Hole in the bucket

As a parent of high school students and a recent college graduate, I think there are some serious issues taking place in the United States with our school system. There seems to be a hole in the bucket regarding school programs that needs to be examined. Finances are always a concern but perhaps we also need to look at the overall goals of our education system.

The fact that many parents were forced into becoming “homeschool educators” during the recent pandemic has opened many eyes to the time and money spent on educating our children and the pros and cons of some of the current focus.

One of the first realities of home school is that it doesn’t have to take a full eight-hour day to help your kid get a sound education. When you can focus on individual learning styles, that time can be greatly shortened, more directed and have an overall more productive outcome. Is this really an option in a public school setting? Probably not; however, the really good teachers and the great education systems are aware of this and are being creative on how to implement similar strategies to give the kids the best there is in a larger class setting. Long-time home school parents have noted this as one of their key reasons for choosing to educate their kids at home.

So we may have already identified an inefficiency in the school system. By having to teach groups of kids at so many different levels and with so many different learning styles, it is a much less efficient use of teacher time.

Prioritizing projects that will actually improve educational outcomes is another key point to recognizing how tax dollars are spent or misspent and how they could be better used. Does your school need new paint and carpet every two or three years? Not likely since paint should not be damaged that soon and most commercial carpet is guaranteed for at least 10 years. It is all cosmetic. Should your school look nice and be a comfortable atmosphere for learning—absolutely but that doesn’t mean money just needs to be aimlessly thrown at appearance.

A much better use for tax dollars would be increasing teacher salaries, offering to cover the cost of teacher development in the offseason so educators can pursue additional training or certifications. A priority must also be placed on the selection, purchase and use of appropriate teaching materials like books, supplemental materials, laboratory supplies, fine arts resources and technology. A strong fine arts program has been proven to increase the success and the learning ability of students yet these programs are often the first to feel the cut of the budget shortfall.

While we are talking about funding, let’s look at where most of that money comes from. While some schools are privy to state funds, in some states most local rural school districts rely almost fully on local property taxes paid primarily by farmers and ranchers in the district. With the ag economy struggling and property valuations dropping, school districts that outspend themselves will be forced to increase the levy on an already sagging ag economy. Will landowners be able to keep up with these increases?

According to local tax receipts in Nebraska, payments are at a record low because farmers just don’t have the money. Nonetheless, a financial consultant to our school board recently told members not to worry about that because “if farmers are forced to sell their land, somebody else will buy it or the bank will pay the property tax.” Doesn’t that make you feel good about how valuable your hard-earned dollars are to the people spending them?

While we may want to look outside of our district for help from the state or federal government, that doesn’t seem like much of an option. The federal government only dedicates a mere 3% of its total budget to education compared to Social Security that gets 33%. State funds have been funneled to big city schools that don’t have the land base to support themselves.

In addition to financing a leaky bucket, what about the goals of the local district? Are we developing young people who are meeting upcoming needs of business and industry? Or are we urging them to a four-year degree, a mountain of debt and a dead-end future? Of course there are always going to be jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or doctorate but there are plenty of trade jobs that are so short-handed now that you can go to school for a couple semesters and come out with a high-paying job for a company that paid your tuition. We need to take a hard look at what we are teaching in our schools. Who is setting those guidelines and why?

The big question is: Are our local school districts taking control and truly preparing kids to be successful or are we just throwing money at another redecorating project? Every one of us needs to attend local school board meetings, talk to teachers and parents and share our input with local school boards about how to spend our tax dollars to actually prepare the kids. Or better yet, run for the local school board. If you want something to happen, you need to get involved.

Editor’s note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.LoosTales.com, or email Trent at [email protected].