would be thinking now if they were alive? All seven children escaped the war in Sudan and are living in the US, Canada, or Australia. Their only son has just completed a college degree; two more sisters are on the path to completion [they made it!], and the other sisters are raising children who are making provincial basketball teams, serving as class presidents, earning scholarships for higher education, and starting businesses."

I tried to tell this story to a class I visited this spring, but I kept choking up, at least three times before I could move on. I’ve tried to tell this story in other situations, and I always choke up. This must be what education means to me: it needs to be accessible to everyone, globally; it needs to help students create their own opportunities; it needs to be a means of achieving equality and freedom; it needs to be something that chokes us up.

Taylor Mali chokes me up.

So does Dylan Garity.

I know I wouldn’t get elected to the School Board if these were my 250 words, but I’d sure like to know what chokes up the candidates, and I’d love to hear more stories (your stories!), because we need to expand the discourse about education, and keep its transformative potential front and center.

Fiscal responsibility is important, sure. But at what cost?

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