Monday, February 16, 2009

Whose educated guess this time?

THE HANDWRINGING over education funding in Ohio has contributed little to an early solution to how a boastfully informed democratic society can educate its young people.  Gov. Strickland's budget proposal has been defended, shredded and kneaded from all sides without really guaranteeing that it will move, even flimsily,  beyond a stalemate that is at least a half-century old in the Buckeye State.  During that time, shortchanging public education has become rooted in a state of mind that may take another half-century to cure. It is Ohio's disgrace that has led to the state's long lamented brain drain, among other horrific fallouts.

A little history is in order.   Here's what a freshman governor, James A. Rhodes, proudly had to say upon his arrival at the statehouse in 1963  when times were good - the first of four such arrivals:
"The budget is in balance.  It does not call for new or additional taxes on the taxpayers of Ohio.  It sets strict standards of economy and efficiency.  Nevertheless it provides adequately for essential services." 
Adequately it did not provide. It was pure Rhodes-style rhetoric that he repeated  often during his four terms, terms that he made possible with a comfortable state of mind among Ohioans that failed to connect the dots between Ohio's highest college tuition among the Big 10 state schools (topped only by privately operated Northwestern) and taxes.  Only the shallowest thinkers, and there are plenty of them, do not equate soaring tuition and other rising costs with a deceptive  form of taxation. Only the shallowest thinkers do not equate a state's economic retreats over the years to its inattention to the priorities of secondary education.   You get no more than you pay for. 

In  the decades since the Rhodes era,  Democratic governors have had to live with the Rhodes credo, and some have been kicked out.  Meantime, school buildings have deteriorated or closed, curricula shrunk, layoffs increased and various nostrums offered in the wake now bearing down on the longtime Rhodes theories (aided and abetted by a doting General Assembly)  about his Wonderful World of Ohio.

David James, Akron's new public schools superintendent, has bravely moved into the center ring surrounded by the even greater demands of  urban districts. In his recent curtain-raising speech hosted by the Akron Press Club in the Martin Center, James repeatedly called for a "collaborative" approach from all sectors of the community, including service groups, parents, teachers union, businessmen and professionals to address the problems.  He also called for reforms and new initiatives, a Herculean task in itself.   But with both the governor and the superintendent, the question remains:

Can they get there from here?  In a half-century of history, it would be unprecedented. 

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